Monday, December 18, 2017

How Book Collector Rolland Comstock Made His Way to Texas

Rolland Comstock in his Library
Jay Rohfritch, proprietor of Good Books in the Woods, Spring, Texas, recalls the ill-fated tale of book collector Rolland Comstock and the acquisition of part of his library:

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

The Heroic Age: Dibdin, Heber, and Bibliomania

Herein lies a story English bibliophile Thomas Dibdin himself would be proud of telling.  That it involves his book Bibliomania (1811) would certainly make him all the more enthusiastic (a quality he never lacked in abundance).  A primary character in my story is a mighty book collector so famous in Dibdin’s lifetime and beyond that he inhabits the rarified biblio-Pantheon as a legendary figure.  The story also is footnoted with both English and American auction sales, an early 19th-century American book collector in Savannah, Georgia, a Grolier Club member, ex- library markings, and Ohio booksellers. 

Monday, October 30, 2017

The Hunt for Early American Women Bibliographers

Rare books don’t have a gender.  However, bibliographers do and the overwhelming majority has been male.  I’m a collector drawn to new paths and over the years I’ve gathered material related to early American women bibliographers active in the pre-WWII era before 1941.  My recent research on Henrietta C. Bartlett raised a deceptively simple question.  Who was the first American women bibliographer to compose a bibliography and have her name on the title-page?  The following essay attempts to answer that question and shed light on other pre-WWII practitioners.  I felt like an explorer in an uncharted jungle at times, machete in hand, hacking away but making progress.  I have little doubt I have missed a find or two in my exploration and welcome input. 
The parameters of my search are bibliographies focusing on rare books and / or first editions. These would be of book-length or substantial pamphlets (no separates or offprints) and explicitly credit the woman bibliographer as author / compiler.   The definition of a bibliography demands some leeway as there are many different forms.  A simple checklist for example would not qualify in my hunt but a well-researched short-title catalogue might.
There are cases of biblio-women assisting with bibliographies (including some of the women noted here) who should have garnered a varsity position on the title-page but instead were relegated to an acknowledgement.  But that is another story beyond the present scope.
I contemplated saving the earliest located bibliography for last to heighten the intrigue but that just didn’t seem bibliographical.  So, let’s get to it.  The oldest example I’ve found is Nina E. Browne’s A Bibliography of Nathaniel Hawthorne (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1905).  The book was designed by Bruce Rogers and issued in an edition of 550 copies.  The publisher’s prospectus states that “It contains, along with the entry of Hawthorne’s published work, whether in book form or in old magazines or newspapers, everything that can be discovered in print about Hawthorne, in both books and periodicals.  Much pains have been given to the arrangement to make it as helpful as possible, both to the literary worker, and to the collector.”

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Book Hunter Bypaths Explored & Exposed

Book Hunters are a focused lot but they do find time for other pursuits.   Even the most dedicated need a break occasionally.  There are numerous examples of rare bookmen who write fiction, mysteries, even poetry with varied success.  But that is too close to the flame.   Rather let’s look at more diverse bypaths that flesh out the following bibliophiles' interests.  Naturally for my purpose these pursuits resulted in something printed.  The examples are from my own collection.  (The fact that I collect them certainly adds a layer of complexity to me which we shall not explore here.)
            Formidable bibliographer Fredson Bowers tormented me early on via his Principles of Bibliographical Description (1949).   The work is as hearty and dense as German dark bread.  I was very much used to peanut butter and jelly on white bread.  So, choking down the Principles while taking a bibliography class in graduate school was healthy but unpleasant.   Negative thoughts of Mr. Bowers crept in.  Then I discovered a biographical essay of Bowers by his student and disciple G. Thomas Tanselle.  Tanselle confirmed Bowers’ intensity of purpose, his willingness to actively defend his scholarly views, his domination of the bibliographical and textual studies of his time.  But he also mentioned that Bowers liked dogs.  He liked them a lot as do I.  Bowers raised and bred them, particularly Irish wolfhounds, and became an expert in the field.  Bowers was so immersed that he wrote The Dog Owner’s Handbook (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1936), his first book, preceding any of his bibliographical publications. Tanselle notes that “The front of the dust jacket was labeled ‘A Guaranteed Dog Book,’ and the flap explained, ‘Any purchaser who is not satisfied with it may return the book within five days for refund’. . . The book had some success, for it was reprinted by the Sun Dial Press in 1940 and was still mentioned in the 1950s in some of the lists of recommended books that appeared in the American Kennel Club's magazine.”
            I have a number of association copies of Bowers’ bibliographic works in my collection.  None gave me quite the thrill as finding a rare presentation copy of the first edition of The Dog Owner’s Handbook, the only example I’ve ever encountered.

