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....

Inscribed, “For Bill Elkins and his lovely wife with the most affectionate regards of A. S. W. Rosenbach, Jan. 6, 1943.’

            William Elkins (1882-1947), was a very close friend of Rosenbach, eminent collector, and financier of many of Rosenbach’s biggest purchases.  After Elkins’ death, his extensive library of literature and Americana was donated to the Free Library of Philadelphia.

            Bill Elkins was a cousin of collector Harry E. Widener.  The two lived across the street from each other and shared each other’s passion for book collecting.  Elkins and Widener became acquainted with Rosenbach very early on, ca. 1906.  Wolf & Fleming record that Elkins “was destined to become one of the Doctor’s best friends and his most faithful financial backer.”

            Elkins agreed via his banking firm to loan Rosenbach $79,000 in 1915 to purchase the Harry B. Smith Collection, Rosenbach’s first major en bloc acquisition.   The transaction was a success and in 1919 Rosenbach reached out again to Elkins in underwrite the acquisition of the mighty Marsden J. Perry Shakespearian Library for $250,000.   Both transactions were complete successes with the additional bonus of Elkins getting to add choice bits to his personal library. 

            Wolf & Fleming write, “Bill Elkins, whose loans for the Smith and Perry purchases had been fully repaid, had every reason to be impressed with Doc’s judgment.  Moreover, he had found A.S.W.R. a good friend, a great source of information, and a most enjoyable and entertaining companion in company either mixed or masculine.  As a member of the Widener family he was sentimentally prejudiced in the Doctor’s favor.  So, when Dr. R suggested that Elkins follow in Cousin Harry’s footsteps by buying the fabulous Dickens collection which Dr. Rosenbach had been gathering for years, Elkins was willing to listen. . . ., For all the vast quantity of Dickens  material included in the lot, Bill Elkins paid the Doctor a special price of $37,615.67.  Eddie Newton, wishing the Doctor a bon voyage, added his benediction to the sale and to ‘Billy’ whom he called ‘as good and modest as he is rich.’”

            Elkins continued to buy choice literature and Americana steadily from Rosenbach.  In 1939, he financed Rosenbach’s purchase of the outstanding Herschel V. Jones Library of Americana.  Sales went well but there was much remaining in 1941. Wolf & Fleming record, “It was Bill Elkins. . . who spent many hours over forbidden whisky and cigars working out a complicated negotiation which meant a great deal to the Doctor.  In spite of quite satisfactory sales . . . $75,000 was still due Elkins on the loan.  Western Americana had sold surprising well [but]. . . One shelf was still crowded with slim quarto accounts of the discovery and settlement of Virginia and New England, and a long run of works by the indefatigable Mathers had hardly been touched by buyers.  If Bill would take books of this kind instead of cash for the balance, both parties would benefit, Dr. Rosenbach pointed out; the debt would be wiped out and Elkins would at one swoop acquire a collection of Americana which, added to what he already had, would make the whole a choicer selection than any private individual then owned. . .  The one hundred and forty-two titles from the collection of Herschel V. Jones which entered that of William M. Elkins are now well known to bookmen . . . Significantly, the Jones lot forms one half of the total Elkins Collection of Americana now in the Free Library of Philadelphia.”

            Elkins died in 1947.  Wolf & Fleming write, “The news of the death of Bill Elkins affected [Rosenbach] deeply. . . . The widowed Lisa Elkins, as lonely now as the Doctor, found it comfortable to be with him and in a relaxed way they planned together the William M. Elkins room to house the great collections Bill left to the Free Library of Philadelphia.” 

In 1952, Rosenbach agreed to deliver the address at the dedication of the Elkins Room, writing the draft of his speech, but was unable to attend because of ill health. He would die a few months later.

The late inscription in this copy is intriguing.  (I have seen none of a later date.)    I would assume that Rosenbach inscribed a copy to Elkins upon publication in 1917 but I cannot trace it.  This copy, sentimentally inscribed to both Elkins and his wife, Lisa, almost thirty years after publication, reflects the closeness and length of their friendship. 
Inscribed, “Mr. H[erschel] V. Jones, with the best wishes of A. S. W. Rosenbach.”

            Herschel Jones (1861-1928), Minnesota publisher, was not only one of the greatest collectors of the Golden Age but also one of Rosenbach’s closest friends and best customers.   This is a fine companion volume to the Elkins copy above.  Elkins financed Rosenbach’s purchase of the Jones Americana library and acquired substantial portions of it for his own library. Wolf & Fleming record numerous stories about Jones and Rosenbach, both personal and professional. 

