Bookends Say Volumes About What's on Your Shelves

Hot collectibles include sand-filled cowboy boots and high-priced sculptures.

For most of us, bookends are little more than brackets: Necessarily utilitarian, sometimes decorative.

An informal poll of young professionals yields two bricks, bowling pins, cement gargoyles, 64-ounce cans of tomato soup, and short cowboy boots filled with sand. After all, keeping books in good standing is important, whether for collectors, college students, or rainy-day readers.

Indeed, bookends need not come out of a foundry or an artist's studio. But booklovers all agree that there are three things a bookend should be: tall enough, wide enough, and heavy.

For book collector Charles Gruber, "if you love your books, you tenderly put them together." And then you just as tenderly find the right bookends for them, he says.

A brief history

The real push for bookend manufacturing started in the 1920s. One can speculate that people started reading a lot more.

Many of the foundries that made doorstops also made bookends; in fact today, collectors often confuse large bookends with small doorstops, says Terry Kovel, an antique and collectibles expert based in the Cleveland area.

During the Arts and Crafts movement, artisans crafted handmade pieces from copper or clay. Sometimes bookends would come as part of a desk package with a pen rest, blotter ends, stamp box, and lamp.

Given Mr. Gruber's propensity for acquiring valuable classics, such decorative weights hold important positions in his household.

In the Boston town house he shares with his wife, Kathy, for example, you might see an old New England seaman and a harp player bookending a row that contains a first-edition "Walden," as well as first editions of "Leaves of Grass" and "Moby Dick." Or a cowboy on horseback and an Indian on horseback set flanking a row that shows a 1726 edition of "Gulliver's Travels."

On Mrs. Gruber's side of the living room, an Art Deco flower looks light, but upholds a substantial row of women writers, hyphenated by a framed letter written by Sylvia Plath dated 1959.

Ms. Kovel and her husband, Ralph, have a bit more volume on their hands. They own 16,000 books. "Fifteen years ago we started buying bookends, and I was a real sport to spend more than $15," remembers Terry. Now, pairs can run $75 on into the thousands.

The Kovels' most recent price list has a pair of Pelican bookends made by Edgar Brandt in 1925 listed for $6,000. Other bookends, such as those depicting past presidents, run around $30.

The first time the Kovels included a separate listing in their annual "Antiques and Collectibles Price List" for bookends was in 1985, which points to a recent surge in interest in the small collectibles.

Objets d' art

Some of the more modern bookends, Kovel notes, are done in chrome "which is very '50s." Her personal favorites include heavy cast-iron figures, such as the Lincoln Monument, Liberty Bell, "The Thinker," and "all sorts of monks reading books."

One of her most unusual bookends is a piece of opaque amber-colored glass molded like a ship.

"You drop bookends more than you might think when you're constantly arranging or rearranging books," she says, "and that one would not be a choice one to drop."

So interested in these silent stalwarts of publishing was Gerald McBride that he wrote the book "A Collector's Guide to Cast Metal Bookends" (Schiffer, 1997). He writes that his "passing curiosity grew into an interest in, and an admiration for, the founders' art." And the fascination in the different designs, styles, and manufacturing processes led him to investigate.

For people intent on keeping their books from doing the sideways slide, just how important is one's choice of bookends? And can you judge a person by a bookend?

"Very important and absolutely," answers Claire Pertalion, an assistant director of independent films in New York and an avid reader. "People's personality comes through, just as in their choice of books." She's not sure though what her bookends say about her personality or take on literature.

She tells the story of how she burned two loaves of raisin bread one night. "I fell asleep and they came out so black and so heavy. I honestly couldn't tell you how the idea came to me, but I decided to use them as bookends."

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