T here isn’t a massive rolling boulder hot on my heels, and I don’t hear a John Williams score swelling in the background. Still, it’s hard not to feel like Indiana Jones as while climbing the four floors of literary and historical treasures housed at the William Reese Company.
Ensconced on the quieter side of Temple Street near Yale’s Old Campus, founder William Reese gives me a personal tour of the company’s impressive collection—a buyable museum, really, of thousands of maps, manuscripts and rare books dating far back into the recorded past of North and South America. Having just returned from a trunk show out in California, with a warm smile and a sigh of relief, Reese performs a show-and-tell of his latest finds for me: territorial contracts from the 1800s, tiny hand-sewn books detailing Native American linguistic speech patterns, dozens of original prints and illustrations from hundreds of years ago.
It’s really, really cool.
The man himself isn’t too shabby, either. Reese is studious and scholarly, as you’d imagine a rare book buyer and seller to be. His good-natured excitement about the work is contagious as he carefully walks, sans shoes, around the stacks on a sleepy Saturday afternoon, thumbing through the pages of old books.
Specializing in early Americana and literature, Reese earned his undergrad degree in History from Yale and has hung his hat in New Haven ever since. He describes the city as “an ideal location” given its academic traditions and the city’s proximity to New York and Boston, only a manageable train ride away from some of the world’s preeminent auction houses and educational libraries. For the rare book trade, the Elm City is the perfect mix of scholarship and location, location, location.
After working out of old lofts on Elm Street in the mid-1970s, Reese moved the company into two Civil War-era brownstones, which he first renovated and combined into a single structure, on Temple Street. He had purchased the then-houses from a pair of sisters who were artifacts in their own right: “When I bought this building from them, literally nothing had been done to it—no plumbing, heat, electricity or anything. The sisters were still going to bed by candlelight in 1979,” he says.
Whether by candlelight, bulb or iPhone glow, the William Reese Company’s home is a pleasure to explore: a gorgeous interior of hardwood floors and clean white walls, curated paintings and towering shelves teeming with alluring titles. Though the bulk of business comes from educational institutions, museums and private collectors, the space is also open to the inquiring public by appointment, during which visitors are able to speak one-on-one with Bill or one of his expert staff and are encouraged to take their time sifting through the extensive collection of over 30,000 catalogued items.
Of course, sifting through the company’s website requires no appointment, and, with substantive descriptions contextualizing and explaining each piece (new items and titles are added every Wednesday), it can make for an adventure all its own. Or you can get ahold of the nine beautiful, comprehensive catalogs the company produces every year to showcase its finds in rich, acute detail.
Whether it’s a rare collection of Frank O’Hara poetry, Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America or John James Audubon’s The Birds of America volumes, Reese says there’s something here for every discerning taste and interest. Even in this age of rapid change, age still matters; the older these titles and documents get, the more valued they become.
Some items that have passed through the William Reese Company collection are essentially priceless. “One of the really great things we’ve handled was the original manuscript of the Louisiana Purchase proclamation, and not too long ago, I sold one of the four known copies of the Gettysburg Address. We’ve handled a lot of major American documents, so it’s been quite a thrill.”
That’s an understatement for the history books.
William Reese Company
409 Temple Street, New Haven
Written and photographed by Courtney McCarroll.