Interview with Helen Kahn
by Jason Dickson


Helen Kahn is one of Canada’s most successful and respected antiquarian booksellers. Over a near 40-year career, Helen has both raised the bar of professionalism in the Canadian trade and carved out a niche for herself as an expert on Voyages and Travel Literature. She is the first Canadian to have served on the Board of the International League of Antiquarian Booksellers. She is also kind, generous, and warm—qualities not often found in the cantankerous world of rare bookselling. It is only fitting that she be the first interviewed in a series of interviews with Canadian antiquarian booksellers.

Jason Dickson: What were things like before you got into the antiquarian book trade?

Helen Kahn: I was home raising three children. When the kids all went off to high school I went back to McGill to do a graduate degree. After I received my graduate degree in 1976 I decided to go into the rare book business. I had collected books from the time I was in my teens (I won’t say all that knowledgeably) but I did collect. And when I decided to go into the business I took my collection – which was mainly nineteenth-century British authors – sent it to auction in New York, and had the capital to do the things I wanted to do, which was dealing in books on exploration and voyages.

JD: This has been a specialty of yours for most of your career.

HK: Yes it has. I’m interested in any early books which have some intrinsic value. Those are always of interest. But basically explorations, travels, politics, wars, you know, nation-building or nation-destroying.

JD: What was it about this subject that interested you?

HK: I love to travel. Basically I was always fascinated by what caused people – well, in those days men, obviously – to get into a boat and not know where they were going.  It took an awful lot of guts to do that.

JD: Has that appreciation deepened with your work in antiquarian books?

HK: Not really. I guess I would say, as the quote goes, they did it because it was there. Somebody asked someone why they climbed Everest and the answer was because it was there. That’s the way I like to travel. I like meeting people. I like seeing new things. I’m assuming also, among the early explorers, there was the chance of earning a lot of money – Spanish reales or whatever it was – because you have the government behind you, or a king, or a count. You were going to get paid if you found something.

JD: Was it easy to get into the trade?

HK: In my situation, and I think in the situation of most North American dealers, there’s no system – as there is in Europe – of apprenticeship or anything like that. I think by and large a lot of us went into it on our own, sharpening our skills as we went.

JD: Was there a mentor of any kind?

HK: Not really. I didn’t move away from Montreal to work or study or anything like that. In Montreal there were a couple of people who were very knowledgeable. Bernard Amtmann of Montreal Book Auctions. There was Heinz Heinemann who ran Mansfield Bookshop. Both were very welcoming and very willing to share whatever knowledge they had. But they certainly were not mentors and I didn’t see them all that frequently.

JD: What was the Montreal bookselling scene like at the time?

HK: It was active. We had an auction house here. We had a couple of booksellers. Issie Erlich was quite a character. He was buying books from missions up north and selling them to the institutions here in Montreal. He did all right. Just the other day I opened a book and saw his inimitable pencilled handwriting. Good old Issie. I guess the scene was fairly modest though. There was an interest. Certainly the institutions were building collections. They started in the 1960s. It was still pretty active in the 1970s. We occasionally hit our doldrums. But you always knew that would happen from time to time, and you survived.

JD: Was it difficult as a woman to get into the trade? There were not too many in the trade at that time.

HK: Yes you are absolutely right. But I was always fairly independent, I think more so than a great many of my friends. Maybe I just was totally blind but I never really felt any prejudice nor was I ever aware of any sort of secretive All Men’s Group so to speak. I respected people I met in the business and I think they respected me after I had more or less proven myself. One of the people who was a friend and very helpful was the late John Mappin. He was very decent, very nice. He was into Canadiana way back certainly before I met him. He was selling a lot to both Quebec and Ontario institutions. He knew his stuff.

JD: Did you open a shop at that time?

HK: I’ve never had a shop. I’ve always had an office. We had been in a house. The kids went off to college. We sold the house and moved into an apartment building where I still am. Right from the start I rented a different suite in the same building. I’ve always operated on that basis. The only change I had made over almost forty years is to move from an office on the main floor to an office closer to where I live. The very thought of moving again was not something I would ever contemplate unless absolutely necessary. There is no reason to. I see people by appointment. I can control who I want to see and when I want to see them. I can lock up and travel. I do have a part-time assistant. As far as I’m concerned it’s the best of all worlds. I think for me it might be a question of laziness, not wanting to have to deal with people if I didn’t feel like it that day.

JD: A friend of mine who owned a shop said it was like always anticipating the arrival of company.

HK: Oh yes that is a very good definition. No, that is not something I’d like to experience.

JD: You mentioned email. Of course you’ve seen great changes to the business. Have those changes affected you positively? Negatively?

HK: It has, of course, affected me, as it has affected everyone and has changed the way we all do business. In the old days you came across an interesting book and you did some research on it. If it seemed like a valuable book you put a corresponding price on it. Now you think you have a book of some value, you go on the Internet and you see there are twenty copies of it online. Not all of them will be the same one as you have however. I would say that a large percentage of people who post online, in my experience, don’t know how to describe books. So you never know whether it is the same edition or condition or whether they’ve stolen your description. That has happened to me more than a few times.

JD: One of the things I understand the bulk listing sites have done is shown somewhat realistically how rare certain items are.

HK: No question about that. How can I say this… it is a fact of life. So whatever you think about the Internet you have to deal with it. There’s no reason to get your… what do the Brits say… your knickers in a twist. When I first started, the only magazine I used was Jake Chernofsky’s Antiquarian Bookseller, which came once a week and had lists of books for sale and lists of books wanted. That’s the way booksellers kept in touch with each other. I guess things moved more slowly. Occasionally you’d pick up the phone. But normally everything was done by mail. It is a different world. As in everything else though, you adjust or you quit.

