Tuesday, June 8, 2021

Revolution, Redoute, and Why Collect Books?

 


The stray bullet shattered the hotel window narrowly missing the young American railroad engineer, Will Winterrowd.  He would save it as a souvenir.  It was February 1917 and Winterrowd was watching the plaza below from his hotel room in Petrograd (now called St. Petersburg).  He recalled the chaos he witnessed, “a hooligan with an officer’s sword belted over his overcoat, a rifle in one hand and a revolver in the other; a small boy with a large butcher’s knife, a soldier with an officer’s sword in one hand, without the scabbard, and a bayonet in the other hand; another with a revolver in one hand and a tram-railer cleaner in the other; a student with two rifles and a band of machine-gun bullets around his waist. All were singing, shouting, and repeatedly firing off their weapons into the air.”

Thursday, April 15, 2021

McMurtry, Pass By

Larry McMurtry & Kurt Zimmerman in 2012

Larry McMurtry died recently, and both the writing world and the antiquarian book trade mourn his passing.  McMurtry thought of himself as a bookseller as much as a writer, although that is not how he will generally be remembered.  For he was a good and prolific author of fiction; a natural storyteller that also ventured successfully into history, screenplays, and insightful essays which covered many topics.  I enjoy his essays the most.  But I still a have a tough time forgiving him for killing off Gus McCrae’s pigs at the end of Lonesome Dove.
        McMurtry scouted and sold used and rare books since his college days.  These scouting adventures were loosely drawn upon for example in his novel Cadillac Jack about a rodeo cowboy turned antiques hunter.  McMurtry had a predilection for buying whole book collections rather than straining out the rarities and leaving the rest.  He told me in 2012 he’d purchased the stock of twenty-six used / rare bookstores and over 200 private collections.  So, he dealt mainly in quantities of better used books rather than focusing on rare ones, although he sold plenty of the latter over a long bookselling career.  He would go on to establish used bookstores in Houston, Washington, D.C., and his hometown of Archer City, Texas.  He eventually closed the Houston and Washington, D.C. stores and doubled down on the Archer City location.  Here he filled a number of buildings he owned on the town square with over 300,000 books in all subjects.  He may have had an American vision of Hay-on-Wye in mind.  That didn’t quite happen, but he did attract a steady stream of book hunters to the tiny north Texas town far from big city amenities. 
I made my first book buying pilgrimage to Archer City in 2001.  I arrived on a toasty August day, stopped at the Dairy Queen for an Oreo blizzard, and got situated in my room at the Lonesome Dove Inn.  The Inn was owned by friends of McMurtry.  They were used to having a variety of book hunters come through – in fact, I think book people were their primary guests.  I still have my Lonesome Dove Inn t-shirt. 

Thursday, March 25, 2021

Nettie Lee Benson on the Development of Special Collections

Nettie Lee Benson

Library Special Collections are fundamental to preserving historical materials and providing resources for students, professors, and independent scholars.   But how were such collections formed and how do they continue to thrive?  I have encountered no better concise explanation than one given by Nettie Lee Benson (1905-1993), librarian and later director of the Latin American collection at the University of Texas from 1942-1975.  The revelatory essay came to my attention recently after the purchase of an offprint from the University of Texas Library Chronicle of Benson’s “The Making of the Latin American Collection” (1962).
            Her essay pertained to a state institution but is generally applicable to any library special collection.  The thoughtfulness of her answer brings together often compartmentalized ideas and forms them into a wider vista—a deceptively simple task.  Being able to grasp both the big picture and the details within is a decidedly uncommon talent.
            Benson’s outstanding career as a librarian, teacher, and scholar is outlined well in the resources linked below.  Benson natural curiosity combined with her historical bent guided her along an unlikely career path in a field dominated at the time by men.  From her small-town Texas roots she became an acknowledged expert in her field and rose to the directorship of a major library.

Wednesday, September 30, 2020

The Eternal Passion: Nicholas A. Basbanes and the Making of A Gentle Madness. A Video Tour

 


Pandemic or not, there is still room for celebration.  Currently on view by appointment is the exhibition at the Cushing Library at Texas A&M University, “The Eternal Passion: Nicholas A Basbanes and the Making of A Gentle Madness.”  The exhibition was originally planned for a March launch but delayed by the Pandemic.  A much-anticipated opening day event featuring Nick Basbanes himself had to be cancelled.  Nonetheless, curator Kevin O’Sullivan was determined to keep the exhibition available.  The exhibition was rescheduled and is now running from Aug. 3rd – Nov. 30, 2020.

This is the twenty-fifth anniversary of the publication of A Gentle Madness: Bibliophiles, Bibliomanes, and the Eternal Passion for Books.  Basbanes’ work on bibliophiles and book collecting is now considered a classic.  But it almost didn’t get published.  O’Sullivan does a magnificent job selecting material from the Basbanes archive at the Cushing and other sources to present a well-rounded look at the making of A Gentle Madness.   He also highlights Basbanes’ career generally with material about his later publications.

I contributed a number of items to the exhibition.  I was also scheduled to speak at the opening event.  So, the cancellation affected me personally.  When the exhibition reopened, I arranged a tour for myself and wife Nicole with Kevin O’Sullivan.  Also present were Francesca Marini and Beth Kilmarx of the Cushing Library.  Nicole videoed the tour.  It is not a professional production, but she captures Kevin’s talk and our banter, along with a detailed look at the material on display.  May this serve as an imperfect but entertaining record of an exhibition that faced unprecedented challenges.

