A place for all things Lincoln—with a modern twist
Daniel Weinberg and Bjorn Skaptason of Chicago’s Abraham Lincoln Book Shop bring the traditional book signing into the 21st century
What was the impetus for starting a shop specializing in Abraham Lincoln?
Dan Weinberg: It started with Carl Sandburg and Lloyd Lewis. Ralph Newman had a bookshop called “Home of Books” that he opened in 1932. His location was close to the Chicago Daily News—may it rest in peace—and two of their leading journalists, Lewis and Sandburg, kept coming into the shop. They became friends with Ralph and kind of turned him, as I like to say, toward the dark side: toward the Civil War and Lincoln studies.
In 1938 Ralph decided to rename his store the Abraham Lincoln Book Shop and specialize in Lincolniana.
Tell us about your Virtual Book SigningTM events.
Dan Weinberg: We’ve been doing them for about five years. We occasionally had book signings at our shop, but publishers weren’t sending authors to us—we weren’t big enough. And when they did, very few people showed up. So I said, “OK, let’s go to them.” I got a camera, a soundboard, put lights up. I told the publishers, “We’ll give you a platform for the world through a live Webcast.” Doris Kearns Goodwin, she had just done Team of Rivals—she was our first author.
We sit at this table and discuss the books with the authors while we film it. While we’re live, maybe 50–75 people will be watching. People can e-mail us questions while we’re live, and the authors look right into the camera and answer them. And we archive everything online. Now the large publishers—HarperCollins, Random House, etc.—are beating on our door.
Do you ever get complaints from the authors who come in?
Dan Weinberg: They love coming here. A couple of them, when the publishers weren’t going to pay for their travel, have come in on their own. They love doing it because: One, we read their books, and, secondly, we have knowledge about this area. It’s not just that it’s a Civil War bookshop doing this; we have some cogent questions, and they’re able to talk at length about the different areas of their books. Usually we have their books lined up on the table when they come in, and we stack up what we’ve sold before they even start talking. They’re always amazed at how many books have sold.
The real problem is that getting the word out to the general Civil War public is somewhat difficult, especially to the Civil War roundtables. Most people don’t understand what we’re doing; it’s a new concept for them. But it’s really allowing the public to see authors who otherwise they may not ever hear or see. Because it’s a “virtual” book signing, it means they are virtually here with us, even though it might be Theresa in Afghanistan or it’s the Smith family in Florida. Wherever they are in the country, they’re here with us. We have a loyal following.
Are these predominantly Civil War?
Dan Weinberg: No, it’s also Lincoln, U.S. presidents and American historical nonfiction, all of which we believe has a large audience. How many places do authors go to? Not many; there are maybe 11 cities in the country that they will go to if they’re well known enough, and most just don’t go.
Is this lucrative, or just something you’re passionate about?
Dan Weinberg: There’s passion involved, but we’re a retail shop and we have to do things that keep us open. We feel that the Virtual Book Signing sessions do more than just sell books, however. I think a lot of people would like to take advantage of this if they knew about it and understood it—if they were able to build up a signed, first-edition collection of the best books coming out. But we’re also antiquarians, and the Virtual Book Signings open up other areas for us. For instance, during our shows we put out book blasts of some of the other antiquarian things we have here in the shop. We always try to show some sort of artifact, something from the Civil War period that will lead to a question about that particular book.
Bjorn Skaptason: The core of our business is having educated customers, so even though Virtual Book Signing events are profitable ventures, the equally profitable aspect of it is keeping the customers engaged, keeping them in a conversation and letting them know what else is out there, that there is another way to pursue their passion.
Dan Weinberg: This is more than just a hobby. You have to be engaged and be thinking when you’re doing this. That is one of the aspects that makes it so enjoyable.
Are your backgrounds in Lincoln and the Civil War? Have you always been history buffs?
Dan Weinberg: I think like all of us in this, we started out as history buffs as kids. Bjorn has worked at Shiloh National Military Park and leads tours; he’s a historian of Shiloh. I always liked ancient history. I got into Tudor-Stuart England when I was in graduate school at NYU, but there was no way to make a living out of it. So I worked in a bookshop part-time and liked it—the late, great Paperback City—and I met Ralph through mutual friends. He had been looking for someone to eventually take it [the bookshop] over, and the rest is history.
The shop started as a place for a meeting of the minds, of an intellectual pursuit of Lincoln and the Civil War. When did it get to a point where it is now, where you were out there looking for rare documents, artifacts and so forth?
