Dehlia McCobb graduated from the Portland State University Book Publishing program in 2010. Now she spends her days just north of the PSU campus in the Rare Book Room at Powell’s City of Books. We caught up with her to find out what it’s like having possibly the coolest job in Portland.
What is your job title?
I’m a used book buyer and a member of the used book buyer team at Powell’s. There are a number of us who rotate shifts on the buying counter. I’m part of that team, but I spend most of my hours in the Rare Book Room, and that’s kind of a unique position. I’m really the only one of us who spends that much time in here.
What does an average day in the Rare Book Room entail?
Every day, we have an average of five books that come in, and we sell about five books. It really rotates, but it’s kind of a small collection so it’s noticeable change. I usually gather up books that came in the day before and prepare them to be put on the retail website. I look over the condition and I write up detailed notes on every book so collectors—especially collectors who can’t come in and look at the book in person—have an accurate description of what they’re getting. I also take photos of the books for the website. It’s partly that and partly customer service. We have people coming in all day long. Some people are just here because they have questions about rare books or have questions about evaluating books they have at home. I also help people who are interested in purchases. It’s a little bit of everything.
How did you get such a cool job?
I have worked at Powell’s for almost twenty years. I started in 1995, and I discovered I was really interested in used books and older books. When I first started working with rare books—maybe eight or nine years ago—I was just so excited to see them when they came in. Part of it’s the unpredictability. Because the books in this collection come to us from people who bring them to us, we just absolutely never know what’s coming through the door next, so there’s always that element of mystery and surprise to it all. I really enjoy that. I started working with the person who was full time in here before me, then when he left I started spending more time in here. It was a gradual transformation.
What is your favorite book in the Rare Book Room?
One of the best ones was a book of poetry by John Keats that once had been owned by Jack Kerouac, so it had his name in the front and had some passages underlined in the back that he had actually mentioned in his On the Road journals, so it seemed like he probably was carrying it around at the time of On the Road. And we’ve just had some really great autographs over time. We had a book signed by John F. Kennedy once. We have a book now that was signed by Eleanor Roosevelt. There are just so many.
What’s something many people don’t know about the Rare Book Room?
I guess that rare books don’t always have to do with age. We define “rare” as something that’s both scarce and in demand. It can actually be something recent as well as something older. Older books are more likely to be scarce, but newer books can be scarce, too. For example, the first book in the Harry Potter series is very highly sought after right now. I get lots of questions from people who see newer books in here and ask what the word “rare” really means.
Did any of your classes in the Book Publishing program or projects through Ooligan Press specifically prepare you to work with rare books?
There is a class called Archaeology of the Book and it does go into some of the same topics. As part of that class we went to the Multnomah County Library and Lewis & Clark College, and they have really great rare book collections.
Do you have any advice for students who are interested in rare books?
People can always come and ask questions. We love to explain about the older books in here, and I do a tour once a term for the Intro to Book Publishing class, where I answer the initial questions of what is a rare book, where do the books come from, and I get to point out some of the showpieces in here that are exciting. I can answer anything from questions about specific books in here to how to look after your own books if you have old ones or just want to take care of them so they don’t get damaged. We can also answer questions about how you can find out prices on your own if you have an old book in your collection and you’re wondering if it’s valuable or not.
You can visit Dehlia at Powell’s City of Books, located at 1005 W. Burnside Sreet. The Rare Book Room is located on the third level and is open to the public daily from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.