Meetings are often necessary evils but this one I am eager to attend. I sit at an expansive table with Bill Allison, my friend and co-founder of the Book Hunters Club of Houston in, appropriately, the Founder’s Room at the Grolier Club, New York City. The room is well-paneled and solidly-booked with shelves of bibliographic publications. Certainly the ghosts of great bookmen of the past are in attendance as well. We are seated with approximately fifteen trustees of the Fellowship of American Bibliophilic Societies (FABS). It is their annual meeting and our club is being officially accepted into the organization. Bookish congeniality fills the air and also curiosity at the two Texans who have saddled up for the ride. Being newbies, Bill and I remain fairly quiet as the meeting progresses. Incoming FABS president, Michael Thompson of Boreas Fine Art in Evanston, Illinois, sits to my right. Much to my surprise, he suggests a FABS trip to Texas for 2017. (One of the primary FABS benefits being an annual book trip to a host city.) This is not a spur of the moment idea but something he’s been thinking about long before the meeting. “We’ve never taken a trip to Texas before,” he says.
I casually suggest that I could provide input for such a trip and would be glad to help, as in assist, informally. Murmurs of delight echo in the chamber. Information comes fast and heavy after that—planning, past trips, etc. By the time the meeting is over, I appear to be a co-chair of the venture: new guy with apparent enthusiasm thrown into the fire. It will be fun, I say to myself and Bill.
There are hearty welcomes from all around as we leave the room. A particular moment is the serendipitous meeting of Richard Ring, Head Curator and Librarian at the Watkinson Library in Hartford, CT, who has a common interest in book collecting history. He’s just published a book of newspaper columns by Lawrence C Wroth, famed John Carter Brown Librarian. I mention that I have a large collection of Wroth association items. There is momentary disbelief-- then I’m a life member of his Wroth fan club.
The day is already intense before the FABS meeting. As a prelude, Bill and I make our way to Sotheby’s to have lunch with Richard Austin, director of the Sotheby’s book department. Richard and I go back to our college days at the University of Texas. I hired him to work with me at Butterfield and Butterfield auction house in San Francisco. He’s done well indeed from there. A few items on display for his upcoming auction are a 13th amendment on vellum signed by Lincoln and most of the legislators involved, the authorized broadside of the Emancipation Proclamation printed in forty-eight copies, signed by Lincoln, an English issue of the first edition of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, and other similar delicacies. The book department is moving locations within the building so things are more chaotic than usual but Richard gives us a tour, introduces us to his cataloguers, and shows us a few consignments that are in process. He also mentions that they have thinned the reference collection during the move and tells me of a young bookseller who now has the material. We will meet him later in the story. The lunch at a local Irish pub is filled with book talk and an appropriate black and tan beer.
Before we attend the ABAA Fair let me indulge a recollection of our visit the previous day to the Strand bookstore. Bill and I have barely disembarked from our plane and we find ourselves browsing the rare book room of the Strand. The Strand is the largest general used bookstore left in Manhattan. Their rare book department on the third floor is accessed by a separate entrance at street level. We take the elevator and soon the scent of leather hangs in the air. The alcove close to the rare book department entrance houses a large section of books about books. I attack it with gusto, balanced precariously on a small step ladder to reach the uppermost shelves. The hunt for association items requires much opening and closing of books so a haze of dust soon surrounds me, some of the books at full arm’s reach not being handled in quite some time. A few gems are gathered, most notably The Houghton Library 1942-1967: A Selection of Books and Manuscripts in Harvard Collections (1967) inscribed from Philip Hofer of Harvard to John W Crawford, Jr. both preeminent collectors and curators. In all, a stack of fifteen or so books is ready for purchase. Bill is off poking around in other areas and finds for my Latin American collection a copy of Jorge Luis Borges’ El Congresso (1971). It is not a particularly rare item but I don’t have it and the price at $30 is irresistible.
As an aside, there is the usual grumbling at the fairs by various bookmen that the Strand isn’t what is used to be, that you can’t find the books one did in the old days, etc. I’ve heard this kind of thing for over twenty-five years. A reflective nostalgia seems endemic to book collecting but there are still books to be found.