Friday, August 18, 2017

Isaac Mendoza's First-Hand Account: "Booksellers of the Early [Eighteen] Eighties"

Mounted photograph from the author's collection
 Relatively few American antiquarian bookseller memoirs relating to the 19th-century trade exist.  I recently acquired a holograph manuscript from Christine & Bob Liska of the Colophon Bookshop.  Written by New York bookseller Isaac Mendoza (1864-1937) it is a brief but entertaining autobiographical fragment entitled “Booksellers of the Early [Eighteen] Eighties.”  The work does not appear to have been published—until now.  My transcription of the text with a few pertinent notes can be found below.

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Feeling Good: Dr. Samuel Purple Makes a House Call with Henry C. Murphy

Dr. Purple has made a house call and intends to stay awhile.  It is my house specifically, third shelf to my right, the newest delivery to the library.  Dr. Samuel S. Purple (1822-1900) did not author the work that just arrived, he owned it.  The book is a tribute to his friend and legendary Americana collector, Henry C. Murphy (1810-1882).  Once finely bound in half morocco and marbled boards with an elaborate, gilt spine, the book’s binding has been battered and rubbed over its long journey, apparently un-appreciated by some previous handlers, but protecting the contents within.   There is the faint scent of cigar smoke.  I plucked it from the flotsam and jetsam for pennies, restoring the appreciation if not the binding.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Donald C. Dickinson: A Tribute

