Monday, February 27, 2023

Encounters with Bookmen E. L. “Shorty” Shettles and J. Frank Dobie

J. Frank Dobie

I was a book greenhorn when I first encountered Elijah L. Shettles (1852-1940) and J. Frank Dobie (1888-1964), two legendary Texas bookmen and personalities.  My early discovery of Shettles and Dobie did much to inspire my interest in the history of book collecting and rare bookselling. 
            This momentous event happened while I was cataloging the Dudley R. Dobie collection of J. Frank Dobie material, the finest Dobie material to appear on the market, offered in a 1992 Dorothy Sloan catalogue.  (Dudley was J. Frank Dobie’s cousin and a noted bookseller.)  I discovered J. Frank Dobie’s eulogy “E. L. Shettles, Man, Bookman and Friend.”  Dobie read it at Shettles’ funeral in 1940, and it was published in the January 1941 issue of the Southwest Historical Quarterly.

Thursday, January 12, 2023

Susan Halas Interview with Kurt Zimmerman: Dorothy Sloan and More

 Susan Halas, book dealer and writer, contacted me to do an interview for Rare Book Monthly, the online newsletter found on  It came out in December.  I thought I'd share it on my blog for those who didn't see it.  

Happy New Year!  I've already got a couple new essays in the works so stay tuned.

Kurt Zimmerman, book blogger, shares memories of Dorothy Sloan

Sunday, November 6, 2022

Extreme Book Collecting

Sir Thomas Phillipps' idea of a family photo

Extremism is trending nowadays -- weather, politics, sports, food portions.  Even travel, an area with a historically wide latitude for adventure, is trending extreme.  At least it appears so on those ubiquitous, addictive YouTube videos where an armchair traveler may lose themselves for hours.  I’m readying for an actual trip to Colorado, real mountains, breath-taking vistas, cascading waters, and a modest bit of hiking and jeeping.  But do I want to hang precariously over a plunging precipice, my life attached to a thin cable as I dangle in the air like a circus performer, my well-paid guide, conditioned as an Olympian, encouraging me, his (or her) can-do attitude quickly wearing thin like my cheap pair of hiking boots?  Do I need this kind of adrenaline rush / confidence boost?  You can guess the answer.   For I’m a book collector and the betting odds find me seated at a craft brewery simply enjoying the mountain air, thumbing through an old-school travel guide, and admittedly googling to see if there are any bookstores close by.
            Yet is book collecting really a staid and pleasant past-time, intellectually rewarding, but free of extremes compared to the whirl of the world we live in today?  I have a one-word answer to the uninitiated – bibliomania.  Physical demise may not be at stake, but in any other form book collecting ranks high on the extremism scale.

Monday, October 24, 2022

American Book Collecting Blog Anniversary: 2011-2022 and Still Bookin’


My American Book Collecting blog celebrates its eleventh anniversary on October 24.  I almost missed it, but unlike a wedding anniversary, there would have been no harm, no foul.  However, I just received two emails only a day apart that referenced my August 23, 2014 post on American literature collector extraordinaire Stephen H. Wakeman (1859-1924).  This was certainly unusual, but also reminded me just how long I’ve been serving up essays to those who enjoy such a meal.  I began my blog on October 24, 2011 with a welcoming post that spelled out my plans:

This blog is dedicated to the history of American book collecting.  Private book collectors will be a primary focus.  However, there are many other kinds of book hunters who will receive attention such as dealers, rare book librarians, bibliographers, writers, and auctioneers.

My main interest is in the biographical side of book collecting.  The bookplate motto of famous collector A. Edward Newton exemplifies the spirit of it, "Sir, the biographical part of literature is what I love most."   Stories of association copies, letters, manuscripts, and photographs are going to be added in abundance.  Images will amplify the stories.  This is a forum serious in nature but not blogged down in detailed collations, bibliographic minutia, or dry lists.  All material is from my own collection unless otherwise noted.  Please read, comment, and share.   Amor librorum nos unit!

I’m pleased that I’ve stayed mostly on point with my original intentions.  There has been ebb and flow with the number posts over the years (now at 90 with this one), as I set no firm goal per annum.  But I decided early on to make most of them meaty—essays that could stand alone, not just tidbits or tantalizing appetizers one sees with many blogs.  This decision played out well when several of them formed the backbone of my first book Rare Book Hunting: Essays and Escapades (2021).  It is doubtful without my blog writing that my tome would have come to fruition.
            In terms of attendance, I must say I have been surprised at the reach of the readership.  Spreading the gospel of book collecting has also been a goal of mine.  So, looking at the numbers, not as an author, but as a proselytizer, I see as of today there have been 475,247 views of my eighty-nine previous posts.   My most read essay according to the blogger analytics is “Peter B. Howard: Serendipitous Bookman” (Nov. 29, 2011) with 9,381 views.  Many other posts have surpassed 5,000 views and counting.  These exact figures are not as important as the realization that a substantial number of readers are interested in the history and adventure of rare book collecting / hunting.   This is exciting and motivates me to keep writing; a virtual tip jar of sorts.
            My posts have ignited hundreds of interactions over eleven years, typically via email, on all sorts of bookish subjects.  Usually it is an inquiry, comment, or amplification related to what I’ve written.   The expansion of my circle of books friends has been wonderous and gratifying.  And as icing on the proverbial cake, it sometimes leads to new acquisitions!  I recall one memorable occasion when a descendant of Vincent Starrett, who had read my post about her illustrious ancestor, sold me a number of Starrett’s books inscribed to his brother, most notably the famous Sherlock Holmes pastiche The Unique Hamlet (1920).
            This brings me back to those latest emails about my post on famed collector Stephen Wakeman.  A dealer had acquired a couple of nice literary gems with Wakeman’s bookplate.  He discovered my essay doing research and had further questions.  The very next day, I received an email from a collector, hitherto unknown to me, saying he had just acquired books from Wakeman’s library and asking a different set of questions!  I was bemused and replied he must have just purchased said books from a certain dealer.  The answer was a surprised affirmative, and all three of us—writer, dealer, and collector—got a good biblio-chuckle over the whole thing.
            I anticipate with relish what future bookish happenings await me.   And I have some essays brewing to get us through the winter.
            Thanks to all who have read and supported my blog over the years.

Saturday, September 17, 2022

A Portrait of The HRC Director 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.

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.