Michael Tuttle is a private librarian. He photographs, archives, catalogues, covers, appraises, curates and—sometimes—buys and sells other people’s books. He provides different combinations of some or all of these services for his various clients—who have included restaurant owner Peter Morton and Andy Summers, the former lead guitarist for the Police (a photographer himself now with a serious photography book collection), as well as Gore Vidal, whose library he’s been working on during the past year. There are more, but, Tuttle explains, “many of my clients require me to sign a non-disclosure agreement.” This is L.A., after all.
Finding a calling
Tuttle began his book-related career as a salesman for the publishers Random House. “I’d always been interested in books,” he says, “and it was around that time that I started to collect contemporary fiction, Los Angeles authors in particular, since I was living here.” At the same time he began cataloguing his own books, “mostly to keep track of them, but also to keep a list of what I didn’t have.” It was a low-tech method: “I used a word processor—I’d make a note of the author, title, publisher, publication date, and the edition,” he says. “That was pretty much it.”
Tuttle eventually fetched up in the commercial printing business, where he toiled for more than 20 years, but as the 1990s wore on and computers took hold, the industry was changing and the work that still remained was shifting to the Far East. Tuttle decided to get out of printing altogether; serendipitously, a friend, Glenn Goldman, happened to need some help with his small local chain of bookshops, Book Soup. “I started out helping him out at a couple of stores,” Tuttle says, “and noticed that people were coming in and asking how to get their books covered and take care of them.” That got him thinking—and then around the same time another friend asked him to help her cover her library of photography books. After that she wanted him to catalogue them, too, “and all of a sudden I got into it.” It turned out to be a lot of work, but the part-favor/part-paid job was the perfect place for him to learn, experiment, practice and eventually perfect his craft.
The job turned out to have another bonus: Tuttle’s friend had a huge number of books and wanted a record of them for insurance purposes. Tuttle’s wife, Jodi Rappaport, is a photographer’s agent; Tuttle had learned a lot about photography through her and was aware of the importance of insurance for collections of both pictures and books of pictures, so he began talking to insurance agents about the best way of preparing a photography-book collection. By this time, Tuttle was really into his new métier; but it was his wife who made the connection and suggested that what he was doing could grow to become something he could make a living at.
Finding a customer
Potential clients mostly reach Tuttle by word-of-mouth. “You meet people who have libraries and explain what you do,” he says. “People who have books really get it.” A few rare-book dealers have also recommended him, but he says an article about him that appeared in the L.A. Times magazine last year helped quite a bit. His clients’ focus varies: “I have an interest in art and architecture and photography and contemporary fiction, but I love it when I get involved in the library of a subject matter that’s new to me.” He recently did a job for a company that’s been making stained-glass for several generations (it did all the windows for Frank Lloyd Wright’s houses). “They had about 1,000 books on stained glass,” says Tuttle. “It’s a subject I never would have dreamed I would get involved in, but for weeks I was immersed in books on stained glass, 50 percent of which weren’t even written in English [that’s a whole other problem, he says], and learned all about the artists who made stained-glass windows. Fascinating.”
The fact that this kind of work is very personal tends to help it build on itself. “Once I know what people’s interests are, my antenna is up,” Tuttle explains. “I can see where clients might want to add to their collections, or swap books for better editions, sell something when necessary, or buy things that they might be interested in. I’m kind of a bespoke library business, where each person is treated differently because I know what they are about.”
Each stage of Tuttle’s work has a price—”so much for photographing, so much for appraising”—but usually, he says, clients start out looking for just one thing and then find they want more. He has to see a library before he can do an estimate—essentially, though, it’s about how long it’s going to take. “I can look at some libraries and decide I can do this pretty fast because all these are new books by current publishers; or maybe much of the information has been done already; or it’s from someone else’s library; or I have access to it from my own database. If they’re all out on the shelf I can see how well organized the clients is, and that’s a good indication of how long the job might take. I have to take each book off the shelf, photograph it and put it back—so I have to ask myself, am I going to be climbing up a ladder for each one?”
