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Martin Holden’s Handsome Books

on April 10, 2009


Handsome Books

Handsome Books

The business card of Martin Holden, the proprietor of Handsome Books, is not handsome. It’s actually kind of grotesque, a pencil sketch of a troll-faced, long-snouted, pointy eared fop, by the looks of him. Why would an esteemed dealer of rare, decoratively bound books announce his trade this way? “It’s such a dreadfully serious business. So much snobbery and precociousness. I decided to give it a little tweak,” says Holden, in his rather serious, glasses-on-the-bridge-of-the-nose voice.

No bibliophile wants to be taken for that sort of bibliophile, I’ve noticed: the insufferable know-it-all, the glum brainiac. Holden has the voice — and spectacles — of a bona fide book fiend, but he’s completely amiable, and he has hilarious things to say about the business of rare books. His small but crammed shop is at the back of University Press Books at Bancroft and Telegraph near UC Berkeley, and he houses some real treasures back there.

There’s Victorian, Art & Crafts, Art Nouveau, and Art Deco fare, with an emphasis on beautiful, strange, and rare bindings. My favorite is Things Worth Doing, a 1914 “how-to” book for young girls. It’s 444 pages of directions on how girls can entertain themselves, and, unlike what you’d expect from the early 20th-century, baking and doilies take a backseat to fort building and beach combing. According to Holden, the authors, Lina and Adelia Beard, and their brother, Dan Beard, helped found the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts movements.




  1. grace on October 27, 2009 at 2:43 pm

    what happened to Handsome Books?
    No website to visit.

  2. joanne on May 15, 2010 at 7:05 pm

    is handsome books out of business now. no longer have a web site?

  3. blues driver on May 24, 2010 at 5:25 am

    check out as an alternative. They are doing the same sort of thing. Classic literature in Victorian fine bindings and such.

  4. […] Instructor: MARTIN HOLDEN is a writer, restoration ecologist, and partner in University Press Books, Berkeley. SHARON BEALS is a Bay Area environmentalist and professional photographer, specializing in native habitats and restoration efforts. Her most recent book, Nest: Fifty Nests and the Birds that Built Them (Chronicle Books) will be in bookstores in May. […]

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