Saturday, September 17, 2022

A Portrait of Thomas F. Staley (1935-2022)

Thomas F. Staley, Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center

Lean, hesitant Kurt Zimmerman came from the hallway that led to director Thomas F. Staley’s office. His bright white shorts and flip flops matched uneasily with a buttoned, brilliant blue shirt; for he was young, only twenty-two.
            “Hello. Come in, Kurt,” Staley summoned, springing forth from his chair. He robustly rounded his desk, dapper in appearance, fully outfitted with jacket and tie, hand extended for a firm shake.  He projected larger in appearance than actual size.
            “How are you?  How do you enjoy being at the Ransom Center?” he said quickly, for he always spoke quickly, as I was to learn.
            “I like it a lot.  I’m volunteering with Frank Yezer, and I just made some preservation boxes for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s spiritualism albums. . . “
            “Yes, Doyle, interesting.  Lot more to him than Sherlock Holmes.  So, you like working with Frank Yezer?  He has good things to say about you. Recommended you for this internship.  I reviewed your application.  Do you know the idea behind the internship?”
            “I haven’t . . . “
            He patted me on the back and motioned for me to be seated.  I almost lost a flip flop in my haste to settle.  He resumed his director position behind the desk.  Most of his office was devoted to his collection of James Joyce, one wall of glass front bookcases housing rarities and another wall of shelves overflowing with virtually every secondary item ever written on Joyce and his contemporaries.  I was intrigued.
            He asked, “The Lilly Library – have you heard of the Lilly Library? – at Indiana University, David Randall was the original director – he established in the early 1960s a one-year paid internship to foster and train rare book people—librarians, archivists, bibliographers, even rare book trade members.  The Ransom Center internship will be two years.  Five candidates will be selected for this first group.  Do you have a particular interest or focus?”
            “I’ve always liked books, Dr. Staley. I just graduated with my English degree, not sure which way I want to go.  Professor Gribben brought our American Literature class to the Ransom Center last year and showed us some original Poe letters and Twain books . . .”
            He thought, that shirt of his is really quite blue, like the cover of a first edition of Ulysses.  I need more substance to make a final decision, leaning no, lots of applicants, and my board meeting with the executive staff is in an hour, review some notes,  what am I supposed to pick up after work, call the wife, and this unread bookseller’s catalogue, should have looked through that before having Kurt in, I really need to look through that when I’m done with him, maybe Joyce’s Et Tu, Healy!.  But don’t be ridiculous.  No known copies.  But.
            “Frank tells me you have the makings of a collector,” he said after a brief silence.
            “I do like the idea of collecting books.  However, I’m broke.” I laughed, a bit too hard.
            “So was I when I started,” he replied with a smile, “Let me show you some things.”
            And before I could rise, he had darted to his wall of glass front bookcases. 
            I did not have to feign interest.  The aura of collecting pulled me then as it pulls me still.
            “Hold this,” he said enthusiastically, gently placing a tome in my hands.  “The first Spanish edition of Joyce’s Ulysses.  I found this quite early on.”  Then began the deluge – book after book related to Joyce—inscribed items, thin pamphlets, the weighty quarto of the thick first edition of Ulysses, one of 150 copies on verge d’arches paper with a provenance I can’t remember now.  I barely could stay above water but I did, his words coming as fast as his books.  I asked lots of basic questions, and he took time to answer them.  It was my first close encounter with a passionate book collector.  There have been many such encounters since but none so important.
            He thought, so Kurt’s got the makings of a collector, very, very good, and he’s a talker, hmm, not sure on that, and I'm going to be late for my meeting -- and I still haven’t checked the bookseller catalogue yet -- but he’s different from the others, potential here, and the answer then must be yes, yes, yes.  But not now, formalities must be observed.  And I must pee.
            “Kurt, it’s been a pleasure to meet you.  I’m late for a meeting, and I really have to go.  We will get back with you quickly on the internship decision.  And perhaps I can show you some more Joyce if you are interested.”
            “Thank you, Dr. Staley.  Thanks for considering me.  It’s been an experience seeing your books.  And I am interested.”  We shook hands and I retreated from his book-lined command post, noticing a tennis racket at the ready by the door.
            “One more thing, Mr. Zimmerman,” he said, and I halted, “If you are selected for the internship you will need to upgrade your beach casual look.” 
            I stammered a reply and made haste down the hallway and out of his sight.  Optimistic within, maintaining as much dignity as possible without.  I was soon to find the violet never shrank.
Written as a memorial tribute to Dr. Thomas F. Staley (1935-2022), noted authority on Joyce and director of the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas—Austin from 1988-2013.  He took a chance on me that changed the trajectory of my life.  Grateful is an understatement.  Staley’s myriad accomplishments of his distinguished career are described in the links below.