We are now on our way to the Armory at 643 Park Avenue for the first evening of the ABAA Book Fair. The Armory is an odd, beautiful building. Dating to the late 19th century it is cavernous. You enter through massive wooden doors into an expansive, darkened foyer, so dark that it takes a moment for one’s eyes to adjust. We are surrounded by cathedral-like ceilings, huge chandeliers, and vaguely visible, life-size oil paintings of forgotten luminaries. We find the coat check and fumble for our fair tickets. The crowd at the entry is well-dressed and focused as they file in, two security men stand as gatekeepers monitoring the swirl. Tables stacked with book fair guides and dozens of free catalogues from participating dealers line the entry and an American Antiquarian Society table offers book bags with the fair logo. The darkness of the Armory foyer opens into a disconcerting bright light. Behold, the soaring exhibition space becomes clear and before you are two hundred or so of the best antiquarian booksellers in the world, their booths filled with top shelf stuff, a veritable menagerie of delights available for purchase, a collector only restrained by the size and liquidity of the book budget.
|Kurt Zimmerman and Bill Allison|
Bill Allison sees a few Western Americana items but they are priced at full retail so there is no room for him as a dealer to buy for resale. We prioritize a visit to the booths of Peter Stern of Peter L. Stern & Co. and Bryan Bilby of Appledore Books. They both were kind enough to supply a free fair pass ($50 value). Peter’s booth is filled not only with his typical assortment of literary highlights but also his boss (wife) and his usual wit and good humor. I’ve known Bryan since his bookselling days in San Francisco. He was a frequent buyer at Butterfield & Butterfield auction house where I was director of the rare book department. Bryan is offering an eclectic assortment of goodies ranging from literature to architecture and photography. Bryan and I reminisce together briefly as I browse the booth but this is time for him to make hay so we move on.
The rest of our time at the ABAA fair is spread out over Friday and part of Saturday. There is a steady crowd and a lot of energy, and I ride the wave of it which temporarily relieves my aching legs and feet. Highlights include a fine conversation with Bill Reese about his latest catalogue for the fair Americana – Beginnings: Cortes to Lewis and Clark 1524-1814 playing off the Thomas Streeter essay of the same name. It’s a stunning array of rare early Americana that resembles a 19thcentury Henry Stevens catalogue rather than the stock of a 21st century bookseller. The cover item listed at $750,000 is a unique seventh edition of the Bay Psalm book published in 1693. The book had originally surfaced in the early 1970s at Goodspeed’s according to Reese. Whereabouts were unknown until recently when the private owner decided that money for college tuition was a higher priority than an Americana high spot. I check in later with Bill and he says about a third of the catalogue has already sold including the Bay Psalm item. My souvenir from him—an inscribed copy of the catalogue for my Reese collection.
I also spend time with dealer Lloyd Currey, certainly the world’s expert in science fiction material for over forty years. We speak of a mutual friend, Willie Siros, a former cataloguer at the Ransom Center at the University of Texas, who collected science fiction and mysteries on an impecunious budget, but with a knowledge rivaled by few others. Neither of us had seen the rather reclusive Mr. Siros in many years. I wonder if Siros, an early book mentor while I was in college, still has over ten thousand fully catalogued volumes of his collection that I browsed in amazement during my formative years. Lloyd admits a fondness for biblio-association copies in his subject area and has a shelf of reference books formerly owned by E. F. Bleiler and the like.
John Crichton of Brick Row Bookshop in San Francisco is kind enough to inscribe a copy of Franklin Gilliam: Texas Bookman (2014) edited by him. This remembrance of his predecessor was twenty years in the making with contributions by fellow bookmen, many now long gone, including F. Warren Roberts, Anthony Rota, Larry McMurtry, Richard Landon, David Farmer, Peter B. Howard, Andrew Hoyem, and Crichton himself.
