A river runs through him

Few pastimes stir the writer’s soul quite the way fly-fishing does.  (Norman Maclean’s “A River Runs Through It,” anyone?)

Harold McMillan’s desire to understand fly-fishing’s mystique and rich history, as well as the passion of its participants, became the impetus behind his book collection.

“It’s a sport of opinions and very few facts,” says McMillan, who owns Housatonic River Outfitters – a hunting and fly shop in Cornwall Bridge, Conn. He also works as a financial adviser at Morgan Stanley in its Westport office.

“Fly-fishing has always attracted great thinkers like professors, lawyers and doctors who seem to love to write about why they did this or why they did that,” he explains.

McMillan began buying books on the subject along with antique fishing tackle 17 years ago. In the beginning, most of the collection was kept at his fly shop so customers could enjoy it as they sat and read in the store’s cozy library, which has a wood-burning stove that McMillan uses to cook stew for his customers in the wintertime.

Selling books was something McMillan never expected to do. When customers began asking if they could buy the books on the shelves, he told them no at first.  Then he changed his mind after a few customers got upset. So what began as an interest in fly-fishing ignited a passion for collecting and selling books.

“There was no eBay back then to really buy things. So I put the word out in my store that if people were selling collections, I was interested in buying them.”

It wasn’t long before the bibliophile began going to regional auctions such as Lang’s Auction in Waterville, N.Y., which specializes in fishing antiques. In the beginning, his focus was on fishing and hunting books. But as he started to go to estate sales, he found that people wanted to sell their books as a collection.

“So I’d walk into one of these houses and I’d have to buy 1,000 books to get the 20 I wanted.”

As luck would have it, he began to discover the value of the other books in the collections.

“As these collections came in, it expanded my knowledge base by my having to research them and find their comparative value in order to sell them.”

New England is imbued with some 400 years of history, which McMillan says makes it an ideal place for finding rare books.

“Some of these houses, especially in Litchfield County, have been owned by two, three or four generations, and the books have been on the shelves having never been read, and so most of them are in very good condition. You’d get a lot of books from the 1700s and 1800s. People want to get rid of them so you end up having to buy 1,000, 2,000 books at a pop.”

Today, his collection is divided into two groups – his personal collection and his selling collection.

The personal collection is comprised of things that interest the outdoorsman.  Not surprisingly, there are books on fishing and hunting, but he also unearthed a love for Gothic literature and early 20th century authors like F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway. He found first editions of Hemingway’s “A Moveable Feast” and “For Whom The Bell Tolls,” and Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby” for $2 each at a tag sale.

He’s also amassed a fairly large collection of cookbooks, because, he says, “Cooking is my weakness. I probably have 500 cookbooks I’ve never even opened.”

Books in his personal collection are off limits and not for sale. But then again, “for the right price, everything is for sale,” he admits with a huge smile.

The selling collection includes hunting, travel, fly-fishing, history, gardening and cars. One of his best-sellers, he recalls, was a Ferrari book collection that was in mint condition, with more than 200 Ferrari books, printed in English, German and Italian and a lot of magazines. He acquired the collection in a trade he made with a longtime customer who wanted fishing equipment from his store. Most of the Ferrari books sold on his eBay store went overseas – to Italy, France and especially Norway.

“These books were expensive, ranging from $300 to $1,000 each,” he says.  All in a day’s work.

Other notable finds include a first edition of Dr. Seuss’ “Green Eggs and Ham,” which is worth $800 and an earlier but lesser known, “The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins,” written in 1938.

The fun part, he says, is researching the provenance of a book and discovering what makes it valuable. Like the time he scored a first edition novel of Ken Kesey’s “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” for $2 at a tag sale. At the time, he knew it was a first edition but didn’t recognize the cover. In his research, McMillan came across a little-known story about Kesey rewriting the book after he was sued by the woman who was the inspiration for the tyrannical Nurse Ratched.

McMillan owns one of only 1,000 copies of the original version, which he says is worth at least $15,000.

The Internet has increased his book-selling business exponentially, with McMillan selling most of his books today on eBay and Amazon.

“In the old days, we had mail-order catalogs, or people had to come to our store,” he explains. “The digital age has created a demand for books, and it’s also created the avenue to sell them. We’re seeing a lot, especially through the hedge fund guys, mostly men, wanting to build collections. Whatever their passions are, they’re building these big, beautiful libraries, and they want to fill them with books, mostly with collectible, obscure and limited editions. But it’s usually about their passion or interest.”

The book dealer makes a distinction between wanting to read a book and enjoying whatever value it has for you.

“The Internet has allowed people to read books much more efficiently, but people who collect books, they’re like King Midas. They want to hold them. They want to see them on the shelf. It’s a possession.”

The book you buy on your Kindle, he says, is not a possession.

“The people who are buying from me want to hold the personal commodity. They want to hold it in their hands. So that’s where the value is.”

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