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Sunday, March 3, 2013

Exclusive Interview: Rebecca Romney, Rare Books Expert Featured on Pawn Stars

By Aaron S. Robertson

The manager of the Las Vegas store of Bauman Rare Books opens up about her passions for literature and languages, discusses trends in the industry, and shares her favorite memories of the show, among other topics.

Tune into Pawn Stars tomorrow, Monday, 3/4/13, at 10:00pm EST for the all-new episode, "Book 'Em, Rick". Rebecca will be appearing to appraise an incunable. In her own words, "An incunable is a book published within the first fifty years or so ('til 1501) after Gutenberg's first printed book."

My first exposure to Rebecca Romney, like so many others, came when I started getting into the hit History Channel show, Pawn Stars, where she is occasionally called in to lend her expertise and insights to Rick and the gang when they’re interested in purchasing a rare book or signed document of historic significance off of someone.

Over time, curiosity naturally set in, and I started developing an interest in learning more about the backgrounds and businesses of all of the pawn shop’s experts who appear on the show. They all do such a great job at explaining the background, significance (or lack thereof), and value of an artifact, whatever it is: an antique or collector car, sports memorabilia, a signature, a comic book collection, coins or currency, an antique gun, etc., etc.

Rebecca Romney, Pawn Stars, Pawn Stars Rare Book Expert, Rebecca Romney Pawn Stars
Rebecca Romney.
Photo taken by Sean Samuels:
That curiosity for learning more led me to discovering Rebecca’s blog and Facebook fan page, and eventually e-mail correspondence requesting an interview. I have a number of other interview requests for some of the show’s other experts floating around out there, and am anxiously waiting to hear back.

What I really appreciate about the show and Rebecca’s blog and Facebook page is that they serve us history and ideas on the go, and it’s all presented in a fun, light way. For someone like me, who loves history and trivia, loves learning new things all the time, but ironically doesn’t have the time to read a book cover to cover or dive into a long essay these days, these mediums help fill in some of those gaps. Imagine that, not having enough time to read a book cover to cover, yet you serve on your city’s library board. But that’s where so many people are these days with their time, and so it’s nice to have these other forms of media that can teach, inspire, and just get you thinking.

So just how did Rebecca, who manages the Las Vegas location of Bauman Rare Books, land her role on Pawn Stars? The show, she explained, started around the same time that Bauman, which has locations in New York City and Philadelphia, as well, was opening up its Las Vegas shop. Rebecca wasn’t yet managing the shop when Rick Harrison from the Gold & Silver Pawn Shop approached Bauman with the idea one day. “We initially declined, but Rick came back pressing,” Rebecca told me in our nearly 70-minute conversation on February 27. “I was now managing the store when he started pressing, and we eventually accepted. But he was really the instigator; he was the one who approached us with the invitation. It wasn’t the show’s producers or anything like that. It was a personal invite from him,” she added. And how does she like the role? “It’s a lot of fun. I really like it. But it’s all somewhat cherry on top; it’s something I never expected to be doing. Just working for Bauman, which is so well-known and reputed in the rare book world, is my dream job.”

Books, literature, history, and languages come naturally for Rebecca, who majored in both linguistics and classical studies and minored in philosophy in college. “I was only 2-3 courses away from attaining 3-4 other minors,” she noted. She started her freshman year out majoring in art history, but ended up moving away from it out of some fear over the practicality of it after college. “But I realize now, given the field I’m in, that I could have kept it, and things would have turned out just fine,” she said. As for languages, Rebecca can read in six. “I’m rather obsessed with languages,” she admitted, going on to add, “I need very little excuse to take up studying a language. I enjoy learning them for fun.” She was in Vietnam not long ago on a family trip, and studied up on Vietnamese prior to the journey.

When it comes to collecting books, Rebecca’s interests are wide and varied, and she often has to work to keep that impulse in check. She’s particularly a big fan of the works of publisher Thomas Mosher (1852-1923), who was, in her words, “…extremely avant-garde for the time.” In particular, she noted, he was really focused on the design of the books he published.

Two recently-published books that Rebecca highly recommends are Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn and The Fault in Our Stars by John Green.

As one can see, “A great deal of my life is wrapped up in books,” Rebecca told me. But she does make time for other interests and activities. “I also enjoy hiking, camping, movies. I’m interested in just about anything and everything.”