JD: Were you successful in the beginning or did it take a while to get going?

HK: I guess it was fairly successful right from the start. I don’t remember ever really worrying about getting through the year. There were some hard knocks. You sort of worked your way through them. The very first time I went down to the bank to meet with somebody to get a line of credit I met a gentleman who asked me what I did and I said I was in the rare book business. He immediately knew what it was all about because he not only collected National Geographic but he also collected antique toys. So he knew something about the collecting field. I walked out of there with exactly what I wanted. That was sheer luck.

JD: How would you describe the growth of your business?

HK: It has grown fairly consistently. Our catalogues have generally done well, and over the years our exhibiting at book fairs has introduced us to new collectors.  Part of it, I guess, is that I am able to transmit my enthusiasm for the material I handle to my customers. I find every day is a learning experience, which at my age says something. You open a book you either haven’t had, or haven’t had for a long time, and you learn something from it. The corollary to that is also I’ve always, or almost always, enjoyed the people I’ve dealt with. I think one of the nice things about it… getting back to having a shop or not having a shop… is that I don’t have to deal with people I don’t like. I don’t know whether that answers your question. But I do consider myself to be very fortunate. I’ve been doing something that I really enjoy doing for almost forty years.

JD: At a certain level of bookselling the trust and love that a client puts into the work that you do is everything.

HK: Yes, absolutely. As far as I’m concerned you treat your customers the way you treat other people, and that is with as much fairness as you can possibly muster. Word spreads. Let’s face it, this is a very incestuous business. There’s nothing booksellers like as much as gossiping. You do something that hurts somebody – you walk into somebody’s house and make them a cheap offer and they find out you haven’t been fair, and you’ll never hear from them or any of their friends or relatives again. Your name will be bandied around as not being a nice person to deal with.

JD: How would you describe your own contribution as a specialist bookseller to the field?

HK: In terms of cataloguing I’ve always been meticulous. Anybody who has worked for me over the years has had to be meticulous also. So many book dealers don’t know the book language. You can’t just sort of walk into a business and not learn something about it. Before you start selling books you have to know how to catalogue books. You have to know what the jargon is. Every business has a jargon. I’m here in my office now looking at two rooms of reference books, and shelves of them relate to bibliographical descriptions, such as John Carter and so many others. You have to know these things. I’ve probably made some mistakes in the early years, and if I did, people who knew more than I didn’t hesitate to take me to task.

I look back now in my database – 30 years of cataloguing – and I still go back to earlier, printed, pre-computer descriptions. I was just doing that an hour ago to see if we’ve ever had a particular book. I looked at the early description and thought, “Oh, I can use some of that again!” That is not to say you don’t collate the book. God knows, anything could have been taken out of it – plates, maps, etc. You just learn somehow. And if you don’t learn you don’t stay in business all that long. People do compliment me on the catalogues. We don’t put out many and they are not fancy but they are informative. The people who receive them do enjoy them. Among colleagues, there are people whose integrity and whose knowledge you trust and others you’re going to check on before you order something. I know there are colleagues of mine who, if there’s something in their catalogue or list that I want I’ll check the description and I’ll know right away whether it’s valid or not. I’ll either have confidence in them or not.

JD: What has it been like as an internationally engaged bookseller? How has it been being able to travel everywhere for your work?

HK: One of the main blessings of this business – besides books and customers – is being able to travel. I now feel that the trade almost provides an extended family around the world. There are people I’ve known for thirty, thirty-five years. When I go to an ILAB Conference or I go to an international book fair, there’s lots of hugs and kisses and how-are-you and dinner. I didn’t exhibit at the New York Book fair this year but I did go to socialize. And it was wonderful. You have lunch with this person and dinner with that person. Just catching up without being restricted to staying in your booth. So from that point of view I also consider myself very lucky.

JD: You’ve done practically every major fair at one time or another.

HK: At one time or another yes. This year I think for the first time in thirty years I’m missing London. But I have a couple of grandchildren who are graduating and for me it was first things first.

JD: The Canadian trade was of course markedly different than the European trade. What are some of the differences you’ve noticed?

HK: I think, in a way – and maybe I’m wrong – but I do think aspects of the trade have become more similar over time. I think the ways of doing business have become much more unified. I think that’s the case globally with almost anything. I’m talking about Western Europe and North America. Beyond that it’s idiosyncratic. You start with China, Japan, it is all very different. But I would say that Western Europe and North America are much more alike in terms of how business is conducted than what it used to be. I think that is just part of how the world is today. I may be wrong but that is the way I see it.

JD: How would you describe your time on the ILAB Committee?

HK: Oh you found out about that, did you? (laughs). It was certainly very interesting. You’re dealing with different personalities, different backgrounds, different cultures. I was on the committee for five years as secretary. It was interesting to see how different people approached different problems, and it taught me patience – not one of my strong points! It was a growth experience. It really was. Interesting and rewarding are terms that I would use.

JD: It must have been a good reason to travel though.

HK: It was indeed. I went to the ILAB Congresses. I went to the presidents’ meetings. I was Canadian president also for a few years. I’ve been around a lot. And I got to know a lot of people, many of whom, unfortunately, are no longer with us. People do leave this world and we are talking about quite a number of years ago. It was a very interesting experience. And a very enjoyable one. Many of the colleagues I met in those years became very good friends.

From CNQ 94 (Winter 2016)