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Meet Miranda Garno Nesler of Whitmore Rare Books in Pasadena

Today we’d like to introduce you to Miranda Garno Nesler.

Miranda Garno, let’s start with your story. We’d love to hear how you got started and how the journey has been so far.
I was always a reader; there was no better place to be than a bookstore or library, no better experience than opening up a book and immersing myself in another world. This has shaped every step of my career. Before joining Whitmore Rare Books, I earned my PhD from Vanderbilt University and spent over a decade as an academic. A specialist in early British literature and gender studies, I was dedicated to exploring how marginalized people used literature to participate in or disrupt mainstream culture. Because these voices weren’t always accessible in modern editions, I often found myself working with manuscripts and rare books in archives as far flung as the British Library, the Newberry and the Huntington Library.

It was during my time on a fellowship at the Huntington that my life and my career took a shift. Already I was feeling limited by my role as a professor, and by the need to apply for grants, prove the worth of my project, and get course releases to do my work. For 6 weeks at the Huntington, I had rare books and manuscripts at hand every day; I could be immersed. It was also during this fellowship that I met my partner, a native Angeleno. It wasn’t long before I decided that I was going to live in Pasadena, and that I needed to find a position where I could handle rare materials directly and every day, instead of only during grant-funded travel.

Through colleagues, I met Dan Whitmore, who founded Whitmore Rare Books in 2010. Dan had already established the shop as a world-class destination where collectors could find exceptional condition first edition books, ranging from Shakespeare, to Mark Twain, to Darwin. Since joining the team, I’ve expanded what we do by drawing more women and authors of color into the inventory, and by serving as a liaison to institutional clients. At WRB, I get a chance to help universities and museums locate material by the same marginalized voices I was studying, and I help make it easier for current and future scholars to access those materials in their own libraries.

We’re always bombarded by how great it is to pursue your passion, etc – but we’ve spoken with enough people to know that it’s not always easy. Overall, would you say things have been easy for you?
In any career, I think there are challenges. I’ve been lucky that mine all pushed me in a direction that made sense.

In the beginning, it seemed like my career path would move in one clear direction. I decided when I was 15 that I wanted to be a professor of literature; that’s a young age to start single mindedly pursuing a goal! But I was driven and I did it. I finished my BA in 3 years, my MA in 1 year, and my PhD in 4 years, making me a doctor at age 27. I came out of the gate following my defense and got a tenure line position in my field, despite the recession. My book was revised, I was handling a full slate of grant-work. It looked like I had it all. And that was where the first struggle came. Once I had a chance to reflect on the work I had done and the work I was doing, I realized it wasn’t making me happy. I was just going through the motions — pursuing goals, feeling no reward, and moving on to the next goal.

Admitting that I wanted a rewarding career and a personal life was hard. In academia you’re frequently trained to sacrifice a personal life. For a long time, I was exceptionally good at 85 hour weeks and constant travel. Meeting someone I cared about, though, opened my eyes to how unbalanced my life was. Because less than 2% of people in my field get university jobs, you move to where you’re hired. My job was in Indiana and my partner was in California. This meant I had to leave the career I had spent 15 years building. There was a huge sense of grief and loss in doing that.

Finding the position at Whitmore Rare Books didn’t happen right away. I’ll be honest that I went through a few years of fine-tuning. I did social media consulting for a variety of companies, and I learned that just because you’re good at something doesn’t mean you enjoy it. I helped build a private library for a major foundation and learned that just because you have access to rare materials doesn’t mean you won’t miss having colleagues.

Ultimately, figuring out what didn’t fit led me to continue my education. I got a scholarship to the Colorado Antiquarian Book Seminar, where I met amazing people working in the rare book world. I started to meet people who could see potential in me that I wasn’t even aware of, since I was new to the book trade. It was when I told several of them that I was interviewing as a librarian that they intervened: they felt I could serve the academic community better by working with curators, not being one. Two instructors introduced me to Dan, and like them, he could see new possibilities for his shop and for me. By taking a leap, I found the dream job I didn’t even know to dream about.

We’d love to hear more about your business.
Since opening in 2010, Whitmore Rare Books has set itself apart as a specialist in exceptional first edition books of literary merit. What this means is that WRB acquires titles that either changed history or that people have an emotional connection to, and we build our inventory on the best possible copies of those rare books. Having an umbrella like this means that on the one hand, we carefully curate our stock — a piece has to be recognizably important, rare, and in great condition. On the other hand, there’s a beautiful flexibility, because “books of merit” can mean something like Charles Darwin’s first edition Origin of Species, or a first edition of The Little Prince. “Exceptional condition” can, for a condition collector, mean a pristine book; for an institution, it can mean research-rich and filled with contemporary marginalia.

This flexibility also allows for evolution, which has been key to our shop’s success and expansion to a new location on Union St. In the past year, works by well-known women’s rights activists such as Susan B. Anthony and Millicent Fawcett have become fixtures in the shop, as have important literature by women authors of color including Angelina W. Grimke, Angela Y. Davis, and Toni Morrison. “Books of merit” have been created by men and women of all colors and creeds, and we work hard to use our shop’s inventory to create a more rounded, diverse canon.

I’m proud of the fact that for WRB our areas of expertise allow us to serve a diverse population of collectors. We work with experienced collectors, young collectors who are just beginning to discover rare books, and institutional curators who are acquiring material to support educational programs.

What were you like growing up?
My sense of adventure was both intellectual and physical. One of the best experiences in the world was to read a book and encounter new places, ideas, and people (real or imagined). But I think that drove me to feel a very real wanderlust — an antsy need to move and actually discover the world.

From ages 4 to 32 I was an equestrian. I suppose you could blame Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty, or the fact that I grew up in Texas. Either way, when I wasn’t reading, I was in the saddle. I trained and competed in a range of Western sports, including barrel racing, western pleasure, cutting, ranch riding, and reining. Quarter horses had my heart, and I had my first horse until she was 28.

I’ve also always been a traveler. My parents believed that this was a critical part of my education; so summers were meant for travel, not working. Each year, I did an international trip on my own. I presented a plan, a learning goal, and budget to my parents; we’d negotiate and then away I’d go. It’s how I discovered a love of Italian architecture, English literature, and French music, food, and wine.

I think that working with horses, experiencing new cultures, and constantly reading also gave me a sense of responsibility. So I always sought out organizations where I could contribute, whether I was volunteering to rehabilitate rescue horses, organizing fundraisers for AIDS and cancer related groups, or tutoring students at local schools who wanted to take the SAT/ACT but didn’t have the ability to attend the same prep courses that my parents put me in. There was some sense that things had been given to me for no other reason than that I was lucky. Using that privilege and sharing its benefits has always seemed important.

Contact Info:

  • Address: 121 E. Union St.
    Pasadena, CA 91103
  • Website: WhitmoreRareBooks.com
  • Phone: 626-714-7720
  • Email: info@whitmorerarebooks.com
  • Instagram: @WhitmoreRareBooks
  • Twitter: @WRareBooks


Image Credit:
Photos c/o Whitmore Rare Books

Getting in touch: VoyageLA is built on recommendations from the community; it’s how we uncover hidden gems, so if you know someone who deserves recognition please let us know here.

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