Friday, June 30, 2023

Booking in the Big Easy

Kurt Zimmerman and Russell Desmond

  The Big Easy is.  I am in the middle of Bourbon Street at night, leaning over, elbows on knees, head down.  Lined up next to me are five other middle-aged white guys in a similar stance.  The man beside me is groaning, saying his bad left knee isn’t going to hold up much longer.  A lively crowd surrounds us including our disconcerted wives.  The smell of spilt beer and less amenable odors permeate the surroundings, the whole scene lit up by the neon glow of the Hustler Hollywood sign nearby. 
        Within a few moments there is a whoosh over my head and a lithe, athletic black man lands just past me.  He has hurdled all six of us as the finale to a street show.  He grins widely, shakes my hand, and thanks me for my participation.  He and his other two cohorts have spent the previous minutes regaling us with gymnastic / break dancing moves, and energetic music blasting from a portable speaker.  Their lead MC is a running comedy show.  He pokes fun at racial stereotypes, extolling the crowd to cheer louder, all-the-while appealing for generous tips. 
        I am selected from the revved onlookers to participate in the finale by the MC who is looking for “rich, white guys.”  He’s one for two in my case, but I’m rather tall and make the mistake of standing in the front row.  The MC leads us in absurd dance moves before the mighty leap.  I see a lot of phones recording.  At the end, I tip the enterprising trio all the cash in my wallet totaling $12, confirming their poor choice (I spent most of my cash on books earlier).  I make my way to my wife Nicole who is wiping tears of laughter from her eyes and still holding the book bag. 
        This is our anniversary trip to the Big Easy – the first visit for us to New Orleans as a couple (why did it take us almost twenty years?).   More unexpected experiences await us including further pillage amongst a bevy of used bookstores. 

Tuesday, May 30, 2023

Condition Isn't Everything


A Rough and Ready Copy of Burton's THE BOOK-HUNTER (1863)

 Books are tough.  Raging fire or lengthy submersion in water can do them in, but otherwise they often survive hard use, neglect, inquisitive children, pets, lack of climate control, insects, and with a little luck, many natural disasters.  These rough and ready reading copies are found almost everywhere.  But they are rarely encountered on the shelves of fastidious collectors or in special collections libraries.  Unless you collect association copies, then you must take a book’s condition as it comes.
            This thought struck me as I held a book with a Titanic connection.  The book is Luther Livingston’s First Editions of George Meredith. . . Offered for Sale by Dodd & Livingston, New York [1912].  It is inscribed to English book collector Clement K. Shorter.  Tipped-in is an excellent autograph letter from Livingston to Shorter, discussing, among other things, an upcoming visit by fellow bibliophile Harry Widener to Shorter.  Widener is the famous young American collector who perished on the Titanic along with his father, only a few days after seeing Shorter.  His mother survived and built the Widener Library at Harvard in his honor.  She then placed her twenty-seven-year-old son’s already impressive book collection within.  Bookseller and bibliographer Luther Livingston was close to Harry Widener. He was selected as the first librarian of the Widener Library, but he died tragically of a rare bone disease before he could assume the post.  His ongoing illness is also mentioned in the letter to Shorter.  So, there is a lot to unpack with this association copy and the appeal to me was irresistible, condition be damned. 
            Bookseller Howard Mather of Wykeham Books knows my interests and offered it to me.  His condition description was accurate, but I hoped it might be better than advertised. Nope.  The book literally looks as if it had gone down on the Titanic and later swept ashore.  I passed this feedback onto Mather giving him a good laugh.  Perhaps Shorter was reading it in the bathtub and let it slip.  Maybe it was fire-hosed during the London Blitz of World War II.  Whatever the case, it is thoroughly dried out now, a little wavy, somewhat crinkly, certainly stained, but a survivor.  A relic.

Sunday, April 16, 2023

Good Books at the Florida Antiquarian Book Fair


“Are you sure you want a beer guy to order the wine?” said friend and bookseller Jay Rohfritch, as I scanned the vast and mostly incomprehensible (to me) wine list at Sauvignon Wine Locker & American Trattoria in St. Petersburg, Florida.  It is Sunday night, March 12th, and the 2023 Florida Antiquarian Book Fair has just finished.  Celebration is in order.  I’m sitting with Jay, Dennis Melhouse of First Folio Books, and Bryan & Kelly Young of Grayshelf Books. 
            Dennis is a man who knows his way around a wine bottle.  He asks if the restaurant has a sommelier.  I’ve never heard this term actually spoken before.  Only read it in books.  We’ve already polished off the first bottle selected by Bryan & Kelly, a Napa red that I can’t recall the name of, but I drink heartily.  Bryan and Kelly are into wine like I’m into craft beer, so the selection is a good one. 
            But now I’m feeling cheeky.  I intercede and say I’d like to select the next bottle.  There is a brief look of consternation from the others.  I insist and I find a moderately-priced (okay, relatively cheap) bottle of cabernet from Paso Robles.  Dennis diplomatically says he has had some good cabs from Paso Robles in the past.  I seal the deal by guaranteeing to drink the whole bottle if it doesn’t meet expectations.  The merriment continues as we talk books and Jay once again expresses skepticism of my selection abilities.
            The waiter is an interactive, humorous fellow with hair like Albert Einstein.  We don’t know if this is a trending fashion look, or he was simply running late to work and forgot to comb his hair.  He arrives with my bottle and ceremoniously unscrews the cap, no cork removal needed.  Muffled laughter ensues and the waiter places the cap before me and pours a glass to have me approve.
            Bryan states in my defense that many better wines have screw tops nowadays, but I know he is lying.  I swirl the wine around, inhale the bouquet (“Smells like wine to me”) and take a swig.  Tastes pretty good, actually.  The rest are soon swirling their glasses and sipping. 
            “It’s getting better as it opens,” Kelly says.
            “I can drink it,” Jay smirks.
            “It’s a bit tannin-forward,” Bryan chimes in.
            I’m not sure what to make of this comment, but Dennis, who is sitting next to me, leans in and clarifies, “That’s not a good thing.”
            More funnin’ continues at my expense, but I asked for it, and rather enjoy it.  Just one of many memorable episodes from a bibliophile’s escapade to St. Petersburg, Florida.  But how did I get here?  That is a serendipitous story.

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.