When Jones died in 1928, “His son Carl sent the Doctor a long and touching account of his father’s last weeks, the kind of account that would be sent only to the closest of friends.  He said that the first copy of the catalogue of the Jones Americana collection, which had been prepared under the Doctor’s supervision, had been flown west, but that his father had not been in condition to read it.  However, he had held it, knew what it was, and would not let it be removed from his bedside table. . .  The family shared Herschel Jones’ feelings about the Doctor—‘You gave him some of the happiest adventures he ever knew.  You know that, and you enjoyed it with him.’  By his death Rosenbach lost a friend such as even so congenial a business as that of rare books seldom affords.  Jones touchingly left the Doctor a hundred dollars in his will, ‘in appreciation of the pleasure and advantage which I have derived from our friendship and as a souvenir of our pleasant relationship,’ and he instructed his heirs to consult Dr. Rosenbach about the disposition of his library.  It was the only way Jones could project his friendliness beyond the grave.  Tears flowed down the Doctor’s cheeks when he received the check.”

Inscribed, “Percy E. Lawler, with the best wishes of A.S.W. Rosenbach.”

            Percy Lawler was essentially Rosenbach’s right-hand man, managing the Philadelphia store for decades.  Lawler joined Rosenbach in 1916 after first working with Robert H. Dodd and Gabriel Wells and he remained until his death in 1949.   As a salesman and store manager, Lawler was involved in almost every major (and minor) transaction spanning Rosenbach’s long career and no one had a more intimate working relationship with the great bookseller. 

            Wolf & Fleming write, “[Lawler] was proud of being a self-educated cockney, and had inherited his bookishness from his uncle John, who had written a book on English book auctions.  Percy Lawler had acquired his knowledge of, and real love for, books working as a shelf-boy and then as an assistant in the London Library.  He was ruddy, broken-nosed, portly, hearty, and polite.  Though he was no scholar, he picked up bits and gobbets of book knowledge which he had the faculty of being able to turn into an anecdote or a sales point.  The customers liked him; he was a kind of aperitif before the Doctor himself.  So far as his relationship with Dr. Rosenbach was concerned, he was faithful, long-suffering, almost dog-like in his devotion.  The Doctor swore alternately by him and at him.  Of all the employees of The Rosenbach Company only Sword and Lawler witnessed the dramatic rise of the house’s fortunes and lived through the shadowy days of Dr. Rosenbach’s later vegetation.”

            Millicent Sowerby, Rosenbach cataloguer and bibliographer, was hired by Lawler in 1925 and worked with him closely until she left in 1942.  She writes at length about their interactions in Rare People and Rare Books (1967), devoting much of Chapter 14 to various stories involving she and Lawler, most of them humorous. She records, “Percy and I always got along very well together and enjoyed each other’s company; both of us being English meant that we had a lot in common . . . [being] associated daily with such personalities as the Rosenbach brothers and Percy Lawler, and a number of pleasant colleagues, is it any wonder that we found our working life so extremely pleasant?”
          Lawler was one of the editors of the 70th birthday tribute for Rosenbach To Doctor R (1946).  He contributed a lengthy essay, “On the Purchase of Some Libraries” recalling first-hand dozens of important clients and acquisitions.  One famous story, repeated later by Wolf & Fleming, involved the 1919 purchase of the Marsden J. Perry Shakespearean Library for $250,000.  Lawler writes, “I accompanied the Doctor to Providence where the final negotiations were completed.  We spent two strenuous days checking and sorting out the rarities and packed them in several suitcases, leaving the bulk of the library to be packed and forwarded to Philadelphia.  We started for our train and it was while crossing the New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad tracks at the station that a near catastrophe happened.  Our precious suitcases were loaded on a truck being pushed across the tracks by a red-cap when the heaviest of them fell off, we could hear the whistle of the train in the near distance but fortunately we were able to pull that suitcase to one side a few seconds before the train rushed by.”
Inscribed, “Mr. William Roberts, with the kind regards of A. S. W. Rosenbach.”  Roberts’ ownership label.  Tipped-in is a TLs dated Jan. 24th, 1918, from Rosenbach to Roberts, reading in part, “Dear Mr. Roberts, It was very kind of you to write the notice of my book in the Literary Supplement of the London Times, which I read with the greatest pleasure.  I appreciate your kindness in this matter, as I am sure your flattering review will prove of great value.  I understand from my publisher, Mr. Mitchell Kennerley, that John Lane has cabled about it, and probably an edition will be issued in London.  I regret to note that you do not expect to come over this winter.  Things are very quiet in the art world, and the collectors are busier paying income taxes than buying pictures and articles of virtu. . .  I am sending you under separate cover two copies of our catalogue of Americana, one of them on large paper. . . .”

