Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Use the Force: Barton W. Currie & John C. Eckel

Sometimes you just have to take matters into your own hands.  Like Luke Skywalker in the original Star Wars when he blows up the Death Star using the Force to guide him.
          This juxtaposition of science fiction and book hunting will become clear soon.  It all started after a very late night of Ebay searching followed by a chaser of Star Wars.  I grogged off in the recliner and didn’t awake until morning when my wife Nicole rattled me from my slumber.  
          It was Saturday morning so no rush.  I began breakfast and leisurely checked my email.  There was a notification from Ebay about an item ending soon.  My find from the night before was being offered at live auction by the National Book Auctions of Freeville, New York.   The book was an inscribed copy of Barton Currie’s Fishers of Books (1931), an autobiographical account of his collecting during the Roaring Twenties, and one of my favorite books.  (See my earlier blog posts about Currie.)  The cataloguer could not make out the name of the recipient because of Currie’s rather difficult handwriting but was kind enough to post a photo of the inscription.  I deciphered it and got that bookish tingle of excitement that stirs the dopamine levels.  My natural high shot to nerve-jangling heights when I clicked on the auction link and found out the auction was already in process!  The Currie lot would be coming up within the half hour.
          I was disconcerted to say the least.  The burnt smell of my now forgotten bagels lingered in the air.  In my space fog the night before, I’d not only whiffed on the urgency of the situation but also forgotten to submit an absentee / snipe bid.  The only option left was to bid manually online during the actual auction.  I couldn’t recall the last time I’d bid at auction in some sort of live fashion—either in person, phone, or online.  I’d grown soft and lazy utilizing snipe programs or absentee bids.  A bead of sweat formed and I imagined a book hunting Darth Vader swooping in from who knows where to blast me out of the auction sky.
          “Get a grip on yourself,” I whispered.  “This isn’t like you’re trying to knock down a Gutenberg Bible against Bill Gates.”
          So, I made my run through that metaphorical canyon of the Death Star, my targeting computer off, the thought of a last minute internet crash pushed from my mind, and the Force strong as my lot came up and I opened the bid.  Resistance was immediate from a Stormtrooping floor bidder.  I kept firing away –click, click, click – until I had vaporized this unknown assailant and the book was mine!
          “Not today, you bastard,” I yelled, “Not today."
          “Everything okay in there?” my wife said from the other room.
          “All is very fine, very fine indeed.”
          A moment of silence -- “What did you just buy?”
          A week later what I bought was in hand.  The presentation copy of Fishers of Books reads, “Inscribed for John C. Eckel, to whom I am indebted for some of the more fortunate adventures that have occurred in the course of my book hunting.  Barton Currie, Nov. 11, [19]31.”
          John C. Eckel, noted Dickens bibliographer, collector, and fellow Philadelphian, was a close friend of Currie.  Currie, inspired by Eckel, developed a strong Dickens collection and features it prominently in the book.  Currie mentions Eckel and his writings numerous times in connection with Dickens and recommends his bibliography.   Currie writes, “Even though you begin at the very bottom with a first edition (the book, not the parts) of The Mystery of Edwin Drood, hunt industriously until you discover a fine copy.  Before making this modest purchase, buy a copy of First Editions of Charles Dickens, by John C. Eckel (London: 1913), and seek also for the Grolier Club Catalogue of the Works of Charles Dickens.  Absorb all you can from these two valuable guides, then hit the trail” (p. 55).
          Eckel’s bibliography First Editions of Charles Dickens, first published in 1913 was revised in 1932.  Eckel also wrote Prime Pickwick in Parts (1928) with an introduction by A. Edward Newton, a good friend of both Eckel and Currie.
          Eckel maintained regular contact with many members of the book trade including prominent Philadelphia dealers A.S.W. Rosenbach and Charles Sessler.  He cited numerous other dealers and collectors for their help on both the first and revised editions of the bibliography.  The majority of Eckel’s library was sold by Anderson Galleries on Jan. 15-16, 1935 and scattered to the winds.
          Eckel’s position of prominence and respect in the rarified book world of his time makes this an important association copy: not only sentimental for the friendship it highlights but also for its broader appeal as an important artifact in the history of American book collecting.
          Now back in the present, a number of my friends have recommended I see the latest Star Wars spin-off Rogue One.  An excellent suggestion but you better believe I’ll be checking any potential auction bids closely before heading to the movie theater. 

