Paper Chase

T he Jumping Frog, named for Mark Twain’s breakout short story and just a hop away from the Mark Twain House in Hartford, is a bookstore worth making the 45-minute leap up I-91. Open by appointment, its roughly 15,000 used and rare books make for an absorbing in-person browse, though its nearly 175,000 non-book paper objects, mostly filed away in tall archival stacks, are best searched online (via AbeBooks, eBay or Jumping Frog’s website). If you do make an appointment, it’ll be founder and owner Bill McBride who meets you, and if your experience is like mine, you’ll find a man whose voice slides easily between le panache du conteur (he sometimes breaks into French) and the directness of a “curmudgeonly yankee” (his words).

“Books have integrity,” McBride says Yankeeishly. “They’re robust. They can handle handling.” And in a bookstore setting, especially one selling old and uncommon books, they’re an increasingly singular path to organic discovery. He draws a distinction between the traditional, expansive act of browsing—“looking around for something, but you don’t know what it is”—and the newer, narrower one: “looking for what you know,” or at least what you think you know. Though Jumping Frog has specialties—“Connecticut history and books by and about Mark Twain. We have strong holdings in military history [and] transportation in all forms, from kayaks to dirigibles. We have music, poetry, literature, of course. First editions and rare books. Presidential. Rare children’s books and just wonderful children’s books”—and organizes many of its books by category, I still found myself stumbling in delightfully undirected directions: toward a silver-plated Haggadah inlaid with semi-precious stone, a sumptuous copy of Isak Dinesen’s Seven Gothic Tales, a first edition of Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr. Fox. It was also fun to snoop, just a little, through piles of stuff in back, much of it fresh from an estate and waiting to be fully catalogued. At least one object from the haul had proved to be a major score: a rare early printing of the original Dungeons & Dragons set in great condition, which McBride said he’d already sold for more than $10,000.

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Around the time that set was produced, in 1974, McBride was just getting started in bookselling. “I came from a background of graphic design and typography,” McBride says, “so I always had a gravitation toward the printed thing.” His mentor in that earlier field, Bob Doherty, studied at the Yale School of Art under Josef Albers. But McBride’s closest New Haven connection comes through his wife, Deirdre—a direct descendant of the local Whitlock bookselling dynasty, proprietors for nearly a century of Whitlock’s Book Store in New Haven and, for more than half a century in Bethany, Whitlock Farm Booksellers, where Bill and Deirdre first met. (Manson Whitlock, decades-long proprietor of the equally locally legendary Whitlock’s Typewriter Shop, was Deirdre’s uncle.)

When, on his own steam, McBride opened Jumping Frog in 1983, he effectively added a branch to that family business tree. “I had been selling by catalog and by mail before that, for probably eight years,” he says. “We started with a tiny shop on South Whitney Street, 750 square feet.” After a move to a large space on Prospect Avenue followed by a short detour to West Hartford, Jumping Frog settled into the reclaimed industrial complex at 56 Arbor Street, where the business has spent the past 22 years connecting readers and collectors with the objects of their desire.

“Our primary idea was to buy for condition and edition,” McBride says. “The most important things that create value in a book—well, what do you think they are, if you were to guess? What makes value in a book?” I replied with a few sentences and managed, in the middle, to find the concept he was looking for. “Your second answer was exactly right: demand. A book can be very rare, but if there’s no demand for it—a religious tract from the 1860s, or a novel nobody read at the time let alone now—so what?” That said, if a demand for some object does exist, no matter how niche, it’s never been easier to find. Or rather, it’s never been easier to be found by the demand, thanks to the internet. “There’s a collector for almost every paper object,” McBride says. “We know this because we catalog it and say, ‘Huh. I don’t know about that one,’ but, five years later, there it is: the right thing in front of the right person,” just a web search away.

As if to prove the point, an eager customer called while we were talking, hoping to check on an order they’d placed for a set of vintage automotive ads. McBride assured him the items had been retrieved for packing and would be shipped “tomorrow, first-class,” gliding smoothly on the last syllable. And I’m a case in point, too, having stumbled onto The Jumping Frog while searching the internet for vintage New Haven objects, eventually walking away with a purchase of about 40 turn-of-the-century postcards.

But McBride isn’t just a buyer and seller of published materials. He’s also a publisher. In 1983, he compiled and published a comprehensive bibliography of Mark Twain’s work. “It sold okay,” he recalls. “It was self-published, but it’s a scholarly work. It’s in many libraries, and it’s the only illustrated bibliography, with pictures of every book and the title pages.” McBride also wrote and published at least seven editions of A Pocket Guide to the Identification of First Editions—what he calls “the definitive work in the world on the market,” using a set of codes to tell collectors how to identify true first editions published by a dizzying yet compact list of some 6,000 publishers. For collectors of first editions, he notes, the portability conferred by the pocket sizing is crucial. “If you have a guide like that and it’s sitting at home, it’s no help to you when you’re out in the field—when you’re in another bookstore or at a flea market or tag sale or auction. You need this information at hand.”

Unless, of course, you’re shopping at The Jumping Frog itself, where the author of the book on the identification of first editions is the person identifying the books.

Written and photographed by Dan Mims.

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Dan has worked for a couple of major media companies, but he likes Daily Nutmeg best. As DN’s editor, he writes, photographs, edits and otherwise shepherds ideas into fully realized feature stories.

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