Link to video:

Basbanes Exhibition. Cushing Library. Sept. 2020. Kurt & Nicole Zimmerman with Kevin O'Sullivan

Here are details about the exhibition and how to see it in person.

Basbanes Exhibition Information

Sunday, May 24, 2020

A Book I Shouldn't Have Had Yet

Dr. Herbert M. Evans, 1882-1971

The book’s the thing, but sometimes it is more than that.  An acquisition can leave a deep impression or even a scar.  And when you hold the book, you feel life, or death. 
            It is the third month of the 2020 Pandemic, and maybe I have spent too much time with my books.  (Can there be such a problem?).  But the world is not as it should be, and every venture out brings an awkward tension between masked and maskless.  And so it is with this story: excitement and incredulity tempered with fear.  We begin with two doctors and end with a third, all notable book collectors.
            The book is the rare, privately printed catalogue Medical Library Belonging to Herbert M. Evans (Berkeley: 1931).  The bookseller description records 202 mimeographed sheets with additions and deletions using pasted slips, as well as a few scattered holograph corrections.  It is a quarto bound in blue cloth; the paper spine label reads “Evans Library of Medical Classics 1932.”  The pastedown has Evans’ bookplate and the front free endpaper the following inscription, “To my friend Elmer Belt, Herbert M. Evans, Berkeley, March 14, 1936” with Belt’s bookplate below.

Sunday, March 8, 2020

In the Midst of It: A Book Hunter Down the Cataloging Rabbit Hole



The story begins with a drowning, includes a fratricide, a sensational trial, and has no ending yet.  But let us start anyhow.
Prominent book collector C. Fiske Harris and his wife are both recovering from illness in 1881.  They decide to take a recuperative canoe ride with their servant Hedges on Moosehead Lake in Maine.  The canoe capsizes in rough water “and for a time the Harrises clung to the craft.  Hedges heard Mrs. Harris say, ‘If Mr. Harris goes, I will go also.’  She succumbed first, however, and Harris followed her.”  Thus quoted from Roger Stoddard’s authoritative essay, “C. Fiske Harris, Collector of American Poetry and Plays” (1963). 
            This abrupt and tragic demise of a notable collector is not yet on my mind as I prowl the aisles of the recent ABAA Book Show in Pasadena, California.  I am nearing the end of my Saturday all-day scout, my eyes strained and the need for food urgent.  Serendipity comes into play as I browse the booth of Holly Segar and Jeffrey Rovenpor of Caroliniana Books, Aiken, South Carolina.
            Propped up on a shelf in a sleeve is a modest looking pamphlet, plain original wrappers, with a neat ownership signature on the cover.  I almost miss it, but I don’t.  Holly & Jeffrey’s description reads, in part: “Index to American Poetry and Plays in the Collection of C. Fiske Harris.  Providence, RI: Printed for Private Distribution, 1874. . . Finely printed pamphlet listing the major American poetry and play collection belonging to C. Fiske Harris.  The collection today resides at Brown University. . . This copy with the ownership inscription to front wrapper of R. A. Guild.”

Friday, December 20, 2019

Miss Stillwell and F. Richmond: The Recording of Incunabula in America

Margaret Stillwell

Frederick R. Goff

The recent ABAA Boston Book Show at the Hynes Convention Center presented an array of delights to tempt even the most jaded book men and women. The brisk cold outside contrasted with the fervor of the book hunters within.   I looked, I mingled, and when I could resist hunger no longer, I ate a meal at the Cheesecake Factory restaurant nearby.  The calorie count displayed next to the menu items read like the prices in a nicely stocked dealer booth: 2,000, 1,800, 2,400, 1,200.  The friends eating with me—Joe Fay and Bill Allison—paid no heed, and I was on a biblio-vacation so damn the low salt diet. We poured over the extensive menu like one would examine a good bookseller catalogue; with astonishment and delight.  I knew we were done for when we ordered the cheeseburger eggrolls as an appetizer.  The food was surprisingly good but the book talk was even better.  We staggered out after polishing off the obligatory cheesecake dessert.  I wondered if the hotel gym had a Stairmaster. 
            This brief introduction only touches on what was for me a satisfying and varied trip.  I found several biblio items for my collection, particularly from exhibitors Willis Monie and Brattle Bookshop at the main show, and from Peter Masi and Roselund Rare Books at the “shadow fair” held Saturday a few blocks away.  But the most interesting acquisition originated from a bookstore.  It was the result of a serendipitous encounter with a fellow collector who was conversing with ABAA bookseller Michael Laird.  Laird, a long-time friend, texted me at the show from his booth and told me come over pronto.  The collector he was speaking with mentioned he had been visiting New England bookstores.  One of them had a few biblio-association items outside of his collecting area.  He described them to me.  I was indeed interested and grateful for the tip.  I soon after called the store to confirm the basics and with Bill Allison, my wingman for the trip, set out the next day to examine the books in person.  It was a rainy, cold, dreary drive of an hour and half each way—a day most normal people would stay put-- but not a collector in vigorous pursuit.
            This leads us to Margaret Stillwell (1887-1984) and Frederick R. Goff (1916-1982), pre-eminent rare book librarians and bibliographers, most noted for their work with incunabula: books printed before 1501.  Stillwell flourished, not without considerable struggle, in a male-dominated biblio-world.  She records her triumphs and travails in Librarians are Human: Memories In and Out of the Rare-Book Field 1907-1970 (1973) quoted within.