On a chilly morning a few days after my blog post, I received an email from Richard Gresh.  I didn’t know Gresh but discovered that his mutual interest in Currie had led him to my blog.  He collects the Cape Cod author Joseph C. Lincoln, a friend of Currie.  Gresh was kind enough to notify me that there was a Currie letter to Eckel for sale on Ebay.  (It turned out there were two letters.)  The letters were listed as “buy it now” instead of at auction so I hadn’t seen them.
          I immediately swooped down like a Star Wars X-wing fighter plane at full throttle.  Within a few moments both letters were mine.  And what magnificent letters they are!  Each referred directly to Fishers of Books and the signing of a copy for Eckel.  The seller of the letters had nothing to do with the auction house where I got the book.  The serendipity of this whole episode reinforced my belief in a benevolent Book Deity.  In reality, it was a fellow collector generously sharing his knowledge with another.  I have found such camaraderie to happen frequently, unless of course one has an interest in the same item.  Amor Librorum Nos Unit. 
          Barton Currie’s letter dated Oct. 12, 1931, reads in part, “Dear Mr. Eckel:  Many thanks for your kind comments on my book [Fishers of Books].  I dropped in to [Morris] Parrish’s twice to sign your copy but it was not there.  I had a lot of fun writing the ‘opus’ but hardly thought it would have the spread of interest it seems to have developed. . . .”  Currie writes again in a different vein on Oct. 28, 1931, “You are a brave man to attempt to say anything good of my book after the reviews in the Saturday Review of Literature and The Publisher’s Weekly.  The latter calls it a dangerous book.  The reviewer works for The Brick Row Bookshop and I have one or two veiled references as to how I was almost bilked by [Byrne] Hackett [proprietor of The Brick Row].  But the Sat. Rev. of Lit. goes out of its way to be nasty. . .  Of course, I attacked the special pets of the review, and failed to include [Christopher] Morley as among the worth-while Americans to gather in, but I stated plainly enough that I reserved the right to collect whoever I damn pleased, and I never will include Morley. . . I’ll get in to Parrish’s in a day or so and write in your book.”

            So indeed Currie did visit Parrish shortly after and inscribe the Fishers for Eckel now in my collection.  Morris L. Parrish (1867-1944), the mutual friend of Currie and Eckel, was a fellow Philadelphian and famous book collector.  Parrish focused on Victorian authors and was a condition fiend, allowing only the finest copies in their original state on his shelves.  In doing so he established the legendary “Parrish condition.”  Parrish wrote a number of ground-breaking bibliographies of Victorian authors, the most famous being Victorian Lady Novelists: George Eliot, Mrs. Gaskell, the Bronte Sisters, First Editions in the Library at Dormy House, Pine Valley, New Jersey, Described with Notes. (1933), limited to 150 copies.   His collection eventually went en toto to Princeton University.
          And serendipitously yet again—to end my story with a gilting of the edges--I happen to already own a copy of Victorian Lady Novelists inscribed appropriately to Currie, “For ‘Fishers of Books’ from ‘Victorian Lady Novelists,’ 12th Sep. ’33.”

I am ready and willing for a sequel should it come.  May the Force be with me.

