By Edward Shanahan
a December evening in the softly illuminated ballroom of the Hotel
Northampton and auctioneer Leif Laudamus is trying his best to coax
a bid for some 400 thick volumes of bound periodicals sitting like
ugly cement blocks at the far end of the ballroom.
"Do I have
$10," he asks the 40 to 50 book dealers and assorted bibliophiles
seated in front of his lectern, tables piled high with books behind
him as four runners take turns offering lots and delivering them
to the successful bidder. "Itís cheaper than firewood,"
he observes of the looming mass of periodicals, but the dealers
arenít convinced. Still no takers.
And so he quickly
moves on and within the span of 65 minutes he has sold off a total
of 159 individual lots of used, out-of-print and not so rare books
in a range of subjects, so-called uncatalogued books, meaning not
very expensive or highly coveted volumes.
Except for lack
of interest in the periodicals, the work in this first phase of
the auction has gone well and, even though the sums being bid
are hardly gaudy, the bidding is spirited. Laudamus gains confidence
with the swift pace of the auction. His style is straight forward
with fewer of the irreverent asides that characterized the approach
of the late Richard Oinonen, who died at age 56 last January and
from whose estate Laudamus subsequently purchased the auction
Now renamed the
New England Book Auctions, the auctions take place pretty much
every other Tuesday night at the same location Oinonen used for
almost 20 years - the hotel on King Street - and the business
end - cataloging, sorting and storage of books - is conducted
in the same large white barn attached to the Oinonen home in Sunderland,
just off Route 47, that Laudamusí predecessor used.
What has changed
is that Leif Laudamus has now emerged from behind the curtain
where he had done the challenging and important research work
required to catalogue, describe and give a value to the better
and more valuable books that come to auction, mostly in alternating
two-week intervals along with the sale of the more common uncatalogued
It is a different
role for Laudamus, who by most accounts is a brilliant bookman
in terms of his scholarship and knowledge of the antiquarian book
genius," Barbara Smith, co-owner of the Whately Antiquarian
Book Center, said of Laudamus, who she has known for about 15
years. "Heís got an incredible depth of knowledge about books."
now 50 and wearing his hair in a pony tail, should wind up as
Oinonenís successor is hardly surprising.
"It was kind of natural that I take over," Laudamus
said in an interview in the second story of the barn where the
cataloguing is done, long shelves of books lining the surrounding
It was back in
1979-1980, he recalls, that he and Oinonen joined forces to start
the auction. They had gotten to know one another some years earlier
when Oinonen ran the book department for William Hubbardís Pioneer
Auction Gallery in Amherst.
grew up in Worcester, got the book collecting bug at a young age.
He was only 16 years old when he and his mother would travel to
Amherst for book auctions.
"I had a
scholarly bent," he said, and was drawn to books about physics,
astronomy, and literature. He studied science and music at Clark
University, then did graduate work at the University of Pennsylvania,
all the while continuing to collect books.
In 1974 he was
working on his masterís degree in musicology and needed money
so he decided to sell some of the books from a collection that
numbered perhaps 3,000 volumes, many of them reflecting his interest
in early American history. The collection was not particularly
valuable, he said, but he recalls that he realized some $5,000
or $6,000 from the sale, which was a big help to the struggling
dealing in books, attending auctions in Philadelphia. "There
were a lot of interesting book people in Philly," he says.
When he finished
his degree, he went to work as a book cataloguer at the famous
Swann Galleries in New York, doing bibliographic research, writing
descriptions for auction catalogues and estimating the value of
books to be auctioned.
But after a year,
it was time to leave New York City; a book dealer - Howard Baron
- from Rye, N.Y. put him in touch with Oinonen who was on the
verge of leaving the Pioneer Auction. So they joined forces and
held their first auction in 1980, probably at the Motel 6, says
Kathy Keroack, Oinonenís widow, who was involved in the auction
from the beginning and is now business manager for New England
Oinonen were partners for three or four years, until Laudamus
struck out on his own as a bookseller, while he continued to do
cataloging for Oinonen as the need arose.