Bill and I spend time with Joe Felcone of New Jersey, another dealer with an interest in biblio-history. His bibliography of New Jersey imprints is a monumental accomplishment and I recall years ago buying from him a copy of The Chauncey B. Tinker Library (1959) inscribed by the editor, Robert Metzdorf to Alexander Wainwright. Wainwright was a bookman, collector, and curator of the Morris L. Parrish collection at Princeton. Felcone corresponded with me in detail about his friendship with Wainwright and Wainwright’s place in American book collecting history.
Such talk is like bookman’s caffeine and we keep on and the immersion goes something like this: I’m pleasantly surprised to meet Seth Glick of Caliban Books in Pittsburgh. I’ve been buying books from Caliban for years and Seth and I have exchanged dozens of emails. His mutual interest in craft beer provides depth to our relationship. Shortly after, I see Bob Dagg, longtime San Francisco dealer, who sold me my first “expensive” book in 1989, a mint copy of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s first book in English, No One Writes to the Colonel and Other Stories (1968). (I petted it just the other day.) In search of refreshments at the back of the exhibit hall, I get to introduce Bill to Ellen Dunlap, President of the American Antiquarian Society. She has Texas roots where she started out at the Harry Ransom Center. A couple of years ago, after a lunch with her and Nick Basbanes in Worchester, MA, I had a grand tour of the AAS. Within minutes of this we are greeted by Zachary Stacy and his wife Erin, an up and coming book couple, again with Texas roots, Zachary currently works at Heritage Auctions in Dallas and Erin catalogues for bookseller Brian Cassidy. . . and Bill and I eventually get to sit down for a cold one.
Thomas Boss of Boston has a bevy of framed bookplates in his booth across the way. These were recently acquired at the auction of James M. Goode’s collection at Heritage Auctions. While we admire them, Bill Butler, a FABS trustee we met at the Grolier Club and a law professor at Penn State, re-introduces himself. He is an engaging bookman and our talk soon turns to bookplates. Bill collects them and has that seasoned expertise which fosters rapt attention. I start with the basics and ask him how many bookplates are in his collection.
“About 300,000,” he replies.
Butler almost has to pick me off the floor to revive me. He smiles, and somewhat apologetically qualifies this by adding, “But I bought a large collection.”
This leads to how he stores them (in special albums), organizes them, etc. He volunteers to help me track down the owner of an unidentified 19th century bookplate in one of my Henry Harrisse books. We part ways, invigorated, another book friend made.
By the late afternoon however, we can take no more. Or so we think. The decision is made to return to the apartment for a break. The sky is overcast when Bill and I spill out of the Armory onto the street. It’s pretty cold. A subway station is not far away but even closer is the Grolier Club. The previous visit has not sated my appetite. I want to say hello to Eric Holzenberg, the director. We detour and enter with the life-sized oil of Robert Hoe in the lobby beckoning me to settle in for awhile.
|Robert Hoe and Kurt Zimmerman at the Grolier Club|
Eric greets us in the main exhibit hall downstairs. An unusual and visually appealing exhibit on four hundred years of board games surrounds us. Eric has been the director of the Club over twenty years and runs a fine ship. We communicate sporadically via email and now joke about being Facebook friends. However, we haven’t spent any quality time together. I tell him a story he never knew or simply forgot – that he and I were the final candidates for the Grolier Club director position back in 1994. For me to make the final interview process at the age of 27 still seems miraculous. I was flown to New York by the Club and interviewed by then director, Martin Antonetti and a search committee consisting of Churchill collector Carolyn Smith, bookseller James Cummins and others. In the end, Eric’s experience won out and I was perfectly happy to just have a chance. Another potential position at the Club for me was discussed but did not pan out. No regrets and soon after I found myself hired by Butterfield & Butterfield in San Francisco.
While we converse, it is hard to miss that an event is in the works. Around us wine, cheese and appetizers are being set up. My stomach growls.
“We are having our new member party. You should join us,” Eric says.
No need to ask twice. Within fifteen minutes a cornucopia of book people file in and Eric brings a member to my attention.
“You’re going to want to see each other,” Eric beckons.
It is Martin Antonetti, former Grolier Club director who interviewed me twenty years previously! Martin became curator of Special Collections at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, after leaving the Grolier Club.