Thursday, December 1, 2016


Front cover of the dust jacket
The Unpublishable Memoirs (1917) --this first (and last) literary effort of bookseller A.S.W. Rosenbach is a highly entertaining read about a bibliophile who will stop at nothing to acquire the books he wants.  It is not intended to be heavy literature or a deeply philosophical tome but it’s certainly a pleasurable biblio-romp.  Edwin Wolf & John Fleming record in their biography Rosenbach (1960) that the “eminent English bibliographer Alfred Pollard found the stories irresistible and ‘gluttonously read them through in an evening, which was not fair play.’”  William Roberts’ favorable review in the Times Literary Supplement compared the work to the writings of W. W. Jacobs and Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes (see Roberts’ copy below).
Recently, I bought a copy inscribed to Percy Lawler who worked closely with Rosenbach for over thirty years and who managed the Philadelphia branch of Rosenbach’s store.  I nestled it on my shelves with another half dozen or so association copies of the same title gathered in the last twenty-five years.  Rosenbach was not shy about inscribing copies and I’ve seen numerous examples offered.  I fished these particular ones from the stream because of their above average association interest.  So, sitting here over the Thanksgiving holiday with a little free time, I thought I’d provide a tour.  I’ll highlight six of the association copies in my collection.  Each is exceptional in its own manner and together they showcase Rosenbach’s deep personal and professional engagement with the rare book world. 
First, let’s briefly review the book’s background.  Wolf & Fleming write, “Almost the last flare-up of his creativity, in a literary sense, must have occurred about this time [ca. 1910], the writing of the short stories published as The Unpublishable Memoirs.  The Doctor never said when he had written these fictitious tales of the unscrupulous bibliophile Hooker, but it seems most likely that they constituted his farewell gesture to a former way of life.  That they were not published until 1917, when the name A.S.W. Rosenbach was appearing rather widely in news stories, is merely an indication that his friend Mitchell Kennerley, over whose imprint they appeared, knew that publication is the sincerest form of flattery, and that a good time to flatter a man is when he is on the way up. . . .
            “It was not difficult for Kennerley to persuade the never overmodest author to permit him to publish the anecdotes of the bibliographical amoralist Robert Hooker.  . . copies of The Unpublishable Memoirs were sent wide and far with the author’s compliments.  Satisfying letters of thanks came back to reward him. . .  The publication of the book provided some enjoyable excitement at a time when the great world at war and the small world of books were overcast with deep black clouds.”
Here are the copies....

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Six Score and More: Wallowing in It with Bill Reese