Don Dickinson 1927-2016
Next to my desk is a small group of reference books that I utilize often.  Don Dickinson’s Dictionary of American Book Collectors (1986) and Dictionary of American Antiquarian Bookdealers (1998) are there: thumbed, note-scribbled, and worn from use.  I’ve spent the last twenty-seven years with Don Dickinson by my side although we never met in person.  We did exchange emails and books over a couple decades and I told myself I would visit him one day at his home in Tucson, Arizona.  I imagined us diving deep into biblio-lore talk, drinks in hand, surrounded by his stacks of books and pamphlets and papers that overflowed his study.  Or, at least that is what I envisioned.  Perhaps he kept everything neat as a pin, but alas, it must remain an imaginary happening.  My email to Don this last fall went unanswered.  I suspected, but was hesitant to type his name into an online search.  When I did, the finality of the moment was difficult.  Don had died October 10, 2016, age 89.
            The brief obituary in the Arizona Daily Star described a life centered around libraries and books.  Don received his PhD in Library Science at the University of Michigan and worked as an academic librarian in Illinois, Michigan, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, and Arizona.  In 1969, he was invited to establish a library science program at the University of Arizona and became its first director.  The obituary notes his membership in the Grolier Club and Zamorano Club.  A passing sentence refers to his works about Langston Hughes, Henry Huntington, and John Carter.  No mention is made of his Dictionaries.  The rest of the obituary portrays a progressive, fun-loving man whose hobbies included hitchhiking, playing drums, Studebakers, jazz, table tennis, basketball watching, train travel, and of course, book collecting.
            Dickinson’s work in the history of book collecting and the book trade deserves further elucidation.  For the scholar, collector, or dealer, Dickinson’s books are always a good place to start and sometimes the only place to go. 
His first major work was A Bio-Bibliography of Langston Hughes 1902-1967 (1967, revised 1972).  In 1975, he produced for the Typophiles of New York, Hellmut Lehmann-Haupt: A Bibliography. 
            However, it was with Dictionary of American Book Collectors that he broke new ground, or at least went much further than anyone else ever had in the field.  The word “dictionary” in the title is misleading, conjuring an image of a brief definition, distilled to sentence or two.  Dickinson’s Dictionary is in fact a collection of short but meaty essays on “359 significant American book collectors who died before December 31, 1984.”  He explains in the preface, “The information provided in the narrative discussions is intended to identify the collector’s chief areas of interest, to describe how those interests developed, and where possible, to indicate the influence the collector and collection may have had.  This approach should be useful to librarians, collectors, curators, and individuals in the book trade who wish to identify prominent American collectors.”
            Dickinson’s criterion for selection is described in the preface.  He sums up the process, “Generally, the men and women represented in this survey formed libraries distinguished by the quality, unity, and superior physical condition of the materials they collected as well as the importance those materials had to other collectors and/or to institutional libraries.”
            What is elusive is the spark that ignited such an undertaking. I should have asked Don about this but never did.  The amount of research involved, particularly in the pre-Internet age, was tremendous and painstaking.  Much of the source information was difficult to access (and remains so).  Dickinson writes, “The only previous work on this subject, Carl Cannon’s American Book Collectors and Collecting, published in 1941, is still valuable but difficult to use for reference purposes. . . More recent information can only be found by searching through a maze of journals, memoirs, reports, and auction records.  This book brings that information together for easy consultation.”
            Dickinson did not hesitate to draw upon the collective brain power of many extraordinary book people to enhance the value of the work.  The preface cites a litany of “librarians, curators, and bookdealers [who] have contributed unselfishly to the preparation of this text.”  I’ll name only a few to give the flavor:  W. H. Bond, Herbert Cahoon, Glen Dawson, Herman Liebert, Marcus McCorison, Lawrence Clark Powell, Ellen Shaffer, Madeleine Stern, Edwin Wolf, and Jake Zeitlin.  Dickinson ends the preface, perhaps with relief, “The preparation of this volume has been both a pleasure and a challenge.”
            I’m glad Don took on the challenge.  I was twenty-three years old in September 1990 when I discovered a copy of his Dictionary at the old Half-Price books location on Guadalupe Street in Austin, Texas.  My interest in the history of book collecting had just begun, and this fortuitous find provided a framework to build my biblio-library.  I still get excited to check off another name in the Dictionary when I acquire an item related to that book collector.  There have been many check marks over the years.
            Don rose to the challenge again after some time off, producing the Dictionary of American Antiquarian Bookdealers (1998), another unique work in the field.  The format follows a similar one to that of the Book Collectors.  He writes in the preface, “This book has been undertaken in order to throw light on the accomplishments of a select group of 205 notable American antiquarian bookdealers who died before 1 August, 1997.”  He details the selection process and explains, “Generally, the individuals included in this book developed a quality stock, issued accurate, attractive sales catalogs, made an impact on private and /or institutional collections, enjoyed a certain amount of longevity in the trade and were active in professional organizations.  Obviously, not all of the bookdealers included possessed all of these qualities.  The diversity of individual styles and practices among antiquarian booksellers is a known and cherished phenomenon.”  Indeed.
            The research on Bookdealers was even more arduous than Book Collectors.  He records that he is “grateful” to the editor of Greenwood Publishing Group, “who extended the deadline on the book on several occasions.”  Dickinson explains, “Few [bookdealers] left any permanent record of their life’s work.  This dictionary has been compiled as an attempt to fill that gap.”  As before, he draws upon the invaluable assistance of many prominent bookdealers, bibliographers and librarians. 
            Although published twelve years apart, Dickinson’s two dictionaries are both bound in matching sturdy red publisher’s cloth, the front cover and spine with black labels and silver gilt stamping.  This was a thoughtful gesture on the part of the publisher Greenwood Press.  My copies sit next to each other on the reference shelf, reflecting the symbiotic relationship between collector and dealer.

