Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Peter B. Howard: Serendipitous Bookman

Wednesday morning February 9, 2011, dawned bright and clear, the air crisp as a mint dust jacket.  Our first destination was Serendipity Books in Berkeley, Peter B. Howard, proprietor.  Why not start out at the top of the book food chain? 
I had been to Serendipity a number of times, although my last visit had been almost ten years earlier.   Most of my visits occurred during my stint from 1995-1997 as director of the book department at the San Francisco auction house of Butterfield & Butterfield.  This experience, albeit outdated as to current events, made me the default team leader for the trip.    For Douglas Adams, my biblio-cohort, this was his first visit to the Bay Area in search of books.
Peter Howard, doyen of literary booksellers on the West Coast, still presided over his shop—if just barely.  Terminally ill with pancreatic cancer, he was physically frail but his mind remained sharp.  Peter was present when we entered the shop around 9:30 am.  The place was crowded.  Peter sat just to the right of the entrance in one of the main isles, wearing his beret and loosely fitted plain blue tie and white shirt, comfortable pants and black tennis shoes, holding court with fellow booksellers, collectors and general admirers.   His long-time assistant, Nancy Kosenka, was busy doing most of the legwork and invoicing for purchases. 

Monday, November 21, 2011

Samuel G. Drake, First Great Collector of Books on Native Americans

I was scouting books at Big Lots amidst the “remaindered” baby toys, oddball pet items, nearly expired foodstuffs, and 1980s style furnishings.  My wife Nicole had dragged me into the giant discount store and I was going to make the best of it.   However, one can only look at so many stacks of Jimmy Carter’s Poems or the 2003 NASCAR guide.   The promised fifteen minute stop had turned into thirty with no wife in sight.
I sighed and shuffled more of the haphazard book stacks.  A colorful cover with an Indian illustration by Karl Bodmer awakened me from my holiday shopping stupor.  The book by Robert Moore was titled American Indians: The Art and Travels of Charles Bird King, George Catlin and Karl Bodmer.   The work focused on these three famous artists and explorers who painted scenes in situ of the American Indian from the 1820s-1840s.   This got me thinking about a recent acquisition—a rare 1845 auction catalogue by Samuel G. Drake, the first American to collect printed material on Native Americans on a large scale.
My wife interrupted my thoughts and said she was ready to go.  What are you thinking about? she asked, seeing me oblivious to all.
“Samuel Drake,” I replied, “The first great collector of books about the American Indians.”
There was a long pause. 
“Okay, then.  I think it’s time we get you home.”
The Indian book, needless to say, came home with me.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

John Quinn: Contemporary Collector Extraordinaire

John Quinn (1870-1924), a visionary when it came to collecting contemporary literature and art, set a high standard that few, if any, have surpassed since.
Quinn was born in Fostoria, Ohio of Irish parents, attended the University of Michigan and then received law degrees from both Georgetown University and Harvard.   Reading and collecting came early and by the time he was a teenager he was buying contemporary authors for his ever expanding library.   Later, when money came in bushels from his successful New York City law career he continued to focus on contemporary books and art on a grand scale. Quinn took things one big step further and got to know personally many of the writers of his time.   His particular interest in Irish writers led to friendships abroad with now legendary authors such as W. B. Yeats, John Synge and James Joyce.  Other prominent writers that were close friends included Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot. 
Hangin' with the boys in Paris 1923: Joyce, Pound, Quinn, and Ford Madox Ford

Sunday, November 6, 2011

The Trials and Tribulations of a Woman Book Collector

In the early 20th century American book collecting reached the peak of its popularity.  Not coincidentally, A. Edward Newton wrote a number of inspirational books about books during this time, the most famous being The Amenities of Book Collecting (1918). The vast majority of inspired collectors were men.  Women book collectors in fact have always been fairly rare.  Did women—although heavy readers--just not collect books or were there barriers preventing them from participating at the highest levels?   One contemporary woman collector was bold enough to express her feelings in print tinged heavily with frustration.  Genevieve Earle’s essay described below first appeared in the August 1933 issue of Charles Heartman’s magazine, The American Book Collector.  Earle published the essay separately in a now very scarce pamphlet as a Christmas greeting.  The format was modeled after similar pamphlets issued yearly by A. Edward Newton.