A recent visit from collector and bookseller Kevin Mac Donnell resulted in a wide-ranging conversation meandering down many paths including an untrodden one. His recollection of my brief book collecting guide written over two decades ago gave me pause. The essay originally appeared in the February 1997 issue of Firsts: The Book Collector’s Magazine. I had forgotten all about it. I wrote the piece while working at Butterfield & Butterfield auction house. My effort was inspired by a combination of sorting thousands of estate sale books, a particularly encouraging book department staff, and a then recent reading of New Paths in Book Collecting (1934). My guide was surprisingly never reprinted, nor has it been available online. A re-awakened combination of guilt and angst over this situation calls for rectitude. Who am I to be so selfish, to hoard such knowledge from the greater book world, to prevent future collectors from drawing on the bonanza of my experience? So, here it is as written with the original illustrations. Timeless wisdom needs no revision.
Wednesday, January 2, 2019
Saturday, June 9, 2018
Bookseller William Reese stood with my wife and me in his private room / biblio-lair at his shop at 409 Temple Street, New Haven, Connecticut. It was a beautiful fall day in 2015. The juxtaposition of large, blue exercise ball upon a bed surrounded by bookcases of bibliographic delights was momentarily disconcerting. Reese gave a hearty laugh as we discussed the importance of keeping one’s back and “core” in good shape. The tall, lanky Reese had been a long-distance runner in his younger days and was no stranger to exercise. Today however it was all about the sentimental library that surrounded us. For he and I both shared a love for the history of book collecting, particularly copies with interesting associations. And this was his private stash. And he had granted me unfettered access to browse at will. Nicole said later that it was the only time she’d seen me star struck. And I was.
We all talked briefly, too briefly, Bill pointing out a few things, then he excused himself for a doctor’s appointment. Stay as long as you want, he said, as he exited. It was my first visit to his shop and the last time I saw Bill Reese. Unknown to us at the time, the doctor’s visit was one of many in a long battle with cancer that would eventually take his life last week on June 4th. Few knew his condition or how sick he'd become.
I suspected, though. In the last couple of years, he wrote and published a flurry of five bibliographic works and a collection of essays. He was running his last race and wanted to make it a good one. These final publications round out a career of rare bookselling matched by few in the long history of the American book trade. Reese assumes his place in the pantheon among Henry Stevens, A.S.W. Rosenbach, Lathrop Harper, and the Eberstadts.
Reese specialized in Americana of all periods, spanning the arrival of Columbus to the settling of the West and beyond. He was a bookselling prodigy as a teen, beginning his career while an undergraduate at Yale, and cutting his teeth in Texas working briefly for bookseller Fred White, Jr, before venturing out on his own in 1979. His friendly nature, wit, raw intelligence, and acumen at buying and selling, let him command the Americana market for almost forty years. The best material passed through his hands both at auction and privately. The best collections bear his influential stamp. But I’m not here to list his professional accomplishments in detail. Others will certainly do that. I want to share something more personal in my homage to Bill Reese.
Bill given his stature in his field, could have been arrogant, dismissive, pretentious, or unresponsive. But he was not. His interaction with yours truly is certainly as good example as any.
While in graduate school, ca. 1990, I took Michael Winship’s bibliography class. Winship noted my already incubating interest in the history of the rare book world and loaned me a copy of Bill Reese’s senior thesis, Winnowers of the Past: The Americanist Tradition in the Nineteenth Century (1977). Reese details the history of 19th century Americana collecting with a focus on the famous collectors and dealers of the period. This still unpublished thesis blew me away. I dove right in and when I surfaced I was one inspired book hunter. So, this serendipitous read is foundational to my own collecting and by extension provided much of the related joy I’ve experienced over the years.
Bill Reese had gotten my attention, although it would be awhile before I returned the favor. I worked for bookseller Dorothy Sloan who knew Bill well. I was present when she spoke with Bill on the phone – always an interesting exchange of book minutia, trade talk, and occasional gossip. I recall talking to him directly, but it was punctual and of no great import. I had heard his voice though, exchanged pleasantries and the connection was established. I also began reading the William Reese catalogues, marveling at the material offered and descriptions within. Ironically, I purchased from the Reese literary catalogues, not the Americana. My impecunious budget (and interest) led me to the literary side managed by Terry Halladay, a symbiotic bookselling match with Reese, the two working together for four decades. I should note here that Bill Reese was not confined to Americana. His personal collecting interests were wide: for example, he assembled over many years an impressive library of color plate books and what is certainly the best collection of Herman Melville in private hands.