Must have been my go-to outfit. 
 KZ with bookseller Dorothy Sloan, ca. 1990

Wednesday, August 3, 2022

Clubbing with the Book Fellows

The Book Fellows Bookplate

I haven’t done this much clubbing since college.  But that is a far different story involving an energetic redhead, the thumping bass of dance music, and my free-form dancing skills that generated much laughter.  Thankfully, no videos exist.  But I digress.  My recent excursion into the history of the Quarto Club of the 1920s-30s involved no such risk of injury or embarrassment.  It was a pleasurable way to resurrect a nearly forgotten group of dedicated bibliophiles.  But just as in those memorable college days, one clubbing experience was rarely enough and I was left wanting more.  I pushed back further in time in my research, still New York City, but now the early 1880s.  I recalled a book first spotted online years earlier, its importance not realized at the time. And thank the book gods it was still available! 
            I have on my desk now Frederick Locker’s London Lyrics (NY: 1883) the first publication of The Book Fellows’ Club (est. 1881), a tiny but influential wellspring that served as the genesis of the Grolier Club of New York, founded in 1884.  Their club consisted of but three official members: the founder, Valentin[e] Blacque, and two biblio-friends William Loring Andrews and Alphonse Duprat.  Their history is fragmentary and scattered, but not lost.  They left us two imprints and a story. 

Thursday, June 23, 2022

The Quarto Club: “A Few Harmless Bibliomaniacs”

Certainly, cigars and pipes after.
 But first a meal of better fare, then adjourn to the private library.  Oh yes, and drinks, pick your fashion.  But overwhelmingly books, a few brought for show, but the focus on talk—lively talk – nothing perfunctory or mundane, for these bibliophiles are most comfortable in the details, the aura of the book itself bringing whatever one’s pleasure.  It is New York City, ca. 1926, and outside the world is roaring but within it is timeless, the same for the first bookmen long ago and the same now when I gather with my fellow bibliophiles.   Today we admit all races, genders, and creeds, but the fundamentals unite us.
            This is a gathering of the Quarto Club, established in New York City by a small group of  bibliophiles headed by lawyer Mark G. Holstein (1873-1952) who serves as president.  You may recall meeting him recently in my essay “Three Ardent Bibliophiles and the Greatest Book in the World.”   He owned the copy now in my library of The Greatest Book in the World (1925), inscribed to him by the author A. Edward Newton, with a carbon of his cheeky reply to Newton tipped in (Newton had humorously disparaged lawyers.)
            A biographical note on Holstein in The Colophon: A Book Collector’s Quarterly begins, “Mark Holstein is president of the Quarto Club.”  The club’s name is vaguely familiar to me.  I research, and although I discover little secondary information about the club, I find three published volumes of papers (1927-1930) originally read by members at monthly club meetings.  The club’s effort to preserve them in book form saved the Quarto Club from almost certain historical oblivion.

Saturday, April 30, 2022

Three Ardent Bibliophiles and The Greatest Book in the World

I am re-reading A. Edward Newton’s The Greatest Book in the World and Other Papers (1925) and the ghosts of bookmen past envelop me.  Not only from the text of Newton’s biblio-essays, but also from the copy itself—held gently, read closely, and treasured by three ardent bibliophiles, each with their bookplate on the front free endpaper and their scattered jottings crowding the rear pastedown.  I see in the morning light the mild soiling on the tan boards from their hands and fingers – bookish fingerprints.  The front hinge is cracked but sturdy.  Newton has added a humorous inscription to the first owner.  A carbon letter of the owner’s reply to Newton is attached to the front free endpaper by a dainty paperclip.  Tis’ a well-loved copy – a copy that affected me emotionally when I catalogued it, surprising me in that respect for I have many association copies and this would not rank among the greats in an analytical sense.  But then a yearning to tell the book’s story.  So let us begin.

