Meet NYC’s foremost collector of John Le Carré classic spy books

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Steven Ritterman was a kid growing up on Long Island when he was first bitten by the collecting bug. It began with “Hardy Boys” mysteries neatly lined up on his bookshelf. He started out with one or two, and soon, the books had multiplied. 

His love of collecting would become a lifelong hobby; the Upper East Side resident is now one of the foremost collectors of John le Carré spy fiction. His trove began in 1977, after reading le Carré’s “The Honorable Schoolboy,” and now includes over 300 pieces. 

One of his prized items is a signed copy of “Call for the Dead,” le Carré’s first novel. In 1996, opportunity struck: Ritterman (inset) read that the author was on a promotional tour for his book “The Tailor of Panama” and would be signing purchased books at the 92nd Street Y. 

“Everyone was saying, ‘He will not sign anything else.’ I knew it was going to be the only opportunity I’d ever have to get him to sign the first novel. And so I decided to smuggle it in,” says Ritterman. 

Spy fiction novelist, John le Carré.
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“It was a cold day, and I hid the book under the jacket. If I ever thought I was as cool as one of his secret agents — well, I’m not. I got on line, bought a copy of [The Tailor of Panama], and when my turn came, I opened my jacket and I showed him the copy of the book. The handler said, ‘You haven’t read the rules.’ I looked at [le Carré], he looked at me and saw into my soul that before him was a desperate man. And he said, ‘This is one of the finest copies I’ve ever seen of the book.’ And he signed it for me.” 

Does he have a favorite genre outside of spy fiction? “No,” he admits with a laugh. 

He does regret the way collecting has changed with the Internet, though; the thrill of the hunt is gone. 

“Today, you can go online, and in 5 minutes I can find you anything you want. If you want to collect quickly, that’s one thing. But it’s not as sexy or interesting,” says Ritterman. 

“Before, I could search for three to four months for an early title, and I’d be thrilled to death to finally get a call from a buyer. All of my books have a story. The journey was the exciting part; getting the book was the cherry on top.” 

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