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The man who builds up private libraries - book by rare book

Washington library
Image caption An installed private library (courtesy of Kinsey Marable)

Where do the impeccably selected libraries that appear in society pages and design magazines come from? Many are the work of private library curators - who scour the world to find the books that will both look pleasing on the shelf and reflect the interests of the library's owner.

Kinsey Marable knows the value of the written word, even in the digital age.

"An original first edition of To Kill a Mockingbird was $7,500 in 1999," Marable, a Charlottesville, Virginia-based collector and bespoke librarian, says "and now they cost around $35,000 (£22,200) per copy."

Marable's clients are located in many countries, but it was a trip across the Atlantic long ago when he visited Heywood Hill, a small, rare bookstore in Mayfair, London, and was inspired to get into the business himself.

Image copyright AP
Image caption A first edition library "just isn't feasible anymore" Marable says

A former investment banker who opened a rare book store in Washington DC in 1994 "so I could learn the business from the ground up", Marable moved exclusively into private libraries in 1999.

Many of his clients are decorators and architects who are building homes for usually "well-heeled" clients, and need perhaps hundreds of linear feet filled.

Marable initially visits the client to get a sense of "their personality and interests, and what resonates with them" .

Unless they have specific requests he will provide them with proprietary lists he and his team have built up over the years - the 100 best female authors, the best science fiction, American architecture from 1800 - 2005, or English gardens (the latter is 250 titles strong).

Fine arts, classics, food, drink and biographies get heavy play too, something akin to what Marable calls a baseline "Country House" library.


Selections from the "Guest Room Library"

Vita: The Life of Vita Sackville-West by Victoria Glendinning

Georgiana: Duchess of Devonshire by Amanda Foreman

Greene on Capri by Shirley Hazzard

To the One I Love the Best: Episodes from the Life of Lady Mendl by Ludwig Bemelmans

Flowers in History by Peter Coats

An Omlette and a Glass of Wine by Elizabeth David

Selections from the "Country House Library"

Jefferson (six volume set) by Dumas Malone

Cecil Beaton's diaries

English Country House: Early, Mid, and Late Georgian

A collection by Beverley Nichols (A Thatched Roof, Village in Valley, Merry Hall, Down the Garden Path)


"They're visual, fun, user-friendly books that some people call coffee table, but are in good condition with dust jackets," he says.

He's gotten some odd requests - books about alchemy, true crime and once, an 18th Century English book composed of scribbles from public bathrooms.

But regardless of the subject matter, Marable and his two assistants will start hunting.

Marable says that a library composed of first editions "just isn't feasible anymore, unless you have gazillions of dollars". For instance, his regular client Oprah Winfrey, who wanted all first editions of books given the Pulitzer Prize for the Novel (now Fiction), which was first awarded in 1918.

Image caption A library collection built by Marable

That library took a couple of years to complete, while a collection focusing on American presidents (biographies, autobiographies and "anything they had written") took four years of work before the collection was ready to be installed.

Marable used to travel all over the US - and regularly to London - to visit book shops and dealers, but now the vast resource of the internet has made his life much easier.

"The specialist websites are very exact though," says Marable. Finding the right book can be "tedious work - but we like it that way".

Marable and an assistant install the books themselves.

"I insist on it," says Marable. "Not only because we put together a personal catalogue for each collection, but because we need to put it in some sort of order."

All the books are covered in glossy transparent paper for protection, and there's a lot of lifting, unpacking, sorting and going up ladders.

"I have lots of aspirin in my bag," he admits, "but when you see the shelves empty and then you see them full, transformed, with all the books, you really have to pause and have a big glass of vodka!"

Image copyright Kinsey Marable
Image caption Another library put together by Kinsey Marable

While his company's suggested "Guest Room Library" might only have 30 books, other collections can be hundreds or even thousands. Marable's largest-ever assignment was for around 3,000 books in a double-height library in Long Island.

"It's still a tough business," says Marable, who regularly buys whole collections to keep in his inventory.

He charges the retail value of the book, plus travel expenses and a per diem - but not for the research time.

"Ninety-eight percent of the expense is what they get in the books," he says.

One of his career highlights was acquiring a rare copy of Thomas Jefferson's only book, Notes on the State of Virginia, which he published anonymously in France in 1785.

"Being based in Virginia I deal with a lot of Jeffersonia, but this book was only 1,000 copies. It was wonderful to hold it in my hands," he says.

"Books make a room. They warm it, make it liveable, comfortable and real."

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