Bookish: Rare Book Show Features Bancroft Holdings

By Emily Wilson

Hackenberg Booksellers sits a couple block from El Cerrito del Norte BART stop. It has that nice old-book smell from the works that line the shelves. Proprietor Michael Hackenberg, whose received a masters in library science from UC Berkeley in 1973, and his Ph.D. in 1984, excitedly shows some rare items stored in glass cases: an early Hawaiian hymnal (particularly hard to find since tropical climates rot paper); a book of poems and commentary by Greek poet Pindar printed in Rome in 1515; and some 1970s Bulgarian theater posters he keeps in a back room. Finding items like this, or getting a call from Tracy about nine Ernest Hemingway first editions, is why Hackenberg still finds the rare book business fun after 30 years.

“It’s like Christmas every day,” Hackenberg said. “You’re never sure what you’re going to stumble into.”

Hackenberg focuses on scholarly, out-of-print books. He has about 55,000 volumes, less than half of which are listed online. He works with a lot of institutions and with collectors, on the lookout for material he knows they’ll be interested in. He has, for example, procured a number of books on 18thcentury French opera for the UC Berkeley music library.

Hackenberg’s love for rare books and desire to support dealers led him to become chair of the Northern California Chapter of the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association of America and to take part in putting together the Antiquarian Book Fair, the largest rare book fair in the world, which celebrates its 50th anniversary at the Oakland Marriott City Center February 10–12. About 200 booksellers from around the world participate.

“There are dealers from most states, as well as Australia, Hungary, Argentina, and all the western European countries,” Hackenberg said. “They’re all knowledgeable outside their fields too, so it’s fun for book collectors. This year, the Bancroft Library has a special exhibit of genre fiction by California authors: a lot of unusual horror and science fiction and detective fiction, the Dashiell Hammett type stuff, as well as others.”

Getting the fair together involves a lot of logistics—figuring out where the booths go, the prices, and the set up. Hackenberg says the time and work expended pays off with a good event. He became the chair after a friend encouraged him to do it, and Hackenberg agreed on the condition the friend would stay on the committee.

It was encouragement from colleagues that led Hackenberg to library science at Cal in the first place, which led directly to what he does today. The bookseller studied history at the University of Chicago, and after graduation, he was working as a library assistant in technical services at New York University when a co-worker suggested he go to library school. Hackenberg checked out various schools and ended up at Berkeley. He’s glad he did.

“It was a brave new world,” he said. “I’d never been in California before and I drove across the country and fell in love with the Bay Area and the positive vibrations. New York wasn’t nearly as friendly and open. And there’s so much culture here—I grew up in Kansas, so I appreciate urban environments.”

Hackenberg looks forward to the camaraderie at the book fair: this year his booth will be flanked by those of friends from England and from Chicago, so he’ll get to spend some time with them. Then there’s the scouting, which he hopes will lead to some more early Hawaiian books.

Filed under: Arts + Letters
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