Dan Weinberg: I think things come to one who specializes. Ralph [Newman] was finding that things were coming to him, especially autographs that he bought, that he went out into. I don’t think he knew as much about other areas that I finally had to learn, like photography. He had some idea of prints, but he didn’t have the space for it, didn’t really show it—he was more into broadsides, if they were there, rare broadsides. He didn’t go into the campaign material and the assassination artifacts; he didn’t carry artifacts as much as I do. I like the three-dimensional as well as the books, so I brought that aspect to the shop.
Have you come across what you’d call a “once-in-a-lifetime” item yet?
Dan Weinberg: A number of them: Lincoln’s first elective signature; a signature that he misspelled; a desk from inside the Wilmer McClean House at Appomattox. That was one of three desks that were present and used there—it’s the third time I’ve had that desk. We also have a General Order No. 9, by Robert E. Lee, from the field—it comes with a good story. So, there are things like that that come in that are unique and unique-ish.
Are these items you plan to sell them at some point?
Dan Weinberg: We’re a retail shop. We may look like a museum, but we’re a retail shop.
So, if Donald Trump comes in and says, “I’ll give you $20,000 for that,” you’ll sell it?
Dan Weinberg: If it’s a $20,000 item, yes. We’re retail. I once had a piece with Lincoln’s first elective signature that I was telling you about, from the Black Hawk War. But it came to me way too early. I couldn’t afford to keep it. I needed to sell it, and it’s gone—I’ll never get it back. The [Gilder] Lehrman Collection has it; he [Lewis Lehrman] bought it—one of the first items he ever collected. That misspelled signature I have in my office, though, is mine. I’m keeping that, it’s too unique. But the first time I had it, I sold it. I had to do that. But pieces seem to return to us over time.
We’re a museum, but with a certain amount of money you can walk away with any exhibit.
Bjorn Skaptason: This shop exists within a business that plays a very important role in the cultural history of the country. In a capitalist country, this shop is a kind of conduit through which public institutions sometimes get very valuable collections.
Dan Weinberg: That’s always been the case with collectors and institutions of this sort. I don’t think a collector or an institution can survive without the dealer, and vice versa. It’s a very symbiotic relationship. We can become close friends as well as dealing between each other. That’s why this is a wonderful area to be a retailer in, because it’s not widgets: it’s something real, something interesting—everything here has a story. And it’s our challenge, I suppose, to find out that story and make it interesting for an institution or an individual collector, who will want to curate it as well. We very much feel that we’re curating for the next generation. Getting it into the right hands as well is part of our mission here.
The desk from the McLean House: Would Appomattox or the Museum of the Confederacy want that?
Dan Weinberg: I believe they do want it if they could get it. This economic environment is a little skewed—a lot skewed, actually. If this was five years ago, I think I could have found a place for it. But now it’s more difficult. I am sure they would have some interest. To see if they want a ready-made collection of that desk, that General Order [No. 9], which has a great story, and that piece of a flag of truce, with Custer writing a note that this is part of the surrender flag. Just a little part of it, you know. They cut it up and gave it out as souvenirs.
What’s the rarest book you have here?
Dan Weinberg: That changes. Right now, I guess it’s a signed Lincoln-Douglas Debate book, the only one on which he ever put the date and the place, as president-elect, and he inscribed it to the person who made the publication possible
How much would something like that go for?
Dan Weinberg: $150,000. I’d rather put another 50-plus on it, but in today’s economy…
How much would he have sold it for three years ago?
Dan Weinberg: $225,000. It’s comparable as a pencil—it’s the best pencil one available. Lincoln signed four ink examples, till he observed that the ink spread and that paper was so porous, it went to the next page…porous, feathered. And, so, he finally went to pencil, which is the forger’s delight, yet nonetheless that’s what he did. The best ink one was the one he gave to Stephen Logan, his second law partner; that’s considered the best, and that brought $246,000 five, six, seven years ago. So I think this one today, if we didn’t have this depression, would have been comparable, or close to comparable, with that. Another pencil inscribed copy just sold for over $184,000! Ours, in importance, is certainly comparable to that one.
What’s your normal business day like? Do customers simply come in off the street, or do they contact you mainly by phone or e-mail?
Dan Weinberg: We’re an open shop, but now with the Internet we’re known even more widely—word of mouth and what-not. Collectors do come in, especially since Chicago is an intersection of the rest of the nation, much as it was actually during the Civil War. But we’re not trying to get people off the street; we’re too narrowly oriented.
Is your appreciation of Lincoln and the Civil War different now?