We exchange warm greetings and begin to talk. Another member with the name tag “Scott” joins us.
Martin says to him, “Look, the prodigal son has returned.”
Scott replies, “And now we kill the fatted calf.”
A good laugh ensues and I soon find out that Scott Clemons is the current president of the Grolier Club. I also learn he collects the Aldine Press and is frequently in Houston on business. I look forward to further book talk over barbecue or Tex-Mex, my treat. Another man enters the discussion, elderly but still spry, a bookman’s twinkle expressing that the fire to collect still burns strong. It is Eugene Flamm, former president of the Club. He tells us excitedly that he just bought an incunable for his collection at the Fair that day. Scott asks him how many he has now. Without missing a beat he replies, “Thirty-seven.”
Nice. Such banter is what I live for. It only gets better. Bill and I meet collectors Susan Jaffe Tane, most well-known for her Edgar Allan Poe collection; Irene Tichenor, author of the definitive biography of Thomas Low De Vinne who was the famous printer and a founder of the Grolier Club; and Mark Samuels Lasner, mighty collector of late Victorian literature and art. Mark and I have a fine exchange until he must go and catch his train. Mark’s another collector I’ve known about for years but never met. Quite a treat.
Bill threads his own line and has a lengthy conversation with the head of special collections at Cambridge University. The Cambridge library is about to celebrate their six hundredth anniversary. You know you’ve been around a long time when your library pre-dates printed books. Serendipitously, Bill will be in Cambridge later this year so he now has a special library tour already lined up. Damn it, a hint of jealousy here on my part . . . .
Our wine and cheese is reloaded and the party continues until a couple of hours later when Bill and I close it down, gathering our coats for a brisk trip into the sleepless city.
“That was awesome,” we both say in unison.
That night, I will dream of bookplates and Hoes in infinite quantities.
But this restless sleep doesn’t last long enough because we are up early on Saturday morning to make the 8 am opening of the first of two “shadow” fairs. Such an early start blurs all sense of normalcy for me. I’m a zombie as we stumble into the Wallace Hall at St. Ignatius Loyola Church, Park Avenue and 84th where a miscellaneous gathering of regional booksellers offer temptations. Remarkably, many familiar faces are already there and flourishing and I have a rare regret for not being a coffee drinker.
The ABAA fair does not start until noon that day so many of the bigger dealers mingle in the booths with the collectors. I spot Richard Austin buying rare fly-fishing material for his personal collection. I’d just seen an unusual example on the subject ca. 1914 in dust jacket in another booth. A quick point and he knocks it down with thanks. Fun. A minute later, Sims McCutchan and his wife Margaret appear before me. They are fellow members of the Book Hunters Club of Houston and have made the pilgrimage. Peter Stern, who is also exhibiting at this fair like a book superman, kindly directs me to some books about books in a booth across from him. I find my gem of the show in the booth of Duane Stevens, proprietor of Wiggins Fine Books of Shelburne Falls, MA. It is a copy of Jacob Blanck’s famous bibliography Peter Parley to Penrod inscribed to Matthew Bruccoli with a snarky added remark by Bruccoli about Blanck that cherry’s the offering—an exceedingly tasty association linking these two great American bookmen. As a bonus, the book is finely ensconced in a half leather slipcase apparently commissioned by Bruccoli.
|"M. Bruccoli--his book* Duly (under pressure) inscribed by Jacob Blanck. *God knows why!" Bruccoli's comment underneath: "A standard example of his graciousness."|
A short time frame keeps you focused. Bill and I go through the seventy or so dealer offerings in about three hours. Certainly we don’t see everything but we each find treasures and make more connections. On the way out for a quick lunch, I receive a text from Rebecca Rego Barry, editor of Fine Books and Collections magazine, and author of Rare Books Uncovered: True Stories of Fantastic Finds in Unlikely Places (2015). We’ve been trying to link up for our first face to face meeting. And there she is walking toward me from across the street. She sees me look at my phone and knows she’s found her prey. Our talk is too short but we are simpaticos and I look forward to a more in-depth visit at a future book event. And, I read on her blog that shortly after we met she found a nice item for own collection at the shadow fair.
