Raider of the lost art: Murian collects, sells antique books

Antique, rare books line the shelves of Alcuin Books. (Submitted photo)

Alcuin Books owner, Richard Murian, whose 81st birthday was Sept. 17, is like an Indiana Jones character in the famed movie series.

Much like following the archaeologist through adventures to recover sacred artifacts throughout the ends of the earth, Mr. Murian’s plot is to retrieve antique books. While he may not don the famous character’s whip and notorious hat, he can whip up some valuable books sought.

Richard Murian owns Alcuin Books at 4242 N. Scottsdale Road. (Submitted photo)

Within the many shelves of his nostalgic bookstore, at 4242 N. Scottsdale Road, he can be found perusing pages of preserved manuscripts in his Old Town Scottsdale store that deals only in first editions and antique, rare books and even autographs.

“We have a serious selection of rare, scholarly and limited editions with important ephemera in a variety of fields,” Mr. Murian says.

In addition to unearthing and maintaining an inventory of more than 12,000 books, with more than 7,000 found online, he offers free estimates of valuable pieces and gives professional written appraisals at the store.

The octogenarian uses his educational background with an emphasis on medieval and renaissance studies to explore social and intellectual history, mainly to enlighten others, he notes.

“Now, if many see the new world of technology as offering a ‘new dark ages,’ we believe the world of the book allows a greater vision than what occurs when people are dependent entirely upon the media,” states Mr. Murian.

Much like the bookstore’s name, Alcuin, recognizing a “man whose vast learning accompanied by his commitment to God had integrated faith with scholarship,” Mr. Murian mirrors the ancient Alcuin’s obsession with books and building libraries.

Proliferating and preserving manuscripts is as serious a business as those who seek antiquarian books, points out Mr. Murian. He and his associates are members of the American Booksellers Association of America and the International League of Antiquarian Booksellers.

“We have conducted appraisals since 2014 on the PBS program Arizona Collectibles as well as provide guest lectures and seminars at various locations,” Mr. Murian adds.

Browse through some of the fine, rare and special printings of limited editions in vast subjects from humanities to history and science as the book scholar shares his background and knowledge.

How long have you been in business?
I began Alcuin Books in 1979 in California. Since 1988, I have moved the book business to Arizona, first to an open store in Phoenix, then in 2002 to our present one in Scottsdale.

Briefly describe your business/services offered:
We have sought to acquire and offer for sale the finest copies of relatively uncommon books as well as important documents, photographs, and letters for the discriminating public.

Many interesting copies are not rare and expensive, although we have sold such important examples as first editions of the very rare Darwin’s Origin of Species and the very scarce Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language (1755).

What made you choose this line of work and why is it important/interesting to you?
My first pursuit of books was without purpose other than to buy cheap classics in the 1950s. But, I was drawn to see the importance of unusual and rare books beginning in 1970 when I met an extraordinary bookseller in California named Herb Caplan and eventually became part of the Antiquarian Booksellers Association of America, which brought me into contact with the most serious booksellers in the country.

Whether it was the books I first read in the public library in the early 1940s, or the rare 16th century Chaucer copies I purchased two years ago, it is the realm of history and ideas which continues to attract me. Of course, the world of books brings us into the confluence between the great minds of the past and the modern reader who interacts with them. We are now also finding young people who want nice copies of the classics but usually not very rare editions.

At the end of the day, what brings the most joy or is the most rewarding aspect about your business?
My greatest joy comes from placing a book in to the hands of either a young person who wants to read an inexpensive classic or when a serious collector finds an important item in the shop that has eluded them for years such as Theodore Roosevelt’s The Winning of the West (Daniel Boone edition) or Frank Lloyd Wright’s 12-volume monographs with the hundreds of notes of his chief assistant, Jack Howell.

I recently sold the only known copy of a Frederick Douglass item, which was previously unknown to Douglass scholars and bibliographers. It is part of the mix just as when we sell a nice children’s book for $15 to a child who reads.

What separates you from your competition?
I suppose my serious competition comes from booksellers in London, New York, Philadelphia and other major centers. The books that are unique create the market. Our fine editions range from fine first editions of Mark Twain and H.G. Wells to important books as early as 1481 and also include items signed by the first astronauts to land on the moon.

What civic groups/clubs/organizations or causes do you or your business support?
We support the Benevolent fund for retired or destitute booksellers administered by the ABAA, which helps booksellers both within and without the organization who have been victims of fire, theft, or other disasters. We also donate thousands of books to the annual VNSA sale in Phoenix.

Why did you choose to locate your business in the area?
Our Phoenix location was at Central and Camelback when light rail was proposed. We needed to find a new location.

The late George Chamberlain of the Antiquarian Shop, which graced Scottsdale Road for over 40 years suggested we locate next to him if we could negotiate a lease with the landlord. His shop is now gone but his willingness to extend his encouragement to us is why his memory lives on with older book collectors.

Tell readers about your family, ie: spouse, kids, pets?
I have been widowed since 1992 and have a lovely daughter in Phoenix as well as a sister living in Kentucky.

Where are you from?
I was born and raised in East St. Louis, Illinois. Lived in Dallas where I attended seminary, received a B.A., MLS, and MA degrees from the University of California with a masters of theology from Trinity.

Who was the biggest influence in your life?
The biggest influence in my life is a composite of some remarkable professors and booksellers all of whom but one have passed away. Whether it is those who taught me advanced Greek, a knowledge of European classics, or the art of understanding the history of books and printing, they each deserve a separate profile that someday I will write.

What advice would you give to someone contemplating starting their own business?
While it is not impossible to start a business in selling books, autographs and documents, it is not enough to own good material for it takes many years of experience to learn the nuances of the business.

The naïve beginner assumes some knowledge of the internet is sufficient, but to work at a high-professional level requires many years in working with important books and documents.

Of course, we have given some advice to those who have wanted to start a book business but often they are discouraged when they realize how much time and experience is required in becoming a serious book-selling professional rather than buying collectible books and imagining that is sufficient.

Anything interesting about yourself and your profession:
Alfred Lord Tennyson said: “I am a part of all that I’ve met.” Whatever might be of interest about me comes from those influences whether in the university, the culture of my youth, the books I’ve read and the booksellers I have learned from.

I am at the age where I synthesize from the Greek classics and the Bible, to modern historians, scientists and philosophers, as well as great authors. Of course, this kind of breadth is helpful in the business as well as to know one’s limitations and when to call a major bookseller to take advantage of their highly specialized levels of expertise.

Take a virtual tour and learn more about the unique bookstore at alcuinbooks.com. Or, call: 480-946-1969 for more information on rare texts sought.

Northeast Valley Editorial Assistant Delarita Ford can be reached by e-mail at dford@newszap.com.

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