Dan Weinberg: The thing about Lincoln is that he is a gateway to the Civil War. I have to say that there’s a demarcation line between the Lincoln buff and the Civil War buff, and each of them forgets about Lincoln as commander in chief. The Lincoln people are, I think, a little more interested in him as a lawyer, and who he was, and, yes, the war too. But they don’t always get into the minutiae of the war. The Civil War people tend to restrict their appreciation of Civil War command to the famous generals, but they forget just how hands-on Lincoln was, especially his use of tools like the telegraph, which Jeff Davis should have thought of using but didn’t.
That is impressive.
Dan Weinberg: I was born and raised in Chicago, so Lincoln is in my DNA like any Illinoisan. It just is—you can’t help it. I did find coming here [to this shop] and, learning more, that the mythology of the man is indeed true. That really is what that man was. He was a man who misspelled his name, and he may not have wanted his sister to marry an African American, but he felt as he felt about slavery, about freedom, about the unity of the country, about honesty, about ethics, how to be an ethical lawyer. So that really was the man. And, of course, this opened up the Civil War for me. There is a lifetime of stories in those five years: Secession to the end, assassination and afterward.
Maybe coming out of the Vietnam era, I got a little more of a patriotic tone going back into the Civil War again—that patriotism had left me a bit during Vietnam personally. I knew the World War II guys and what they had done—that generation was amazing—but so were the Civil War people—on either side, for that matter. Working here has given me a greater appreciation of how people went through their lives, what they had to deal with and the decisions they had to make. Reading Nora Titone’s book, I was kind of surprised how unionist John Wilkes Booth was just before the war when he was in Montgomery, Alabama, and Stephen Douglas came down there trying to keep the union together and was pelted with eggs, etc., and he [Booth] supported Douglas. But then he came up North, and for various reasons—he said his brother and other things—he turned around in a very short time.
It’s easy to overanalyze the Obama and Lincoln comparisons, but do you think Lincoln could have been elected in the political environment we have today?
Dan Weinberg: I would hope so; I would think so. I do think the looks aspect would have to be different. He wouldn’t have had the tosseled hair—the tosseled hair wouldn’t have worked on TV. They wouldn’t have allowed that.
I thought where Obama intersected with Lincoln, besides a number of different things—such as their mothers dying when they were young—Illinois has always been the crossroads of many different political cultures and stripes, because we go from here in Chicago up to the Wisconsin border and down to Cairo, [which is farther] south of Richmond. Cairo and that area, Egypt, was where the only Illinois Confederate regiment came from. In the middle area of the state, where Springfield is, was Lincoln’s district, his legal circuit. He came across all those different types of people and had to deal with all of them, and in doing so, he became a centrist politically, who could then relate to those very different political stripes.
Bjorn Skaptason: Being from Illinois is more than a random, coincidental connection between the two of them, because the state still has some very deep strange political roots: A political culture that a certain type of politician comes out of.
Are there other endeavors or projects you might consider that you feel would adapt well in the Internet world?
Bjorn Skaptason: Very much so. We were the first people to treat an online book event in a simple-to-understand way: that it’s a TV show where you’re part of it, and you watch it and you interact. Every other commercial venture that tried to sell books using the Internet in some way was more techy, more huge…you have to be the first person with Skype on your block, you know; you had to do all that kind of stuff. And I think what we had from the beginning was something that concentrated on what our customers want, which is talking about Civil War books and Lincoln books and just using technology to do that. For that reason, our business model has remained very healthy without major overhauls. We’ve added stuff, of course. To achieve a social network, we started a Facebook page, a Twitter page….But the core idea is to provide content and a product that people want, a great conversation to watch, participate in and a few days later have your signed first-edition book arrives in the mail.
Dan Weinberg: Things have changed, as you know, and print—whether it’s a magazine or a book—has its problems, and we all have to deal with new technology. It’s not bad, it’s not good—it just is. And you just deal with technology as it comes. We’re now a 19th-century shop that’s trying to be a 21st-century model. Bjorn was able to do something about it, with Sylvia Castle and others here, they were able to get us into the Internet because we have to, that’s where we are, and that’s where we’re going to be—there’s no two ways about it. And we tried to do it with the camera, soundboard and lights, and try to go to our clients, because the Internet is where they’re going to be. They’re not going to physically go to things as much as they’re going to be on the Internet. So we try to keep people’s hobbies alive by connecting with them. You’re not just there on your computer by yourself. You may go to Civil War Round Tables, if you’re lucky to have one near you. You may go to a reenactment and be wowed, but maybe that’s over and then what? I think this is a way to keep a hobby alive as well in people’s minds, so they can connect and enjoy and know that there are other people out there doing this, too.
Bjorn Skaptason: Perhaps there will be a “virtual” Civil War roundtable some day. Until then, our Virtual Book Signing events are as close as you get to that.