It is rainy now. We zealously cover our purchases as we scramble aboard the free shuttle bus to take us back to the ABAA Fair and the other shadow fair at the Church of St. Vincent Ferrer, Lexington Ave and 66th Street. In route, we feel a strong bump from behind as a taxi cab hits us pretty hard at low speed. The cabbie has fallen asleep. Our bus driver chews him out for his transgression. When he tries to turn the tables and blame her, she’ll have none of it and her indignation is backed up by a chorus of support from the bus riders. A memorable NYC experience.
The second shadow fair also includes a fine press fair and is certainly a second helping to compliment the first fair. I get to meet Joe Maynard who I’ve bought a number of Mary & Donald Hyde items from over the years online. Besides a good selection of mainstream collectibles, Joe is prominently displaying an underground magazine with a photo-shopped image of Hillary Clinton’s head on the body of a leather-clad dominatrix. “This stuff always sells,” he says with a grin.
I dig out from another booth a scarce item by Augustin Daly (1838-1899), important 19th century American collector of Shakespeare’s works and the theatre. The Daly auction in 1900 would be the spark that ignited the career of legendary bookseller George D. Smith. I also find an unusual item related to Frederic Goudy (1865-1937), typographer and printer, concerning his Village Press.
And then I’m done, totally spent figuratively and literally, at least for the moment, and pizza calls, and we answer it, and that Saturday night finishes with a closer look at our finds while the Masters tournament highlights play in the background on TV.
Sunday can be a day of rest and reflection, but not when you’re on a bookman’s holiday. Book now, pray later. Sunday morning is cold as a son-of-a-bitch but remarkably sunny and clear. Bill and I bus to Hoboken, New Jersey in the morning to meet David Klappholz, renowned collector of A. Edward Newton and a bibliophile with an interest in book collecting history akin to my own. Dave also is a serious collector of early Los Angeles tourism ephemera whose polymath mind can tour guide you through the architecture and history of New York, LA, Philadelphia, Boston, and probably obscure villages in Kazakhstan. Although qualified for retirement, Dave will have none of it and still teaches computer science at the prestigious Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken where he’s been on the faculty for thirty-one years.
We walk along the waterfront from the train station to the Stevens campus. The views of New York City are spectacular along the way. This merry jaunt in our respective Texas Longhorn and USC Trojan caps is appropriately tempered by Dave’s comment that during the 9/11 attack the view provided the Stevens’ students with an involuntary front row seat of horror and many had to seek counseling after.
|Kurt Zimmerman and David Klappholz|
Our arrival at Dave’s office at the college finds it unsurprisingly stuffed with books about books. I wade in with controlled abandon. Book talk among the three of us flows naturally and wanders where it will. We break for lunch and grab a quick and tasty meal at the Garden of Eden grocery store / deli. Their fabulous display of fruits and vegetables looks appealing even to a meatasaurus like me. I settle for fresh sushi with a kick. Soon after, we are on the train with Dave heading to his home in Berkeley Heights. A train attendant in hat and uniform stamps my ticket and I watch the trees and suburbs grow thick as the bustle of the city becomes distant.
Dave doesn’t drive much anymore and his econo-car that he uses to get from the train station to his house barely fits the three of us six foot plussers, former Mr. Olympias. I imagine a Harold Lloyd silent comedy as we bounce down the road and then awkwardly unfold ourselves upon arrival. It doesn’t take long before we are deep into A. Edward Newton and a tour is in full swing: inscribed books and pamphlets in abundant quantities, letters by the hundreds, manuscripts, photographs, books from Newton’s library, ephemera and even the large, elaborate metal sign “Oak Knoll” that once graced the entrance to Newton’s home in Pennsylvania. Bill Allison is nodding knowingly the whole time. Newton is not a specific interest of his but Bill has assembled a similar kind of single author collection of J. Frank Dobie, the famous Texas writer and man of letters. All this booking can be exhaustive (our wives’ eyes are now rolling in unison) and it is time to rest and eat again, this time dinner at a local diner. Dave wishes us a bon voyage and we catch a late train back to New York’s Penn Station, arriving around 10:30 pm.
