Hidden treasure

Richard Press

Photo By Larry Dalton

As any avid collector will tell you, the chase is everything. And sometimes that chase takes a collector down rather unsuspecting paths. Case in point: Hidden down a narrow alley just off the corner of 18th and I streets in downtown Sacramento, you’ll find Richard Press and what is quite possibly the area’s largest collection of rare and interesting art books. Teeming with everything from classic Greek and Roman art to 20th-century decorative art, Press’ book-lined shelves are a windfall for art-book collectors worldwide.

How did you get into the book-selling business?

Well, I was a university librarian for 25 years. Much of that time was spent at Northwestern University, where I was an assistant director for what was called collection development. This involved being in charge of the book budget along with various members of the staff. But my interest has always been books, so when I left the field of librarianship, I became a bookseller. It was a natural thing for me to do. Instead of buying all the time, now, I’m buying and selling.

How long have you been in business?

I’ve been in business since 1979, but I’ve been in this set of rooms for the last 21 years. I was on N Street across from the park in a much smaller space, but this place seemed ideal for me because it has a kitchen and a bathroom. It was a place where one could live. I don’t live here, but when some of my clients come, I’ll prepare lunch for them. It’s also upstairs, which is great for the flood situation in Sacramento.

Is there some sort of order to the store?

Yes. If someone comes in, and I haven’t seen them before, the first thing I say is, “May I help you?” and “If you need help, let me know.” Then they say, more times than not, “Is there any order here?” I explain that art books come in all shapes and sizes, which means you cannot shelve them alphabetically, chronologically or even by size. But you do the best you can within the normal ways. People like to discover things for themselves, and this is a shop for that.

So, you must have an encyclopedic knowledge of where everything is, then.

In order to be a bookseller for yourself, you have to have an almost encyclopedic knowledge. But sometimes, if someone asks for a book, you might know exactly where it is, but you can’t find it. And as soon as they go out the door, the book will say, “Hey, you looking for me?” I have this theory that the books here don’t want to leave the shop. So, on occasion, they hide.

Are you ever sad to see a book leave the store?

Well, no, because if you’re in the antiques market, the dynamic is that in order to buy, you have to sell. Once you cross the line from being a collector to being a bookseller, you have to make a living. And once you have that book, it’s on to the next one. The world is so full of wonderful things that you’ll always be getting wonderful things.

Are some of these from your own personal collection?

That’s how you start, but that was 25 years ago. There’s nothing left of that collection anymore. I travel all over the world, mainly to France, and buy books. I also buy locally and on the Internet. The books come from everywhere. Mainly, they’re out of print and rare, but I also handle new books in art, which I think are significant.

What kind of effect has the Internet had on the store?

There’s a very simple way of putting it. Before the Internet, you had many, many people looking for books, and the dealers had them. The dealers didn’t know who wanted them, and the clients didn’t know who had them. The Internet put them together. The Internet has its problems, though. A lot of people are in the business now that normally would have never been in the business. The whole business of pricing used to be a skill that you acquired over decades. Now, somebody puts a price up on the Web, and everybody copies it.

Do some people have difficulty finding the store?

I like to say that if someone comes from Timbuktu, and they’re looking for art books, they’ll find me no problem. Someone who lives four blocks away will stumble in and say, “I didn’t know you existed. How long have you been here?” It happens all the time. The people who come to see me will seek me out.

Do you have people come from all over?

Yes. One time, an Italian man came in with a professor from [California State University, Sacramento], and I noticed that he had a great interest in modern architecture. I told him I had a book that had a great collection of modern architecture but that the organization of the book was not so good. He said, "Show me the book." I showed it to him, and he looked at it and said, "That’s my collection."