Every day, Matt Raptis holds Western civilization in his hands.
He can page through Captain James Cook’s illustrated account of his 18th century journeys to the South Pacific, follow Charles Darwin’s evolutionary reasoning in an original 1859 copy of “The Origin of Species” ($350,000), trace Don Quixote’s adventures in an edition printed in 1652 ($9,800) or decide what to cook for dinner from two volumes of “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” signed by Julia Child herself ($5,500.)
Or maybe just read “The Cat in the Hat” to his two young children, from an original printing inscribed by Dr. Seuss (Theodor Geisel) himself ($14,000.)
Raptis’ books are too precious to be read casually; many of the pages too ancient and brittle for idle turning. The books he and his wife and business partner, Adrienne, have lovingly shelved behind glass doors at their newly-opened Raptis Rare Books on Worth Avenue are to rare book fans what a Van Gogh is to art collectors.
“It’s like a piece of art, but you have a personal connection to it,” said Adrienne. “A particular book may have changed the way you think, or maybe changed the culture.”
Or created one.
Footnote: American culture, 18th to early 20th century. “The Last of the Mohicans,” James Fenimore Cooper’s tale of life among Native Americans in 1757 ($17,500), first edition of Mark Twain’s 1885 “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” ($8,200) and a first edition of “Tender is the Night,” signed by F. Scott Fitzgerald in 1934 ($65,000.)
The Raptis’ keep heady company.
As a child, Matt, 37, was besotted by history, especially the bloody reckoning of the Civil War.
He was still in elementary school near Saratoga, New York when he bought — not a Nintendo or skateboard or the latest cool pair of sneakers — but the first of what would become his life’s passion and his career.
For $25, he purchased a first edition of General Ulysses S. Grant’s two-volume memoir.
He was 11.
A collection was born. A life’s course was set.
“I was always an avid reader, especially of history, and I started collecting the books I read,” said Raptis.
His collection has grown to thousands of volumes worth multiple millions, carefully culled over the years during buying trips to 70 countries.
Until last month, the Raptis’ ran their rare book business out of their Brattleboro, Vermont home.
In searching for a place to open their first shop, they chose Palm Beach, for the weather and proximity to family members. They settled initially in a West Palm Beach condo while deciding where to put down more permanent roots.
They opened the doors to the shop on Nov. 1.
Inside, volumes in gold-embossed red, brown and dark green leather gleam like jewels behind glass-fronted cases.
While the Raptis’ purchase most of their books from fellow collectors — or their estates — they did make a remarkable discovery once in a New England bookstore.
In a New Hampshire book shop not far from reclusive author J.D. Salinger’s home, they found a signed first edition of “Catcher in the Rye. They paid $1.
“It sold for $80,000,” said Matt.
Like art curators, the couple also consult with rare book collectors building their collections.
“We build libraries for our clients,” said Matt. “We find titles that they’ve been looking for for years.”
Inside their jewel box of a shop are books with a Palm Beach connection, such as “Profiles in Courage, ($22,000), written by John F. Kennedy while he lay strapped to a board at his father’s north end mansion following back surgery. From Jackie Kennedy’s estate comes a copy of “Why England Slept” ($40,000), also written by the future president, who inscribed it to his mother, Rose Kennedy.
And there are books that influenced generations, such as a first edition of James Baldwin’s raging “Go Tell It On the Mountain, ($9,800) and a hand-corrected manuscript of a speech Martin Luther King, Jr. gave in South Carolina in 1966 ($30,000.)
Less profound books are valuable for making a lasting mark on popular culture, such as a 1953 first edition of Ian Fleming’s first James Bond book, “Casino Royale ($48,000) or a signed copy of Mario Puzo’s first edition of “The Godfather” ($20,000.)
Pynchon, Faulkner, Hemingway, Vonnegut, Kesey and even Roald Dahl. The Raptis’ have first editions of them all.
Students of economics looking for a way forward in uncertain times might find clues in the past from a wide variety of dense tomes by preeminent scholars of the dismal science.
“We specialize in economics books, as well as modern first editions,” said Matt.
Would knowing that his 1776 edition of “Wealth of Nations” is priced at $32,500 have altered Adam Smith’s theories on building wealth?
When current reality becomes too much, rare editions of photo books by Henri Cartier-Bresson, Eve Arnold and Ed Ruscha offer glimpses of the way we once were.
Opening a book store in the Age of Amazon is a bold move, even on one of the world’s premier shopping streets.
But the Raptis’ are betting that the lure of being able to see and touch their books’ unique blend of history, rarity and popular culture will prove irresistible to bibliophiles.
By the way, doting grandparents looking for a Christmas gift might want to pick up a copy of the children’s classic, “The Very Hungry Caterpillar.”
The Raptis’ have a rare signed first edition version of Eric Carle’s most popular book for $27,500.
IF YOU GO
226 Worth Avenue
Palm Beach, FL