Thursday, October 16, 2014

The Grand Experiment

“He jumped. He jumped and I couldn’t stop him,” my wife said frantically to the ambulance driver, “He was out of his mind.  My God, he was out of mind.”
            I was strapped down in an ambulance, unconscious and injured badly, paramedic hovering, as it bounced and sped to the hospital.
            But I’m getting ahead of myself.  It had all started off a month earlier so serenely, so innocently, so risk free.  And I must credit no one but yours truly with the idea: an idea that manifested itself over thirty days into a dangerous, terror-filled biblio-ride with unforeseen consequences. 

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Stephen H. Wakeman: American Literature Enthusiast

Stephen H. Wakeman

“If you can get that,” said Mr. Wakeman, “all right.  But remember that the collection is to be offered to no one but Mr. Morgan. . . “
          Surprises await even the most assiduous of biblio-readers.  I encountered this passage in George S. Hellman’s largely forgotten book, Lanes of Memory (1927), a collection of autobiographical essays.  Hellman (1878-1958) was a prolific writer and editor.  He was also a dealer and collector of rare autographs, manuscripts, books and art.   In the early 20th century, Hellman sold exceptional literary material to J. Pierpont Morgan and other prominent collectors.  His discursive essays rambled down many literary bypaths and gems of manuscript and book hunting surfaced irregularly.  None read better than his chapter on selling material to J. Pierpont Morgan.  It was Hellman who facilitated the sale of collector Stephen H. Wakeman’s exceptional gathering of American literary manuscripts to Morgan.  That episode, a portion of which is dangled above as a prelude, is reproduced in its entirety below.  Hellman’s account is an unusually candid insider’s view of a blockbuster transaction.  Hellman had an advantage in his retelling.  He originally supplied Wakeman much of the manuscript material including the famous Thoreau journals.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Book Orphans Adopted: A Varied View of Ex-Library Copies

The mere sight of an ex-library copy on the bookshelf of a serious collector is usually met with disdain by other aficionados.  Let the book be bound in a sturdy library buckram binding with call numbers on the spine and the disdain becomes palpable.  The collector can be somewhat excused if it is a rare item and the book is merely holding a spot for the “upgraded” copy yet to come.  This leniency is heightened a bit if the collector assumes an apologetic tone.
            Ex-library copies are held in disfavor by collectors for a number of reasons.  The physical “mutilation” of the ex-library book is most troubling.  Distasteful ownership markings of all types are usually combined with missing endpapers, battered bindings, and utilitarian repairs.  This doesn’t suit a collector’s temperament for books in original condition or fine bindings.  There are other psychological factors involved but that is the nut of it.  Ex-library copies are inferior in the eyes of collectors and no amount of therapy, rationalization, or browbeating is going to change this rule of the book collecting game.  Rules however can be successfully bent if not broken.
            Writer and friend Nicholas Basbanes calls his own gathering of ex-library copies his “Orphan Collection.”  Scattered throughout my shelves are a number of ex-library orphans that are not only integral to my collection but also hold an honored place.   A brief description of some of them can provide a new perspective on the most humble of books.  My personal collection focuses on association copies related to the history of American book collecting.  A little imagination on the part of collectors of other areas could well raise their own occasional ex-library encounter to a higher level of appreciation.  Librarians may also view their holdings in a different light.
            Not long ago I acquired an ex-library copy for the price of a fast food lunch.  This example formerly resided in the Free Library of Philadelphia.  The book was A.S.W. Rosenbach’s Books and Bidders (1927), an autobiographical account of Rosenbach’s adventures in dealing.  “Rosy” (1876-1952) was knowledgeable, enthusiastic, shrewd, and personable, never missing a chance to promote book collecting.  He dominated the antiquarian book trade in the first half of the 20th century and helped build many important collections including those of Henry Huntington, Henry and Emily Folger, and Pierpont Morgan.  I already owned copies of Books and Bidders inscribed by Rosenbach to various notables.  What intrigued me however about this association was Rosenbach’s close connection to the Free Library.  Rosenbach, a Philadelphian, supported the library throughout his long career.  He served on the board of trustees, hosted exhibits and talks at the library, raised funds to purchase material for their rare book collections, and most importantly, donated his private collection of rare early American children’s books to the library.  The nucleus of this sentimental collection was inherited from his favorite uncle and mentor, Moses Polock, a Philadelphia bookseller.  The Free Library of Philadelphia was probably closer to Rosenbach’s heart than any other institution.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Knowing When to Quit: The 1964 Smoking Report

I really should quit reading haphazardly.  As a collector it is bad for my financial health and shelf space. This habit occasionally sparks a willpower failure and results in the purchase of something totally unexpected.  On reflection, it is not the reading itself that is dangerous but easy access to online book searching while I’m reading.  However, books happen and the postal lady—named Judy, now a close friend--just dropped off this latest addition.  It is I think a great association item and I imagine long after I’m gone it will assume its proper place in the book pantheon, perhaps foundationing a future collection that I would admire but probably couldn’t afford.  I’m just glad I got to it first.  As formidable English collector Michael Sadleir said, ”In nature, the bird who gets up earliest catches the most worms, but in book collecting the prizes fall to birds who know worms when they see them.”
            The catalyst was a glance at the January 11, 2014 news headline, “Historic Smoking Report Marks 50th Anniversary.” 