Wednesday, March 30, 2022

The Love and Pursuit of Books Unites Us


It’s a pleasant thought, isn’t it?  That the free-ranging, capitalistic mind, linchpin of our economy, pauses for a moment and rises to a larger cause.  In this case, my book collection.  Booksellers and book collectors share a symbiotic relationship.  We are bound together with ecstatic moments and occasional torment, in the best of cases a fulfilling long-term union develops between us, in rare instances, an acrimonious separation.
            Most professional rare booksellers I’ve met tune in quickly to a serious collector’s interests.  I collect material about rare booksellers themselves, past and present, so this uncommon bypath usually is met with surprise and curiosity by those currently active in the trade.  It is not often a bookseller gets a request for their own material – previous catalogues, perhaps a bibliography written by them, an essay contributed to a journal, and so on.  I love this kind of stuff, and once we get through an awkward courtship period (“You really want my first catalogue, inscribed?”) they often become enthusiastic supporters of my collection.  And this is a good thing, for rare booksellers are always on the hunt.
            I’ve acquired many items through the kindness and thoughtfulness of the rare booksellers.  I don’t see enough of these two traits mentioned in print.  It’s not always a merchant mentality of buy low / sell high.  Placement of an item in the right home is a priority to many booksellers.  Two of my recent acquisitions are good examples.

Tuesday, February 22, 2022

Trafficking, Fossicking, and Noodling in Old Books: The Partaking of Biblio-Pleasures

Bookseller and writer Anthony Marshall where art thou, kindred spirit?  I recently discovered your two books by chance in an Austin, Texas used bookstore – Trafficking in Old Books (1998) and Fossicking in Old Books (2004), far from their place of publication in Australia.  There may be copies in abundance in Australia, but they are pretty scarce here—my excuse for overlooking them these many years.  And what an oversight!  Your adventures running an antiquarian / used bookstore in Melbourne and ancillary essays are among the damndest, bestest, funniest biblio-writings I’ve encountered.  Your prose enlightens and surprises: creative skills meeting a worthy subject.  I must simply salute you.
            But I’m just late to the party.  Some sleuthing revealed you received accolades upon publication (and just as importantly, brisk sales) primarily in Australia and the UK, but also a foray into the US where you did a few books signings.  Both books sold in the thousands of copies, not an easy achievement.  (You record a sold-out print run of 5,000 copies for the self-published Trafficking in Old Books.)  You even had a fan base and book signings in Tasmania!  Admittedly, that was much closer to your bookshop in Melbourne than it would be to someone in America, but it sure sounds exotic and alluring as recorded in your delightful Fossicking essay, “Et in Tasmania Ego.”

Friday, February 4, 2022

Camaraderie and Competition: The Big Five of Abraham Lincoln Collectors


A recent, unsuccessful bid on a group of Lincoln biblio-books from the collection of Louise Taper leads me here.  That, and a rediscovery last week among a group of books I acquired shortly before moving my library three years ago.  Both instances germinated an idea into an essay – the early collecting of printed material on the Great Emancipator.
            Works by and about Abraham Lincoln, called broadly “Lincolniana,” has been avidly sought by collectors since the Civil War.  Lincoln’s life from homespun roots to statesman to martyr has drawn interest from every conceivable angle.  Publications abound.  As early as 1910 there were already more than 125 separate biographies published.
            Often when I am doing biblio-research, I’m the first to clear a path (or follow one much overgrown).  I soon discovered this was not the case with Lincoln.  The early collecting of Lincoln has been documented directly by collectors such as Daniel Fish (1848-1924) and Joseph Oakleaf (1858-1930), and in secondary essays, most notably J. L. McCorison’s “The Great Lincoln Collectors and What Came of Them” (1947).
            So, a brief overview is at hand without a lot of hacking through the underbrush.  This will be interwoven with my own story of a terrific find.  The early groundbreakers in collecting Lincoln material included Andrew Boyd and Charles Henry Hart.  Boyd and Hart compiled the first major bibliographic work, Memorial Lincoln Bibliography (1870).  These men and others like William Herndon, Lincoln’s law partner and biographer, laid the foundation for subsequent major collectors to follow.  The next group of enthusiasts, labeled the “Big Five” each built fabulous collections during the 1890s-1920s.  Despite the fierce competition among them, they all interacted as friends and colleagues, each to varying degrees willing to help the others and share new discoveries.