I've been recently wallowing in rare books with noted bookseller Bill Reese.  Not literally, but via the Rare Book School podcast of his June 15, 2016 talk, “Starting Out: My Early Days as a Rare Book Dealer,”  Bill’s entertaining account of his biblio-youth in the 1970s that focuses primarily on Yale and Texas, two seemingly disparate paths connected by his early interest in Western Americana.  Reese discusses a brilliant sky of prominent bookmen and women who influenced him.  He ends with an observation about his pre-digital experiences garnered at the Yale libraries and via the rare book trade:
“In the pre-digital age . . .  one could really only learn and obtain knowledge of material by being absorbed in it and soaking in it.  I had the great good fortune to have the ability to wallow in vast amounts of material and be able to soak in a huge amount of knowledge through it.  . . . One of the things that has obscured the digital age is the difference between knowledge and information.    Information is now readily available all the time in every form, we think we can look it all up, and to a degree we can look things up in ways we never could before, but being able to look things up without the knowledge, and the knowledge that only can be obtained by literally wallowing in the material is I think the difference between true deep book knowledge and simply accessed information.”
             I’m familiar with this pre-digital wallowing.  I had the opportunity in my college days in the late 1980s to have three years free-reign of the stacks of the Ransom Center at the University of Texas (and other libraries on campus) during an internship.  I combined this with frequent visits to bookshops in Austin and San Antonio and all served as a marinade of biblio-learning that no amount of internet surfing can replace.  Wallowing is still available by the way—libraries are still filled with books, bookstores are still out there, rare book classes and schools are flourishing, and most dealers are more than happy to share their experiences.  One just needs to make a concerted effort to dive in.    
            Reese’s talk is delivered to me digitally but it feels like an old-school radio show with no video or a printed transcript as a crutch.  I pause the recording for a moment to crack open a Live Oak Hefeweisen, settle back on the couch sipping my brew, pet the fat cat sprawled next to me, and close my eyes to listen.  About twenty minutes into his lecture Reese discusses his four primary mentors at Yale: Archibald Hanna, Charles Montgomery, Donald Gallup, and Fritz Liebert.  All but Montgomery are familiar to me as prominent bookmen.  As Reese talks about Montgomery a flicker of recognition ignites in my mind but it is a slow burn.  My eyes are open now and I listen intently. 
            Montgomery (1910-1978) was an “extraordinary character” says Reese.  He began as a dealer in decorative arts and antiques and was hired as a curator in 1949 by Henry Francis DuPont to develop the Winterthur Museum and Library in Delaware.  In 1954, Montgomery became director of Winterthur.  After retiring, he came to Yale in 1970 to teach.  Reese took a class from him and soon learned that Montgomery, like Archibald Hanna, “knew everybody and had been everywhere.”   Montgomery was “absolutely fearless in taking his classes out to see things.”  
Reese recounts an example when “he took a group of us to the Frick Museum. . .  there was this amazing Boulle table that even in those days was probably worth a couple million dollars. . .  Charlie was very insistent that everybody understand the woods involved and things like that.  So, we’re standing in the Frick’s drawing room . . . and Charlie turns to me and another and says, ‘Bill, Joe, turn that table over’ . . . before the director could say anything we picked the table up and turned it over and I look up and the director of the Frick is standing there with his jaw hung open but it was too late to do anything about it so we got away with it.  That’s the way Charlie was, you went in, you wanted to see something, you picked it up and looked at it.  That was a great lesson, too.  That gall could get you a long way,” Reese says finishing his recollection with a laugh.  Charlie’s “brashness” and knowledge made quite an impact on the young Reese.
The flicker of recognition becomes a bonfire and I pause the recording.
 “Son of a biscuit,” I say loudly to the cat that is startled awake.  I can still move fairly quickly when motivated and motivated I am.    I’m up from the couch and heading full tilt for the bookshelves in the master bedroom.  There is no exact order to my books but I know the general area to search.  I can’t find it right off, damn it –take a deep breath--and then success:  the tall, thin tome is top shelf left, and I soon cradle it in my hands like a newly discovered relic.   The book is Reese’s precocious Six Score: the 120 Best Books on the Range Cattle Industry (Austin: 1976).  I bought the book on Ebay in 2010 from a dealer in New Hampshire.  The copy was inscribed and the price modest and that was enough. 
The inscription reads: “For Charles Montgomery, My first book—far afield from decorative arts, but another side of Texas from Miss Ima Hogg.  Best, Bill Reese, July 27, 1976.” 

My original catalogue slip is in the book.  I’d dutifully researched the information then available on the web to identify Charles Montgomery and sketched out a biography.  I explained briefly Reese’s reference to Ima Hogg, Texas philanthropist, patron, and collector of the arts, but I certainly didn’t realize the full importance of the association—until now.  
I immediately phone Douglas Adams, my friend who tipped me off to the Reese podcast, “I just found an awesome association copy,” I say excitedly. 
            “What did you buy?”
            “Nada.  It is already in my collection,” and I tell him the story in full.
            I gently place the book on the shelf and linger a moment admiring it from a fresh perspective.  Now is time for a catalogue revision and a surprise email to Bill Reese. 
I’m wallowing in it, indeed.


Bill Reese read the essay and was kind enough to reply:
"A few further notes on your copy of SIX SCORE. I finished writing the book in late 1975 and gave it to Jenkins, who got it out in a boxed set with Ramon Adams' book in July, 1976. I spent that June and July cataloging books in Texas, including a lot of time at the Jenkins company going through Eberstadt books. I had the first copies with me when I came through New Haven briefly in the last week of July to organize my apartment for the next year. Charles Montgomery's wife Florence and I shared a birthday-July 29- and several years had a birthday dinner together. We did it early in 1976 because I was turning 21 that July 29 and was having dinner with my family, then going to Europe for the rest of the summer the next day. So I had dinner with the Montgomery's a few days early, on the 27th, which is when I gave Charlie the book.
As I suggested in my talk, Charlie was a great inspiration to me, and he and his wife became good friends as well as mentors. Sadly he died in the fall of 1978, of a heart attack.   All best,   Bill"