Growing up, most children have a stuffed animal or special blanket they hold onto in the night to provide them comfort and security. Alex Koch was not like most kids, however. He had a small hardcover book of fairy tales that he would cuddle up to every night, and would wake up to book-shaped imprints the next morning.
Koch, 34, a senior parks and forest resources student at Unity College, has always had a passion for books even before he could read. Oddly enough, Koch was a late bloomer in that area. Once he could read on his own, however, it opened up a whole world for him that he hasn’t put down since. In addition to taking top honors in the 2017 National Collegiate Book Collecting Contest for his submission “The Breath and Breadth of the Maine Woods,” Koch was invited by the Ticknor Society to present at a roundtable at the 42nd Boston International Antiquarian Book Fair focused on starting a collection.
“I was honored to be asked to participate in this panel. I appreciate the Ticknor Society giving me the opportunity to present about my collection, collecting habits, and about forming a collection,” said Koch. “My hope was to convey that collecting is about love—love for a particular subject, author, bookbinder, printing press, or other theme. It doesn’t matter what books a person collects as long as they have a passion for it and gain something from the experience.”
Koch’s collecting reflects one of his other passions: being outdoors in the Maine woods. Koch, who was born and raised in Maine, collects both antiquarian and modern works with a preference for histories, poetry, and non-fiction. He also collects ephemera and maps related to the Maine woods, and his collection contains numerous rare, first-edition, and signed books, as well as a significant collection of billheads and other ephemera related to Maine’s ax manufacturing and lumbering industries.
“In forming a collection, I find it is key to focus in on a theme but leave yourself some room to expand and go beyond the box, beyond the boundaries into whatever appeals to you as a collector,” said Koch, noting that he also has many books of mythology and folklore, poetry, science writing, fiction, and history from around the world. “In so doing, I think that you are able to gain valuable perspective and form a collection that is unique to your interests and personality. That is what it is truly all about—a uniqueness that is all your own portrayed through the collection you build.”
In addition to being a renowned bibliophile, Koch restores Maine-made logging, woodworking, and agricultural tools for a living.
“My interest in and collecting of antique Maine made tools connects with my love of books and ephemera related to the Maine woods in many ways,” said Koch. “Most notably, many of these tools were made for use in the Maine woods. Restoring them, collecting them, and getting them into the hands of those who will use them coincides with their original purpose. Preserving historic tools allows for that history to remain present in the state and the objects used in the Maine woods are as important as the written works about the Maine woods in maintaining that history.“
It’s a craft that ties in nicely with his book collection, harking back to the early days of Maine that is well-documented in some of his texts, including first editions of Fanny Hardy Eckstorm’s “The Penobscot Man” and Thomas Sedgwick Steele’s “Canoe and Camera: A Two Hundred Mile Tour Through the Maine Forests.”
“It always makes me proud to see Unity College students pursuing research or their passion outside of the classroom, and Alex has done just that,” said Unity College President Dr. Melik Peter Khoury. “When he won first place in the National Collegiate Book Collecting Contest, he beat out a grad student at UCLA and an undergrad at Harvard. That’s not easy to do. He’s become an expert in the field, and I think it speaks to just how knowledgeable and dedicated Alex is to his collecting.”
“Alex is something of a polymath,” added Dr. Joshua Kercsmar, assistant professor of environmental humanities. “He’s curious about pretty much everything. He writes poetry, he’s an amateur botanist, he loves science, he loves history, he restores old logging tools, he’s a nontraditional student here who is just doing absolutely wonderful things.”
For more information on Koch’s collection, including a regularly updated annotated bibliography, photographs, and his essay from the NCBCC win, visit alexandersoldtools.com.