            Dickinson wrote an important book, Henry E. Huntington’s Library of Libraries (1995), between the publications of the two dictionaries.  There have been biographies of railroad magnate Huntington but none had focused intensively on his book collecting.  Dickinson explores the crucial period between 1911 and Huntington’s death in 1927 when Huntington dominated the book markets of New York and London.  In his typically thorough manner, Dickinson draws upon the Huntington archives, other manuscript material, printed sources, and even the interviewing of two of Huntington’s granddaughters to flesh out the narrative.  It is crisply written, engaging, and replete with details about prices paid and behind the scenes jousting among the bibliophiles.  Huntington was the biggest book collector of them all in a Golden Age of important American book hunters.  Because of this, the book naturally casts a wide net to tell his story, including just about every prominent collector, bookseller, and bookman of the period.  It is an essential read for anyone with a serious interest in the history of American book collecting.  The only caveat is just that—a casual reader may want to start with a more general biography.  The Huntington Library published the book both in hardback and paperback.  The book itself is well designed and heavily illustrated. 
On a related note, Dickinson also wrote the biographical introduction and edited George Watson Cole: 1850-1939 (1990), No. 8 in the Great Bibliographers Series issued by the Scarecrow Press.  Cole was Huntington’s chief librarian and played a crucial role in developing the collection.
Don Dickinson’s last major work was a biography, John Carter: The Taste and Technique of a Bookman (New Castle: Oak Knoll Press, 2004).  Carter (1905-1975), a well-respected Anglo-American bookman, writer, dealer, and bibliographer, garnered fame early in his career with the publication of his and Graham Pollard’s expose of Thomas J. Wise, An Enquiry in the Nature of Certain Nineteenth Century Pamphlets (1934).  He also authored the classic ABC for Book-Collectors (1952).  Carter’s writing acumen and insightful commentary are displayed throughout his published works with Tastes and Technique in Book-Collecting (1948) and Books and Book-Collectors (1956) being other examples.   This elegant, witty Englishman was firmly embedded in the rare book world of England and America for most of his life.
Dickinson uses material from many institutional collections as well as personal interviews of Carter’s colleagues / family to structure the narrative.  There is also a checklist of Carter’s publications.  Don’s style is as usual concise and orderly, making for easy, enjoyable reading.  Full immersion in the biography exposes the close-knit and sometimes combative interplay between the collectors, dealers, and librarians who pushed to advance a more scholarly approach to collecting and bibliography from the 1930s to the 1960s.   
Don had other projects in mind that unfortunately did not come to fruition. He emailed me soon after the Carter book that he had a contract with Oak Knoll to write a biography of English bookman and librarian, A. N. L. Munby.  He also was planning an updated revision of his Dictionary of American Book Collectors with Joel Silver, current director of the Lilly Library.
Don explained to me in an email dated January 29, 2010, “Don't know if I told you I had a contract with O[ak] K[noll] for a revision up date of the Dictionary of American Antiquarian Book Collectors. Joel Silver was going to be the co-author.  I simply could not get it off the ground here - maybe lack of energy ???? anyway I cancelled the OK contract and Joel may go ahead and do it himself.  I regretted giving it up and still think it would be worth doing - deceased collectors from 1985 to 2009 or so.  And just a few months ago I was tested and found to have macular degeneration, and am having treatment.  SO, just as well to put the DAAB behind me.”
The disconcerting news of Don’s failing eyesight prompted me to print out and send Don a draft of my biblio-collection catalogue filled with hundreds of association items related to American book collecting.  He emailed me soon after, “WOW!!! You have done a mighty job.  Congratulations. Absolutely delightful. The Zimmerman Collection of Books About Books is a smashing showpiece.   And I intend to give it several showings to Biblio Friends here in Tucson.  Thanks for the warm inscription. It is, as they say, ‘up my alley.’  I thought the Preface struck just the right tone, a ‘work in progress’. . . I know as I look in more depth, I will have notes/comments etc. to send on but for now WOW!!!”
To receive two “wows” from a mentor is more than I could have hoped for.  Had I not sent him a copy of the catalogue it would have been an eternal regret.  A labor of love has its own reward but positive feedback now and again keeps the fire tended.
Book collecting has rewarded me with many of my closest friends and best moments.  Don Dickinson, through his writings and personal encouragement, greatly enhanced my book collecting and thus my life.  So, this tribute to Don is not only a pleasure to write but a necessity.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Use the Force: Barton W. Currie & John C. Eckel

