Brilliant Young Booksellers: Jennifer Phillips
Our Bright Young Booksellers series continues today with Jennifer Phillips, second-generation bookseller at Evening Star Books in Madison, Wisconsin.
How did you get into rare books?
I grew up in the rare book business. I started working for Evening Star Books at 14, tidying up and organizing inventory. Two years later, I moved from shelving to cataloging inventory. While in college at the University of Minnesota, I was fortunate enough to work for the Bookhouse in Dinkytown. After graduating from college, I interned at Rulon-Miller Books. My dad, along with those two businesses, really shaped who I am as a bookseller today.
What is your role at Evening Star Books?
I wear many hats in my work. Officially, I’m the CEO and minority owner of the company. However, I do everything from processing orders, designing e-lists and our print catalogs, managing our social media and even coordinating our travel logistics. There is no mundane office routine in the rare book business!
What do you like about the book business?
Variety is the spice of life, and it is indeed the main ingredient of the book business. I never do the same thing day after day. Every book I work with is different, every book fair we exhibit at is different, and every colleague we interact with has their own personality and their own way of selling books. There are myriad ways to get involved in commerce: this summer I have the chance to volunteer at the CABS-Minnesota Seminar (this will be my third year volunteering) and attend Rare Book School in as a William Reese Fellow. When there’s no pandemic, there are so many people to meet, books to buy, stores to scout out, and so many different things to do on any given day.
Describe a typical day:
The first order of business is always to process the orders of the day. Then I respond to any open inquiries or customer messages. After that, I usually reserve time for irregular tasks that are not done every week: photographing, taking care of all the projects pending at that time, preparing for the next book fair, managing our accounts, etc. I usually do my cataloging after lunch. We separate our books into catalog books or book fair books (higher priced items that appear in our listings and fairs) and general stock, books that go live immediately. Shelving and organization are where I started, and they’re integral to how we operate today.
Favorite rare book (or ephemera) you’ve handled?
I guess it’s a bit cliché, but we had to manage an incunabula once and it was magic. The author was Hermes Trismegistus, a cult figure in Hellenistic Egypt whose writings would go on to shape Western philosophy and religion. I majored in classics and philosophy, so this article hit the sweet spot for my tastes! It also prompted us to buy a few reference books, so we were able to learn more while cataloging the article.
What do you personally collect?
I collect all books related to antiquity, ancient philosophy and literature. I’m a big fan of Jane Austen and just about any literature up to Oscar Wilde. I also have a penchant for Hugh Thomson’s illustrations.
What do you like to do outside of work?
Outside of work, I can be found taking care of my cats and exercising. The ancient Greek philosophy of cultivating mind and body is important to me, so you can find me running, doing yoga, and reading before bed.
Thoughts on the current and future state of the rare book trade?
I’ve noticed that there’s a bunch of people who think the bookstore is dead and the business will never be as good as it used to be (whatever that means). I think the Internet has dramatically changed commerce: namely, the commerce environment has been cut out. The internet has put into perspective how common certain books are. In general, to be a successful bookseller, you must either deal in volume or deal in exceptional quality of material (either unique or exceptionally desirable). Selling books is different in my generation, and perhaps even more difficult, but it presents an opportunity for new discoveries of material that was previously overlooked, material that will make an individual statement in a saturated market. My generation is exceptionally diverse and I expect that over time the material on offer and the booksellers who carry it will also become more diverse. I look forward to helping move this forward in any way I can.
Upcoming shows or catalogs?
Evening Star Books publishes monthly electronic listings and an annual print catalog to our private and trade mailing lists. Regarding book fairs, we will be exhibiting at the New York Antiquarian Book Fair (April 22-24), and I manage and sponsor a new book fair: the Minnesota Antiquarian Book Fair (July 8-9). The Minnesota fair will take place just before CABS-Minnesota 2022, and I’m working hard to help the fair become more welcoming to collectors and patrons from all communities. Inclusiveness requires reflection and a re-examination of business practices. The regional book fairs are important because they make it possible to introduce the rare book trade to those who will be future collectors, archivists, dealers, etc. They can contribute to filling a role left aside by the shops opened and closed since. To make a good first impression on future booksellers, the profession itself must be more welcoming.