By the mid-1990s, I was a cataloguer and then director of the rare book department at Butterfield’s & Butterfield’s (now Bonham’s) auction house on the West Coast. Bill Reese was an important buyer of Americana at our sales. I would send advance copies of our catalogues and personal emails to market them. We began to interact formally. He bid and was highly successful. Sometimes he and dealer Graham Arader, another major figure, would unwittingly butt heads via phone bidding to the delight of our department. If Bill lost an item, he was a gracious loser (unlike some others), although it personally bothered me because by now I was a member of the Reese fan club.
I was fortunate to be present several times when he bid in person at auction. The most memorable was our Los Angeles sale of February 14, 1996 in conjunction with the ABAA Book Fair. A rare copy of Smith’s The Generall Historie of Virginia (1632) with maps of New England and Virginia was being offered. Reese entered the room and soon had a big smile, shaking hands and talking with colleagues, towering over them literally (at about 6’ 4”) and figuratively. But then the action began, and he calmly, quietly and relentlessly bid against E. Forbes Smiley III for the book. Smiley was a big man, heavy set, sweating, and nervous as he raised his paddle. They went back and forth tennis match style until the book hammered at $41,400. I savored the moment. Many years later, the competing bidder would be found guilty of stealing millions of dollars’ worth of maps from libraries and sent to prison.
When I left the trade and assumed “collector only” status, our contact was intermittent. I began to gather material related directly to Reese—books written by him, special catalogues, inscribed material, ephemera. I would see him at the ABAA Book Fairs and visit him briefly at his booth. But he was in work mode and typically didn’t have time to chat much.
My friend and fellow collector, Douglas Adams, knowing my admiration for Bill, prodded me to have more interaction with him. Look at this, he said, and showed me his copy of The Immense and Distinguished Half-Title Collection Formed by John H. Jenkins III, Esq. of Austin, Texas, Now Elucidated (1980), an elaborate spoof played on Johnny Jenkins in which Reese played a primary role. Only ca. 25 copies were produced. Douglas had sent his copy to Bill for examination and comment. Bill wrote a full-page inscription in the book outlining the story and his role.
I listened. And when I acquired a batch of material from Texas bookseller Ray Walton’s personal library I sent a special item to Reese to peruse. Reese had known Walton well. Walton was a colorful cohort of Johnny Jenkins in the Texas bookselling scene of the 1970s and 80s. The item was Walton’s heavily annotated copy of Reese’s first book Six Score: The 120 Best Books on the Range Cattle Industry (1976). Reese not only inscribed it to me but went through the book, writing comments on Walton’s earlier notes both negatively and positively. This was well beyond the call of duty and I was thrilled. Another catalyst in our burgeoning friendship was Jeff Dykes, the noted collector and bookseller of Western Americana. I had an 8 x 10 glossy of Dykes dated from the 1960s inscribed to Ray Walton. A scan of this amused Bill and he recalled his early encounters with Dykes. Walton had what I can only describe as a book dealer photo fetish and other photos of bookmen inscribed to him found their way into my collection, including ones to Jenkins and Texas Senator Ralph Yarborough, a prominent collector. I sent scans of these to Bill, too. One of my regrets is not printing up an 8x10 of Reese and having him inscribe it to me as an amusing aside.
We were having a little fun now. And I must thank my wife Nicole for her role in a memorable chat with Reese at a book fair a few years ago that also broke the ice. I’d said hello to Reese earlier in the day but played my usual role of hanging back, not wanting to bother him. Nicole thought this all rather silly. In a quiet moment on a Sunday afternoon of the fair she linked arms with me and literally dragged me to his booth. Fortified by her presence, I relaxed and had an entertaining talk with Bill and Terry Halladay. It wasn’t a lengthy conversation, but it was informal and for the first time I felt that Bill fully recognized me as a kindred spirit with our shared biblio interests.
