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.

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

"The Greatest Collector of Books the World has Ever Known"


Henry E. Huntington
Stupendously miraculous things can happen to a book collector without warning. On an unseasonably hot October day the package arrived, signature required, and I wasn’t home.   The mail delivery notice was stuck firmly to the front door and I didn’t recognize the sender’s name from any of my recent book purchases.  My faithful mail lady greeted me the next day.  I said no I hadn’t gone to the post office to pick up the package.  So, we arranged for delivery, talked of her pending retirement in two weeks after thirty-six years of service, and I became a bit wistful.  Would the next mail person be so package friendly?
            But I’m getting ahead of myself and miracles have beginnings.  I first spotted the object of my desire in a Dawson’s catalogue in 1996.  The venerable Los Angeles antiquarian firm had acquired portions of the library of Edwin Carpenter, Jr. (1915-1995), historian, librarian, bibliographer, and notable book collector.  Carpenter was associated with the Huntington Library much of his career.  He collected a wide range of subjects.  His favorite was bibliographic association copies—a kindred spirit!   He had a special affinity for Henry Wagner, Henry Harrisse, and Wilberforce Eames, for example.  Carpenter talks at length about his career and collecting in Ruth Axe’s interview Education of a Bibliophile: Edwin H. Carpenter published by the Oral History Program at UCLA in 1977.

Monday, July 29, 2019

Serendipity to Booked Up: An Associative Mailing Label



For the past seven years the heavy box has held miscellaneous issues of The Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America.  The material falls within my collection’s gray area: worth keeping and dipping into for reading / reference but not worth taking up shelf space.  So occasionally the box and others containing similar material get shuffled around for one reason or another.   Today was such a day.  Sweaty, hot work in the attic.  A pause and wipe of the brow and a glance at the label on the box.  Lo, we have something here!
                The mailing label is addressed from Peter B. Howard (d. 2011), iconic rare bookman in Berkley, California to Larry McMurtry at his store Booked Up in Archer City, Texas.   What the box originally contained is unknown.  I utilized the box among others to pack my winnings after the McMurtry auction of stock in 2012.
                This unusual association item brought back memories.   I spent time with the idiosyncratic and brilliant bookseller Peter Howard during several visits to his shop, Serendipity Books. He was a prime driver over four decades of modern literature collecting, both books and archives, issuing catalogues and developing major collections.  Larry McMurtry I know less well but I enjoyed a couple of entertaining discussions with him, particularly at the well-publicized 2012 auction of an estimated 300,000 volumes of stock from his sprawling book emporium in Archer City.  Illness issues and a lack of a book heirs drove his decision to sell.  He continues as a bookseller but in a much more streamlined mode.  McMurtry is most famous as a writer but he has bought and sold used and rare books in huge gulps over an extended career as bookseller and book scout.   I’ve written previously about both men in the essays linked below.
                The mailing label deserves preservation.  It represents two well-known American bookmen plying their trade.  It conjures the imagination of the exchange. It’s ephemeral and displays well.  And if one adds historical perspective, how many similar associative labels from years ago survive?  But I’m not here to provide justification only a few thoughts.  I carefully remove the label and place it in a mylar sleeve, a story to a share.


Peter Howard Post

Larry McMurtry Post

Monday, July 22, 2019

Stoic if Not Muscular: A New Path in Bookseller Descriptions



Often it is best to finish one’s cataloging before  beginning Happy Hour.  A bookseller friend brought these descriptions to my attention.  The dealer is fortunate to possess two copies of W. L. Distant’s A Naturalist in the Transvaal. (London: R. H. Porter, 1892).  Each copy has its own merits and so both have been separately described.  The descriptions utilize verbiage seldom, if ever, encountered in rare book cataloging. Whether this New School will take hold and invigorate the staid descriptive processes of the Classic Model remains to be seen.  Let me share them now for your enjoyment and edification.  Cheers!

Copy One
Hardcover. Condition: Fair. No Jacket. 1st Edition. This enthusiastic, energetic book is generally in fair condition. The colour plates - all complete - are startlingly fresh, detailed and vibrant. The binding is stoic if not muscular. The cloth cover has been age and storage marked and worn. There are many wear marks to the extremities. The back cover is much marked by storage. The spine is also worn and has pull depressions to the head and foot. The front and end papers are much discoloured by age. The seams to the spine are cracked through to the stitching. However, although pliable the binding is holding pages firmly. The paper trim edges are marked by storage and age. The condition of this vigorous and wonderfully entertaining and informative book inside is complete, clear and clean of annotations. Page 127 has a triangular page edge tear. There are aged marks along the binding edges throughout the book. The body of the text though is clean.

