By: Jonathan Ammons
Collector of seminal fantasy books speaks volumes about the culture
When do you know that your collection has become an obsession? Is it when you have to buy that fifth bookshelf? Maybe when you crack the seal on that tenth volume to house your rare stamps? Or is it when you get that notification from eBay that you’ve just sold your 50th piece of memorabilia?
“I’m working right now on my 22nd catalog of Inklings-related books,” says Stan Shelley, a C.S. Lewis and Tolkien Scholar who owns Shelley & Son Books in Hendersonville. “I started about 20 years ago selling books on the Internet, and maybe 15 years ago I went to a one-week seminar on how to be in the used-book business. But one of the things they said there was that you have to have a specialty.
“Within an hour, I’d selected the Inklings as my specialty — and it’s been phenomenal.”
Known as the fathers of modern fantasy writing, the Inklings were a small, informal literary discussion group from Oxford University who began meeting around 1930. The most famous writers that emerged from the group are The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings creator J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, author of the Chronicles of Narnia, a series of nine volumes that numbers the popular children’s classic The Lion, the Witch, & the Wardrobe. (Lewis is also well known for his works of Christian apologetics, including The Screwtape Letters, Mere Christianity, and The Problem of Pain.)
“There’s a list of 19 people that are considered to be Inklings, and a lot of those people can be kind of obscure, but if I can find their works, I put it in my catalog,” says Shelley. Other notable Inklings include Charles Williams — aka “The Oddest Inkling,” he wrote Descent into Hell and War in Heaven — and Owen Barfield, author of Silver Trumpet. (Barfield has been called “The First Inkling” for the influence his works, though written earlier and to less acclaim, eventually had on the writings of Lewis and Tolkien.)
But Shelley’s collection doesn’t just stop with the Inklings proper. “I try to go pretty deep into that world,” he says. For instance, C.S. Lewis’ wife Joy Davidman, a poet and nonfiction author, wrote books that are carried by Shelley. “I once had a first edition that she inscribed to her best friend [Bel Kaufman], the author of Up the Down Staircase,” he notes.
Beyond books, he also carries related — and usually very valuable — memorabilia. “I’ve had letters that Tolkien or Lewis wrote, I’ve had two of the contracts that Lewis signed with his publisher for his second and third books, I’ve got a handwritten poem by C.S. Lewis. I try to get the unusual things, but of course, I try to carry the first editions and autographed editions as much as possible, [too].”
He mentions Nightmare Alley, written in 1947 by William Lindsay Gresham, Joy Davidman’s first husband. “It was made into a movie in 1947 starring Tyrone Power, but they redid the movie recently and it’s really well done. Right now, I have a first edition of that book and it’s going to be in my next catalog for $500.
“If you’re a collector of things related to C.S. Lewis, that’s an interesting find.”
Plenty of people find joy and meaning in Tolkien and Lewis. But it takes a real scholar to become an Inklings obsessive. Shelley started out studying Lewis, “but got into Tolkien on the side,” he says. Before that, though, “in high school and college, I was really into Francis Schaeffer [a theologian and the author of 22 books],” he notes. “And eventually, I had a brother who went to Oxford and got his doctorate [there], and he became an early member of the Oxford C.S. Lewis society. He moved me onto C.S. Lewis, and that’s what got me into the Inklings.”
However, being an online bookseller is a topsy-turvy market, and while it may provide the opportunity for such obsessions as Shelley’s, it isn’t all there is to the game. “I don’t just do the Inklings … I have about 20,000 books, and only a few hundred of them are listed online,” he says.
Classic fantasy may mean the most to him personally, but for used-book dealers, genres are dictated by market trends or simply by opportunity.
“I buy estates, and if a guy had a collection of railroad books, then for a year I am a specialist in railroad books.”