Momentum built. The visit to his shop in 2015. And in July of 2016 I wrote a blog essay about another copy of Bill Reese’s Six Score with a sentimental inscription. I had acquired the book years earlier and only of late discovered the importance of the association. I surprised Bill with the essay and he much enjoyed it. I added his commentary as postscript and we corresponded further. And I knew it was time. Time to share with him the full extent of my biblio-collection. He would not find it overwhelming.
I realized a personal visit to my home was remote, or at best in the future, so I printed out a copy of my private library catalogue—some 800 pages in 9-point type—bound it in old school stiff red covers and metal clasps (the same as his senior thesis was issued forty years before) and sent it on. No word for a little while. Not unexpected, he was a busy man, and sicker than most of us knew, and I’d just dropped a phone book-sized catalogue on him unsolicited. Then it came.
Yesterday we had a nice blizzard here in New Haven, and as everybody was exhausted from the Book Fair we just closed for the day, and I spent a pleasant day at home catching up on reading. This gave me a chance to really spend some quality time with your catalogue, which I had not previously been able to do with back-to-back fairs and much going on business-wise. Nothing like a snow day! In any case, I want to congratulate you both on the accomplishment of putting the collection together and on your excellent annotations, which open up a vast trove of bibliographical and bibliopolical lore. I very much enjoyed running across many old friends, both ones I knew personally and ones I had encountered in book history. Also, I'm impressed by your willingness to have multiple copies of the same book! All best, Bill Reese
Writing this has become hard now. The memories have me deeply saddened and I’m lamenting the fact there will be no further interactions. There was so much I wanted to tell him and so much more I wanted to hear. We were both big admirers of Charles Everitt’s Adventures of a Treasure Hunter (1951), one of the best bookseller memoirs. I prodded Bill to write his own memoirs and he said he was, but I don’t think it happened—fleeting time, illness, and life cruelly short. It would have been the best of them all. I know it. But I’m grateful for what he did write and gave to the book world and while he was busy building important collections, buying and selling great books, and becoming one of the finest antiquarian booksellers of all, he took time to be my friend.
Sunday, March 25, 2018
The release of a bibliographical work many decades in the making is quite an achievement. One that breaks entirely new ground is cause for celebration. Such is John Payne’s Great Catalogues by Master Booksellers (Austin: 2017). Mr. Payne, who authored the standard bibliographies of John Steinbeck and W. H. Hudson, brings his formidable skills to bear on a subject long of interest to him.
He writes in the preface, “Bookshops open and close. Booksellers retire, change professions, and pass on. What remains, other than memories and reputations, are their catalogues, the lasting tangible record of a bookseller’s creativity and expertise—a remembrance, a talisman.
“Catalogues reflect booksellers’ personalities, preferences, and priorities, the nature of their stock, sources of inventory, the evolution of bibliographical sophistication, and their relationships with others in the trade. Catalogues also reveal friendships that sometimes develop between booksellers and their clients. The best catalogues display scholarship in abundance.
“Great Catalogues by Master Booksellers was begun during my year as a Lilly Fellow at The Lilly Library at Indiana University, studying under the irrepressible David A. Randall, where I discovered The Lilly’s collection of booksellers’ catalogues. During my succeeding seventeen years’ work with the Harry Ransom Center at The University of Texas Austin, I took the opportunity to examine its collection of 20,000+ booksellers’ catalogues assembled from the reference collection of the rare book dealer, James F. Drake, and the private libraries of Christopher Morley, Evelyn Waugh, William Targ, and others. I sought out the most important, most interesting, and most entertaining catalogues.
“Work on Great Catalogues lay undisturbed but unforgotten for twenty-five years, from the time I left the Ransom Center in 1985 to 2010. These were the years I established and operated Payne Associates, an appraisal firm for rare books and archives, an ongoing scholarly enterprise. By the time I returned to Great Catalogues, my perspective had changed. Rather than simply identifying my choice of the most important catalogues and describing them in checklist form, I then realized the value of reproducing and introductory essays written by England’s and America’s most distinguished booksellers, bibliographers, and librarians on the most popularly collected subjects.