Judging books by their covers
A good collection of books, says Tuttle, numbers at least 1,000. It’s impossible to calculate how long a particular job could take, he says, because it varies so much. Some clients just want an archive, others want full cataloguing and/or covering. “I can tell you that a collection of books that were published within the last 20 to 30 years will take less time than dealing with books that are much older, leather-bound, or, say, all from England.”
What makes for a valuable collection? “Sixty-five percent of the worth of a book is dependent on the condition of the jacket,” says Tuttle bluntly. “So serious collectors want ways to protect their covers as well as wanting their books to look nice and being able to maintain them.” So judging a book by its cover isn’t so wrong, after all. When Tuttle covers books he uses acid-free, archival, adjustable polypropylene or polyester transparent covers: “The primary source for everybody in the business is a library-wholesaler called Brodart.” For books without jackets, Tuttle uses a form of mylar which he cuts to size and form to fit the book. Don’t try to improvise without doing some research! “Some people apply tape and stick things on jackets and end up doing more damage that way,” warns Tuttle.
Tuttle has a lot of tools to help him preserve a book in the best possible condition, everything from archival adhesives to special erasers to a simple cloth. “I determine how valuable a book is before I start fooling with it. How badly beaten up it is, how important its personal or monetary value are, how far the client wants to go to fix that.” Most people with libraries of leather-bound books seem to think they’re worth quite a bit more than they are, he says: “If you have a whole collection you can treat the leather very easily with just a cloth, to remove dust or mold.”
Tuttle begins by photographing the entire library. “Usually I’m working in someone’s house, but if they have a lot of books I don’t want to be a constant presence there,” he says. “So I learned how to photograph books, get all the information I need and then do most of the work on my computer at home.” He starts at the top left-hand corner of the bookshelves and works methodically, left to right, top to bottom. “I have a table set up and a whole apparatus. I photograph the front, the title page and all of the copyright information. Sometimes I might include an inside page, too.”
The pertinent facts of each book go into a database based on FileMaker Pro, noting author, title, edition, print run, date, publisher, condition, and any other tidbits that might be interesting, such as inscriptions or the library the book originally came from: “We call them association copies. If Cecil Beaton inscribes a book to Diana Vreeland, all of a sudden you’ve really got something on your hands.” And book collectors, like stamp collectors like mistakes. “If you find that the author’s name was misspelled on a first edition that adds value, so you’re always on the lookout for these things,” says Tuttle, citing a recent court case where the artist Richard Prince did a book, Canal Zone, for which he “borrowed” a lot of photographs. The judgment went against Prince and his gallery, Gagosian; the court ordered the books taken off the market. “All of a sudden their value just skyrocketed. Once I hear something like that, I go back to my files to see who has that book in their gallery or where I can find copies so I can grab as many as possible.”
Then there are the vanity collections. “I was just on a website where someone wanted all the books covered in white and the people couldn’t care less what the books were,” Tuttle says wryly. “There’s a big business in that.” He was recently approached by an interior designer who wanted a library of leather books—except that the shelves were of a certain specific (and shallow) depth, so the books would have to be cut in half. “They wanted to know where I could get the books cut in half. It was a ‘wall treatment.'” Another designer wanted everything in the room eggshell white, so they asked if the books could be eggshell white too. But the clean slate has its upside. “Sometimes interior designers have clients who ask me to put together a really good representative photography collection or some other category for them. When they give you categories of what they’re interested in and you put together those books, that’s fantastic.”
The hoarding gene
Tuttle cheerfully admits that the cataloguing/sorting/tidying thing is deep inside him. “As I got more involved in this I’ve found people who feel the same way I do,” he says, “and that combined with what I now discover is a hoarding gene. You just want to be able to hold on to everything and put together combinations of books and things like that. It’s amazing what people put together and collect.”—LUCY SISMAN