Copy Two
Hardcover. Condition: Very Good. No Jacket. First Edition. 277 pages plus five coloured plates (complete). A pleasingly comfortable copy. The boards have some shelving wear about the edges and corners, some scuffing, storage marks. The spine is sunned and rubbed from handling, there is wear to the head and foot. The seams are worn,but have been repaired. The gilt titling is placid. The illustration is clear and evocative. Within, the contents are agreeable. The frontispage (tanned) has a previous owner signature. There are some few age-related marks and spots fore and aft. Otherwise, the contents are clean, clear, certain, confident, congenial, conscientious, fresh-faced, gratifyingly healthy.


Run! The Book Description Police are Here!

Friday, July 19, 2019

We Are Many


I’ve been collecting Latin American Literature for thirty years and I like to keep an eye on the market.  An ABE online want notifies me of signed Pablo Neruda items.  A purportedly inscribed copy of We Are Many (London: Cape Goliard Press, 1967) popped up for sale the other day.  The bookseller was in England and the price ca. 250 US.  Quite a deal if true. But alas, the inscription is a facsimile found with all copies in wrappers.  The front wrapper and reproduced inscription on the rear wrapper is as follows:

Rear wrapper facsimile

I took a minute to send a friendly note letting the bookseller know it was a facsimile.  I expected no reply.  However, I got one in short order.  The bookseller wrote:

Hello Kurt,
Thank you very much for your contact overnight via Abe – and your helpful advice re facsimile text on the rear cover of the 1967 Cape Goliard 1st edition of the above book. Very timely. I have received an overnight order for this item from a customer in CA 91730 and I will mention my omission of the facsimile nature of the text to him before concluding the sale.

I was appreciative of the response and glad to help.  However, not only was the book mistakenly described but also someone in California ordered the book looking for a bargain and apparently was as na├»ve as the bookseller.  This got me thinking about the whole scenario.  How does a bookseller mis-identify an item and then top that off by massively under-pricing it under the assumption it is authentic?  How does a buyer (collector or dealer, presumably?) plunk down a quick $250 on an item without doing a little homework of their own?  Are there lessons to learn here?   

I pulled up available copies of the English edition of We are Many to see if other booksellers mentioned the facsimile inscription.  The wrappered issue was printed in an edition of 1,400 copies so the book is fairly common.  The US edition published the following year is of similar design and has the facsimile inscription.  There are approximately twenty-five copies of the various issues present.  A copy like the one offered by the mistaken bookseller can be had for $25-50. 

Presumably, you’d be an excited bookseller to find an inscribed Neruda item.  You’re not going to dartboard a price.  You’d hopefully take a bit of time to search for comparables, right?  You run the same online search as I did or some version of it.  A couple of sellers mention the facsimile inscription.  One copy appears early in the list when sorted by price ($19) and the description clearly states “There is a print of a signed note in English - in Neruda's handwriting - to Ted Hughes, on back cover. 

The bookseller disappointment would now be palpable and understandable.  Typically, this would result in the book being placed back in the general bin or cataloged at a modest price.  But somehow, this doesn’t occur, and the bookseller begins to formulate a price assuming the inscription is authentic.

 If one takes a few seconds longer and scrolls down through available copies they will encounter another issue of the book in hardcover limited to 100 copies signed by Neruda and the translator.  Now there’s a book! -- or relatively speaking at least in comparison to the regular unsigned, wrappered issue.  Multiple copies of this signed issue are available for $1,000 +.  It is not rare, but it is expensive.   

The bookseller holds in his / her hands an example in wrappers with an apparently unique inscription mentioning Ted Hughes, etc. and can see (or should) that the basic signed, limited edition goes for over $1,000.   And they somehow arrive at a price of $250.

But all is not on the bookseller.  The buyer also apparently didn’t take a minute to investigate this bargain.  Do they really trust that the bookseller’s description is sound when the item has been woefully underpriced?  Are they a beginning collector who has not studied their area of interest? Or are they a generalist / reseller who thinks a steal is in order? Perhaps the 250 price is McMoney after a good day on the stock market and the book a gift for a spouse or friend and no worries about whether it is right or not.   

I don’t know the answer and I probably won’t know.  I’m simply passing on the experience to allow my readers to ponder and have it serve as a reminder, a lesson, or a point of departure on a longer discussion.   

Pablo Neruda. “Nothing More” (from We Are Many)

I made my contract with the truth
to restore light to the earth.

I wished to be like bread.
The struggle never found me wanting.

But here I am with what I loved,
with the solitude I lost.
In the shadow of that stone, I do not rest.

The sea is working, working in my silence.