            Mounted to the front endpaper is Roberts’ lengthy review of the book from the TLS dated by Roberts 12-27-17.  The review is well-done and lively with comparisons to W. W. Jacobs’ writings and Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes.
            Rosenbach and Roberts were bookish cohorts.  Roberts (1862-1940) wrote of books and art for the London papers and was a central figure in the London book scene.  A true bookman, he was the author of the classic A Book Hunter in London (1895), and other book about books including Rare Books and Their Prices (1895) and Book-Verse: An Anthology of Poems of Books and Bookmen (1896).  Wolf & Fleming write in Rosenbach, “[While in] England Dr. Rosenbach spent making contacts and laying the groundwork for future coups.  He dined and wined W. Roberts and A.C.R. Carter. . . . “
Inscribed, “Helen Fagg, with the affectionate regards of A. S. W. Rosenbach.” 

            Helen Fagg was an important employee of Rosenbach in New York.  She is described as “cataloguer, saleswoman, and general factotum” according to Wolf & Fleming.  Fagg catalogued the Herschel Jones Americana collection with the assistance of Wilberforce Eames.   Wolf & Fleming record that, “She also recognized what a success the [bookselling] tales of Rosenbach might be if they could be dressed up for public consumption.  Near her in Greenwich Village lived just the girl to do the dressing, a free-lance writer, Avery Strakosch Denham, attractive, clever, attuned to twentieth-century journalism, and desperately in need of work.  All Helen Fagg had to do was bring the idea to Avery—for a ten percent agent’s fee if the deal worked out—bring Avery to the Doctor, and let his willingness to be convinced by an enthusiastic woman, who promised to do all the work, follow its normal course.  Few men ever had a more satisfactory collaborator.”  Rosenbach and Strakosch would write the stories first published in the Saturday Evening Post which soon after were gathered and expanded into Books and Bidders (1927).  Another similar collaboration, A Book Hunter’s Holiday appeared in 1936 although only Rosenbach’s name appears on the title-pages of both volumes.
Inscribed, “Mr. John Howell, with the best wishes of A. S. W. Rosenbach, April 20, 1918.”

            A fine memento linking these two these two up-and-coming bookmen.  John Howell (1874-1956) established John Howell—Books in San Francisco in 1912.  He would soon become the premier antiquarian bookseller on the West Coast.  His son, Warren Howell (1912-1984), continued and expanded the business.  The copy was later in the collection of Thomas Creed, owner of Creed’s Book Store in Berkeley, and purchased from his family.
            Warren Howell recalled in a 1967 oral history interview by Ruth Teiser, “I went to New York in 1938, which was my first trip East. I was looking for books for [my father] and any other books that I could find. One of the things that I remember most was how everyone in the East the booksellers and the librarians spoke with such great affection of my father. It made me quite proud to be associated with my father, to know that these people whom he had seen a lot of ten years before had remembered him so well and so warmly. . .  I remembered Dr. Rosenbach, who told me that whenever I came to New York I must see him and we would spend all day together. I did call on him, looked around, saw his wonderful stock of rare books and found some that were underpriced which I bought, but it was a Jewish holiday and I did not get to spend the day with him as he had promised. Dr. Rosenbach s attitude towards other booksellers has been written up many times. Quite often he did do nice things, or offer to do nice things, for younger booksellers.“

 Online copy to peruse:


  1. What--you don't have Mitchell Kennerley's copy? Time to get to work!

  2. Kurt, I have long been a fan of The Unpublishable Memoirs, and have always felt this is the most entertaining and deft thing Rosenbach wrote. Far more enjoyable and honest than his own bookselling exploits - one feels he was really in his element writing these stories. I've always wanted to know more about the background to this book (since Dr.R himself seems to have shied away from calling our attention to it)and so it was most satisfying to read your enjoyable romp through the association copies in your collection of this neglected, underrated bibliomystery. It is a real pity that he was not encouraged to continue furthering the adventures of Robert Hooker - whom, though referred to as a biblio rogue is really more a biblio-Robin Hood stealing from rich, hollow and vain collectors to give to poor and genuine bibliophiles like himself! Reading the stories one senses how much Rosenbach himself was on Hooker's side, cheering him on, and secretly identifying himself with his audacious hero, a sort of Captain Bibliophile. Thanks for turning our attention once again to this little biblio gem.
    Pradeep Sebastian

    1. Pradeep, Many thanks for the kind words. I too wish Rosenbach would have taken the time to pen a sequel. Kurt