In the valley
Laudamus lived first in Amherst and then Leyden, but four years
ago moved to Portland, Maine, from which he commutes, spending
large chunks of time here occupying a rented house next to the
Sunderland auction headquarters.
His wife operates
a bed and breakfast in Portland, a city which he has come to admire
for its diversity.
Like the Oinonen
Auction before it, the New England Book Auctions is the only full-time
regular book auction in the entire six-state region and one of
perhaps only some 20 such full-time book auctions in the country.
Its gross annual sales have often topped more than $1 million.
and our track record speaks for itself," says Keroack. "We
pride ourselves on our bibliographic skills and our knowlege of
the research tools of the book trade."
It is the location
of the auction within the New York and Boston orbit that fuels
its success, rather than the presence of the Five College areaís
educational institutions; academics value books for their content,
rather than for their worth as objects.
Laudamus, if he could make the choice, he would only auction catalogued
books - meaning volumes that have an established auction record
and have a value of at least $100 . But it is not always possible
to obtain only high-end books. As Keroack explained it "to
get the good stuff you have to take a lot of lesser stuff."
Books come to
auction from private parties, institutions, such as libraries,
colleges and universities and from book dealers. A lot of unsolicited
books are offered, but frequently the condition of the books is
very poor and they have no value. As Keroack says diplomatically:
"There are times we just say we donít think they will do
well at auction."
Right now, Laudamus
and Keroack say they have between 1,000 and 1,500 cartons of uncatalogued
books in storage awaiting sales, with a typical auction resulting
in the sale of 150 cartons. "We could have uncatalogued sales
for years and years," says Keroack.
rather not do that if we have enough catalogued books," says
are scheduled through 2002, based on a schedule that provides
for anywhere from a month to four months to prepare a catalogue
for a sale that would involve between 250 to 300 lots. A lot can
consist of a single book or at most a small handful. If the books
are "really fine" then the sale might consist of slightly
fewer books, perhaps only 200 lots.
to do most the cataloging, which he describes as "a chore
and a pleasure." A lot of books are "boring" and
like all cataloguers, he says, he appreciates seeing books that
he hasnít encountered before.
He says it is
difficult to find good book cataloguers, who are fast and accurate
and knowledgeable about the business and know values. "They
have to be bibliographically astute," he explains. "The
rare book trade has its own language - booksellerese."
Barbara Smith, Laudamus is "very generous" about sharing
his knowledge with other book dealers. "Heís one of those
people who I trust," she says about his professional advice
In addition to
Laudamusís "exquisite taste" in books and ephemera,
said Smith, "his real passion is his music. Heís working
toward that being a major part of his life."
What books sell
best, according to Laudamus "are anything that has strong
visual appeal," books with valuable plates, books "the
more scholarly, refined and specialized" the better.
need two people in the room for a book to bring a high price,"
he says, noting that over the years some illuminated manuscripts
that have come to the local auction have sold for between $10,000
When it comes
to these kinds of collectible volumes, "they donít make them
any more, these books are a commodity," says Keroack.
Keroack donít see that the growing role of the Internet in various
sectors of commerce has had much affect on their book auctions.
"Itís affected book dealers, more than auctions," says
being a auctioneer is a very different role from his background
as book dealer and bibliographer. "Itís a little nerve-wracking
getting up in front of an audience, but Iím getting better with
practice. It helps to know the audience and to know the books
to indulge his own passion for acquiring books for himself. At
the moment heís collecting juvenile science books, some going
back to the 16th century.
An earlier collection
of his books dealing with the history of Atomic Energy which grew
to some 3,500 titles now resides at Oregon State University and
his catalogue of that collection was published in book form with
an introduction written by the late Linus Pauling.
But life for
Laudamus is more than books. His professional work as a bibliographer
and bibliophile gives him pleasure, he says, "but sometimes
Iíd rather be playing guitar or fishing. I see so many books,
I donít feel the visceral urge to jump into every book store I
And so on Wednesday
nights, Laudamus, bookman and auctioneer, can be found with his
trio playing at Theodoreís blues club on Worthington Street in
Springfield, giving a very different kind of performance.