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"

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

De Ricci and Bartlett’s 1921 Book Collector’s Guide: An Icon of the Golden Age

Seymour De Ricci’s and Henrietta Bartlett’s The Book Collector’s Guide: A Practical Handbook of British and American Bibliography (1921) is much more than a forgotten price guide.   The timing of publication and bibliographic expertise provide an insider’s view of the Golden Age of American book collecting--then arguably at its peak--when opportunities were abundant and mighty collectors rose to the occasion.  It was a transitory age, too, and reflects in retrospect the coming shift from old paths to new paths in collecting that would take hold in the 1930s.  The story of the book’s birth is also quite a tale with the polymath bookman Seymour de Ricci at the helm and Henrietta Bartlett as his brilliant, but generally unrecognized co-author.

Monday, May 9, 2016

Featured Item VII: Wilmarth Lewis Presentation to a Thirteen-Year Old Compatriot

Wilmarth Lewis’ classic autobiographical account Collector’s Progress is well represented in my library in multiple association copies, many important, but none as charming as this example.  I purchased the book recently on Ebay for a nominal sum using Ebay “bucks” – in effect rewards credit for other purchases—that was about to expire.  Use it or lose it.  The recipient was not noted by the seller but the price so tempting I ordered it on a whim and let the dice roll. . . .

Wilmarth Lewis.  COLLECTOR’S PROGRESS. London: Constable & Co Ltd., [1952].  xxiii 245 p.  Plates.  8vo.  Blue cloth, spine stamped in gilt.  Notes:  First UK edition, with a preface for the English reader (pp. vii-ix) not found in the American edition.

Inscribed, “To John Thorpe (who came to all three of my Sandars Lectures) with every good wish for his collecting, Wilmarth Lewis, Room 4, Mill Lane, May 9th, 1957.”

            Lewis writes in One Man’s Education, “In 1957 [Lewis] became the Sandars Reader in Bibliography at Cambridge, the second American to be elected to the Readership since its establishment in 1895.  A liberal interpretation of ‘bibliography’ was necessary to make him eligible, but he felt safe in his subject, ‘Horace Walpole’s Library.’  The Reader spent six months on each of the three lectures, which were given on successive days at five following tea, the ideal hour for lectures in England when the audience is cheered but not inebriated. . . The audience got to nearly sixty each day; very good, the Reader was told, for a Sandars Lecture.
            “There were no undergraduates, but there was a boy in the middle of the third row wearing a school blazer, his cap over one knee.  Lewis could not imagine an American boy going to such a lecture.  He was in the same seat the second day, leaning forward eagerly.  Lewis asked Creswick later who he was and learned that his name was John Thorpe, that he was an ardent book collector who did the best he could on his allowance of a shilling a week, and that his father was at Cambridge on sabbatical leave from Princeton.  After the third lecture John walked with the Lewises to a sherry party given for them by the Vice-Chancellor in the Old Library.  Creswick kindly pushed his bike along the King’s Parade so that he could talk about his collection to Mr. Lewis.  At the party the latter learned what it is like to be proud of a thirteen-year old compatriot.  John was exactly right, not embarrassed, not precocious.  He had a question for Annie Burr.  ‘Mrs. Lewis, do you mind Mr. Lewis collecting books?’  ‘No, John, I don’t.  Do you think it would make any difference if I did?’  ‘No, ma’am, I do not.’”