“My preliminary catalogue selection from the Ransom Center was expanded by research visits to the Grolier Club in New York and the Huntington Library in San Marino, California, and again at The Lilly Library. I then asked booksellers and others for comments and recommendations for additional titles. All were winnowed down to these one hundred and forty [selections].
“Great Catalogues describes catalogues published by American and English booksellers during the nineteen to twenty-first centuries. Sufficient bibliographical particulars are given to identify each catalogue, including variants.”
I would at this point typically give you my review of the work. However, having been privileged to write the introduction, I will simply state that the success of such an endeavor is whether it serves as a valuable reference, stirs long-term interest in the subject, and provides a coherent framework to discuss and build upon. In these ways, I feel its success is assured. Great Catalogues by Master Booksellers goes one step further by illuminating an area of bibliography that has been surprisingly neglected.
How does an individual or library obtain a copy? I received the following information from Mr. Payne:
I want to take this opportunity to forward to you my announcement of the recent publication of Great Catalogues by Master Booksellers.
Great Catalogues is a fine press production designed and printed by Bill & David Holman of Austin, under the imprint, Roger Beacham Publishers, with only 200 copies of the 300-regular edition available for sale. The net price is $225. It is a substantial quarto, running close to 500 pages, printed on high quality paper, bound in a fine red cloth, filled with detailed descriptions and excerpts from the catalogues and highly illustrated in color. Great Catalogues presents my selection of 140 significant English and American rare booksellers’ catalogues, 19th-21st century.
Because each catalogue description includes the bookseller’s Preface or Introduction by a guest writer, the book has become an unexpected anthology of essays about the most popularly collected subjects written by England’s and America’s most distinguished booksellers, collectors and rare book librarians. The 100 Special Copies bound in quarter morocco will be available ca April 1, 2018, priced $450. The Regular Copies, bound in full red cloth, are currently available at $225. Because I am giving 100+ Regular Copies to booksellers and others who have assisted me with the preparation of my book, I am unable to provide a bookseller’s discount for this first printing.
Please send orders, comments, or questions to John R. Payne at 2309 Camino Alto, Austin, TX 78746 or email@example.com Phone: 512-328-4535.
Sunday, February 25, 2018
The general inspiration for this “bibliocatechism” came from John T. Winterich’s Collector’s Choice (1926), a gathering of essays offering advice to book collectors. He devoted a chapter to his own bibliocatechism of fifty questions. His was more weighted to general literary topics than this. I thought a version focusing on rare book hunters would be an appropriate homage. The questions are wide-ranging within the subject and carry no theme beyond whatever came to mind. May this entertainment stretch your biblio-knowledge and provide a few moments of pleasant distraction. Answers are found at the end.
Tuesday, February 6, 2018
I got a good book in today and it was pretty darn thrilling. Not thrilling in the sense of taking your first sky dive or watching your team win the Super Bowl – but more of an internal rush without the involuntary exclamations or high-fives. It’s a feeling difficult to share with others unless they are of a biblio-bent. So that’s why I’m sharing it with you, because if you are reading this you’re either a bibliophile or a relative.
The book that thrilled me is the first American edition of Richard de Bury’s Philobiblon, A Treatise on the Love of Books (Albany, NY: Joel Munsell, 1861). The book was published in an edition of 230 copies (30 on large paper) by the noted printer Munsell for Samuel Hand who edited the volume. This intriguing example is one of the 200 regular copies and is inscribed by Hand to a “Mr. Porter.” There is also a bookplate of a “Johann S. Lawrence.” I had heard of none of these gentlemen when I reeled in the book with little resistance on Ebay. It is the only presentation copy I’ve encountered. And those of you who follow me know of my utter incapability to resist a potentially interesting association item.
Monday, December 18, 2017
|Rolland Comstock in his Library|
Tuesday, December 5, 2017
Herein lies a story English bibliophile Thomas Dibdin himself would be proud of telling. That it involves his book Bibliomania (1811) would certainly make him all the more enthusiastic (a quality he never lacked in abundance). A primary character in my story is a mighty book collector so famous in Dibdin’s lifetime and beyond that he inhabits the rarified biblio-Pantheon as a legendary figure. The story also is footnoted with both English and American auction sales, an early 19th-century American book collector in Savannah, Georgia, a Grolier Club member, ex- library markings, and Ohio booksellers.