We have one last book stop the next day before flying out in the afternoon. If you are still with me at this point, I say thanks and the ride is almost over. I’m enjoying greatly the recollection of my trip. And frankly, if I don’t write this down now the memories will begin to dissipate into vaporous wisps.
Monday morning the book fairs are history and Dave Klappholz is back at work molding the youth under his charge. The weather today is the best yet and we head to 30 Vesper St in lower Manhattan to meet Noah Goldrach, a young dealer. Noah has biblio-material from dealer Kit Currie’s private library and deaccessioned books from Sotheby’s reference collection. These are the books that Richard Austin and his staff at Sotheby’s culled during their move. A number of these items have a lengthy provenance beginning with the American Art Association auction house in the 1920s which was purchased by Parke-Bernet and then by Sotheby’s.
The location of the building on Vesper Street where Noah has his books is literally at ground zero for the 9/11 attacks, across the street from the 9/11 memorial and museum. Dave’s comments the day before lend balance to our book focus. Bill and I take a silently emotional visit to the cascading North tower water memorial that is ringed with the names of victims, simple and powerful in effect. A deep breath and I imagine the chaos of the scene and remember.
We meet Noah a few minutes later. I’m struck by how young he is – age 27—especially when one gets used to mingling with a rather aging population of typical book people. He reminds me of myself and Richard Austin when we were fully booked and working at the auction house in San Francisco at the same age.
Noah’s stock is rather neatly organized in a room filled with shelves and open boxes on the floor. Nonetheless, he apologizes for not having it in better order but all I hear is that no collector or dealer has seen the Sotheby’s material yet. A catalogue is in the works. We are on a rather short time frame as Noah must be at the Pierpont Morgan library by noon so we all chat as Bill and I browse. A small purchase stack turns into a rather large one. I know I’m missing a few things and ask Noah to hold aside a box of early Kraus catalogues. No matter, this is immense fun and Noah’s natural acumen for books is apparent. There are a few items from Arthur Swann’s reference library that catch my interest. Possibly the most appealing association items I find are a privately printed book of youthful poetry Gedichte (1983) by H.P. Kraus inscribed to Kit Currie, his long-time employee, who played a primary role in printing the book, and Lathrop Harper’s legendary catalogue A Selection of Incunabula (1930) inscribed by Harper and his cataloguer E. Miriam Lone to Lawrence C. Wroth. Other items await investigation as they have just arrived as I write this. Noah hurriedly compiles an invoice and tells Bill that this is his largest order yet. I like to set such records. A farewell and Noah’s young legs quickly out distance ours.
We end our last day over lunch at Larb Ubol, a Thai restaurant we discovered the day before. I like spicy food and rarely will a place make it hot enough, even upon request. This has potential. A request is made and the waitress raises an eyebrow and asks again. Yes. My Kao Moo Krob (crispy pork) starts out medium and builds with intensity. I begin to sweat and down Thai ice tea in abundance, Bill smiling as he enjoys my voluntary suffering. I continue on, hotter and hotter, no quitting, no rest break and the lunch soon resembles the rest of our bookman’s vacation: full immersion.
Here are few more association finds from my NYC haul:
|Lathrop Harper. A Selection of Incunabula (1930) inscribed to Wroth who wrote the introduction to Part II.|
|Joseph Blumenthal. The Printed Book in America. 1978. Inscribed to Kit Currie and Abe Lerner.|
|David Magee. Infinite Riches. 1973. Inscribed to Kit Currie.|
|A.S.W. Rosenbach. A Book Hunter's Holiday. 1936. Inscribed to Mary Hyde.|
|H.P. Kraus. Gedichte. 1983. Inscribed to Kit Currie.|
|A. Edward Newton. My Library. 1926. Inscribed from David Klappholz to the "Caliph of Conroe" (Me! Playing off Christopher Morley's nickname for Newton.)|