"I want to be a missionary for literature and reading."

With such a deep love for literature, poetry, and history then, does Rebecca write at all herself? Not really. “I write a short story or poem once in a while, but I pretty much just dabble in it. My husband is a full-time professional writer, and he’s the one that’s really good at it. He once wrote a complete novel based on a short story I started,” she recalled.

Rebecca, asked if she’s noticing any particular trends in rare books right now, said that “Modern Firsts”, which cover 20th and 21st century books, have been a hot trend for the last 10-15 years. Tying into that genre is “Children’s Literature”, which collectors are starting to take more seriously and see the value in. “The history of science, a genre I really appreciate, is starting to become more popular, which is great because I feel it’s undervalued,” she explained, going on to note that particular titles by Copernicus and Newton are showing increased signs of heavy activity by collectors in recent years.

With the world of rare books and historic documents comes the need to authenticate signatures from time to time, another aspect of Rebecca’s work. “There’s a baseline competence that has to be there,” she said, adding, “Autographs require a lot of exposure to authentic signatures. However, that’s not the only way to authenticate them, and it really shouldn’t be.” Other factors, she noted, include the quality of the paper, the age of the document, the formation of individual letters, and the quality of the ink. It sounds like a daunting task, but Rebecca notes that, “It can also be a lot of fun because it’s a challenge, especially when you’re dealing with a forgery. In those instances, you’re pitting your expertise with the forger’s,” she said. Rebecca describes the process of getting educated on signatures as, “…more apprenticeship than degree-like. It requires a lot of exposure to autographs and working with someone who has experience.” She credits John Reznikoff of University Archives with showing her the ropes, calling him a great mentor and tutor.

Asked about her favorite moments on the show, Rebecca immediately brought up the filming for this past year’s Christmas party episode as a special time for her. “That was a lot of fun, because it allowed me a chance to get to know the other experts a lot more,” she said, adding with a bit of a laugh, “It was nice hanging out with other like-minded, nerdy people.”

Speaking of the show, I was very curious how she manages to do it all. She’s sort of in this gray area between being this regular, everyday working professional with a job and responsibilities, like the rest of us, and having somewhat celebrity status, as well. What are her secrets to handling her duties of managing her shop and also doing all of the appearances, the blogging, the social media, the speaking engagements (she does in-store lectures from time to time, and is speaking for 40 minutes during a Preservation Week lecture in April), the talking with pesky journalists like me, etc.? Surprisingly, it’s not very overwhelming for her. “I’ll film for a few hours, then just go back to my job. As far as the social media stuff and the blogging, the topics come from ideas and thoughts I’m already having, so they’re not very time-consuming,” Rebecca explained to me.

As for final thoughts, Rebecca wanted to focus on books as a medium of entertainment. “You’re missing out on the unique strengths a book can offer that a movie can’t. A book forces you to create something - you fill in the picture yourself, minus the details from the author,” she said. Ultimately, what she strives to be is, “…a missionary for literature and reading.”

For my Wisconsin readers here, Rebecca said she hasn’t been to our state yet, but would love to someday. So with that answer, we do know that she’s not an expert in a world-famous Milwaukee fish fry, or the excitement of a Milwaukee Brewers or Green Bay Packers game, or the fun that comes with Summerfest or the Wisconsin State Fair. Not yet, anyway. We’ll have to work on that.

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Do you watch Pawn Stars? If so, what are your favorite episodes? Do you collect rare books? If you do, what do you enjoy the most out of it? Are there any particular genres, authors, or publishers you like? Share your experiences and insights in the Comments section below.

Check out other neat, exclusive interviews by Aaron S. Robertson.

1 comment:

  1. hi rebecca.. im rener from the philippines.. im a big fan of yours especially when you appear on pawn stars and help rick and the guys at a shop about the rare books that they try to purchase.. im facinated everytime you say something about the book that they try to buy.. its like your a walking encyclopedia when it comes to books.. i dont want to say book cause its kinda awkward when i say "book worm" cause your to beautiful to be a worm.. haha!! i wish the people in our country would appreciate not just books but history just like you do in america.. i hope you will read my message idol.. keep it up and stay health and beautiful always.. =) and before i forgot, your prettier when your hair is blond.. =)