I read the first few paragraphs of the AP story:

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

“Sparks to the Dry Tinder in the Mind” -- A. Edward Newton’s The Amenities of Book-Collecting

Few collectors have ridden the book collecting hobby harder or with more enthusiasm than A[lfred]. Edward Newton (1864-1940).  Indeed, none have been able to infuse into others a virulent contagion for the grand sport like Newton did through his writings.  Even now, almost 100 years later, his wide-ranging biblio-essays continue to provide inspiration and entertainment.  His first and most famous contribution to bibliophilic literature was The Amenities of Book-Collecting and Kindred Affections (1918).  This diverse collection of essays reflects Newton as a man and as a collector.  The book would go through eight printings in his lifetime and be honored with a separate edition in the Modern Library series.

Monday, December 9, 2013

A Mighty Biblio-Wallop in a Small Package: Grolier Club Beginnings

This small, modestly printed 19th-century booklet I hold in my hand, entitled Jean Grolier, packs a biblio-wallop in terms of rarity. Only six copies of Jean Grolier are recorded in American libraries via WorldCat. I know of two more, including my own.  Rarity is meaningless, however, without some other distinguishing feature.  In this instance Jean Grolier is possibly the first separate publication of the Grolier Club of New York City, established in 1884, the oldest and mightiest organization of bibliophiles in the United States. The booklet is a biographical sketch of the eminent French bibliophile Jean Grolier and namesake of the Grolier Club.  It lays claim to a genesis from which sprang hundreds of important publications issued by the Club.  Ironically, among such bibliographical redwoods little is known of the booklet’s publication history.  My copy was acquired over a decade ago and since then I’ve gathered bits and pieces related to its production.  The information remains fragmentary but a clearer picture has emerged.  The Jean Grolier booklet is not entirely unknown.  Grolier Club Director, Eric Holzenberg & member George Ong did preliminary digging with the publication of their 'For Jean Grolier & His Friends': 125 Years of Grolier Club Exhibitions & Publications 1884-2008. (2009). We’ll utilize their findings as we go.  For reference, the traditional first publication of the Club, printed in December 1884, is A Decree of the Star Chamber Concerning Printing. 
The Jean Grolier booklet. 16mo. 14 p.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Book Huntin’ on the Bayou—A Rare Texana Item Surfaces

Douglas Adams—friend, book scout, bibliophile, and collector of literary forgeries—is having a mighty fine lunch break.  We can imagine a burger or burrito hastily consumed to leave plenty of time for a scouting stop.  Priorities in order.  After a quick smoke, he steps into a run-down antique store on Westheimer Avenue in Houston, Texas, for a look around.  It’s hot as hell outside and inside isn’t much better.  You sweat so much in the humid air you think you’ve just been swimming.  The building is older than much of the material within:  furniture, rugs, paintings, household items, and smaller knick-knacks.  An item almost missed in an overflowing display case draws our intrepid book scout. Almost is the key word because Douglas misses very little while on the hunt, and he is always on the hunt.  This display case yields a real beauty—a find so rare and marvelous that the book’s acquisition is the kind of story swapped among bookmen for years to come.  But first it must be bought.  There is no price and a helpful lady at the store, glad to see something go, quotes $50.  Douglas is so excited he forgets to bargain.  He has to tell somebody and I’m lucky enough to get a phone call shortly afterwards.
“I just found something really good,” he says.
“What?  Run of Playboys with centerfolds intact?”
“Nada.  How about the first city directory of Houston, 1866, in original boards, with the map.
            There is a pause on my end as my mind kicks into high gear (I can hear my wife laughing while reading that).  Early directories of major cities are highly sought-after and normally expensive.  They’re also rare because they were thrown away over the years like old phone books.  The information found within such directories—people, businesses, the advertisements, all primary source material for historians and the curious. In this instance, the book itself is a treasured relic from the embryonic beginnings of a burgeoning metropolis now over two million strong.
“Damn,” I reply, “that is a good one.”
“What do you think it’s worth?”
 “More than $50.  How about I double your money right now?  Heck, I’ll even throw in free pick up.”
He ungraciously turns down my offer and emphasizes the rejection with a colorful expletive.