One man, 65,000 manuscripts

William Reese ’77 started his rare book business in 1975 using money from the sale of a rare Aztec map to Yale.
William Reese ’77 started his rare book business in 1975 using money from the sale of a rare Aztec map to Yale. Photo by Victor Kang.

While on the road to becoming a history professor, William Reese ’77 stumbled from an undergraduate course in Mesoamerican archeology into a 35-year career procuring and selling rare books.

In 1975, he discovered an old rolled-up manuscript at a Detroit doctor’s furniture sale. Reese said he thought the manuscript was likely early Native American, but he did not fully appreciate its rarity until he shared the find with Michael Coe, then his professor of Mesoamerican archaeology at Yale. Experts at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library analyzed the figbark map, which depicted the Valley of Mexico, and determined it was not only from 1563, but was one of only three or four surviving Aztec manuscripts from that period of Mesoamerican history.

At Coe’s urging, Reese, then a sophomore, sold Yale the map, and in turn the University named it the Codex Reese in his honor. In 1975, using the funds from the sale of the codex, Reese founded his New Haven-based rare-book store, William Reese Co., which today has more than 65,000 rare books and manuscripts in stock.

Although Reese Co., located on Temple Street, is relatively new to the antique book trade, according to George Miles ’74, curator of Western Americana at the Beinecke, the company has become one of the foremost firms specializing in rare books and manuscripts on travel, exploration and Americana.

HARDLY A HOBBY

Miles said he was immediately impressed when he first met Reese, at the time a sophomore, in a graduate history seminar.

“Even among graduate students, [Reese] shone,” said Miles, who has purchased books from Reese for the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.

Reese developed his interest in rare books at an early age and even in high school attended book sales and charity events to look for undervalued rare books. By the time he started college, he had an impressive collection of rare books on open range cattle history, Miles said.

“Reese’s collection was informative, interesting and contained many first editions,” he said.

After founding Reese Co., he developed a relationship with Peter Decker, who for many years had sold rare books to the Beinecke. In 1975 it was Decker who suggested that Reese buy a 20-ton book collection, from a recently deceased collector. Decker, who was about to retire, was not interested in buying the collection, and the deceased collector’s family wanted the books out of his New York City house.

Reese, equipped with $40,000 he had borrowed from his parents, bought the collection and, with the help of a handful of hired Yale undergraduates, moved the books out of the house. Working with Fred White Jr., an experienced rare books dealer, within six months he had sold enough books to pay back the loan in full, he said.

TREASURE HUNTING

After his 1977 graduation, Reese spent six months searching Sterling Memorial Library’s stacks for rare books to be transferred to the Beinecke. Under the direction of Archibald Hanna ’46, then curator of Western Americana at Beinecke, Reese said he identified and moved several valuable books to the Beinecke.

One, a Christmas folio, contained 10 photographs by prominent Civil War photographer Timothy O’Sullivan, and was compiled by Clarence King, a famous 19th-century explorer. Folio C3, as the book was marked, was worth at least $150,000 at the time, Reese said, and would probably sell for much more today, adding that just the week before he came upon it, the treasure had been checked out by a student.

After six months treasure hunting in Sterling, Reese said he knew he wanted to go into book-selling.

Even though he said New York is the center of the rare book and manuscript industry, he opened Reese Co. in New Haven in order to stay close to his relatives and Yale’s research resources, he said, adding that the area’s comparatively inexpensive land values were also appealing.

Though at the time he was only in his early 20s, he said his age was not a large impediment; as long as he had books buyers wanted that he sold at acceptable prices, the sales happened, Reese said.

Still youth was not without its drawbacks.

For instance, because his educational foundation was in 18th to 20th century American history and he lacked the experience of older dealers, at first it was difficult for him to grow his business into other sub-segments of the rare book market, he said. That changed in 1980, though, when he hired Terry Halladay, a specialist in American literature. Reese said Halladay’s expertise allowed him to expand Reese Co.’s target market and become the country’s primary dealer in printed Latin American material.

THE BUSINESS OF BOOKS

Today, Reese Co. employs 10 people and is one of the six largest rare book dealers in the U.S., Reese said, estimating that the rare books market does about $1 billion in sales a year. The books he sells range in price from $5 to $1.2 million.

But Miles said there are only between 100 and 200 rare book dealers in the U.S. who are able to turn a profit because, in general, margins are fairly tight; just a handful of firms other than Reese Co. are able to use their expertise to arbitrage the rare book market’s inherent inefficiencies, he said.

Nick Aretakis, a Reese Co. employee for 10 years, said the company is successful because Reese is intellectually curious. Only firms that constantly innovate and find new sources of inventory survive, he said.

Reese has 1/2 miles of shelves at his Temple Street office and another 1.5 miles at a climate controlled warehouse in Hamden, Conn. To keep track of his extensive inventory, he has an electronic cataloguing system, he said, which allows him to sell his books online. He said 50 percent of his sales volume and 7 percent of his total revenue is from online sales.

Although more books have become available online in recent years, Reese said he does not think the trend threatens his business. Collectors still want books to add to their collections, he said, and a lot of important historical information, such as maps, diaries and shipping records, are in manuscript form and will never published online.

Pointing to a 19th-century playbill printed on silk, Reese explained that many scholars make important discoveries based on source materials’ physical characteristics, such as the kind of paper and manner in which they were printed.

Reese said he has enjoyed his work for the 35 years he has been in business because he learns new things about history every day.

“I plan to sell books until I die,” he said.

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