Sometimes you just have to take matters into your own hands.  Like Luke Skywalker in the original Star Wars when he blows up the Death Star using the Force to guide him.
          This juxtaposition of science fiction and book hunting will become clear soon.  It all started after a very late night of Ebay searching followed by a chaser of Star Wars.  I grogged off in the recliner and didn’t awake until morning when my wife Nicole rattled me from my slumber.  
          It was Saturday morning so no rush.  I began breakfast and leisurely checked my email.  There was a notification from Ebay about an item ending soon.  My find from the night before was being offered at live auction by the National Book Auctions of Freeville, New York.   The book was an inscribed copy of Barton Currie’s Fishers of Books (1931), an autobiographical account of his collecting during the Roaring Twenties, and one of my favorite books.  (See my earlier blog posts about Currie.)  The cataloguer could not make out the name of the recipient because of Currie’s rather difficult handwriting but was kind enough to post a photo of the inscription.  I deciphered it and got that bookish tingle of excitement that stirs the dopamine levels.  My natural high shot to nerve-jangling heights when I clicked on the auction link and found out the auction was already in process!  The Currie lot would be coming up within the half hour.
          I was disconcerted to say the least.  The burnt smell of my now forgotten bagels lingered in the air.  In my space fog the night before, I’d not only whiffed on the urgency of the situation but also forgotten to submit an absentee / snipe bid.  The only option left was to bid manually online during the actual auction.  I couldn’t recall the last time I’d bid at auction in some sort of live fashion—either in person, phone, or online.  I’d grown soft and lazy utilizing snipe programs or absentee bids.  A bead of sweat formed and I imagined a book hunting Darth Vader swooping in from who knows where to blast me out of the auction sky.
          “Get a grip on yourself,” I whispered.  “This isn’t like you’re trying to knock down a Gutenberg Bible against Bill Gates.”
          So, I made my run through that metaphorical canyon of the Death Star, my targeting computer off, the thought of a last minute internet crash pushed from my mind, and the Force strong as my lot came up and I opened the bid.  Resistance was immediate from a Stormtrooping floor bidder.  I kept firing away –click, click, click – until I had vaporized this unknown assailant and the book was mine!
          “Not today, you bastard,” I yelled, “Not today."
          “Everything okay in there?” my wife said from the other room.
          “All is very fine, very fine indeed.”
          A moment of silence -- “What did you just buy?”
          A week later what I bought was in hand.  The presentation copy of Fishers of Books reads, “Inscribed for John C. Eckel, to whom I am indebted for some of the more fortunate adventures that have occurred in the course of my book hunting.  Barton Currie, Nov. 11, [19]31.”
          John C. Eckel, noted Dickens bibliographer, collector, and fellow Philadelphian, was a close friend of Currie.  Currie, inspired by Eckel, developed a strong Dickens collection and features it prominently in the book.  Currie mentions Eckel and his writings numerous times in connection with Dickens and recommends his bibliography.   Currie writes, “Even though you begin at the very bottom with a first edition (the book, not the parts) of The Mystery of Edwin Drood, hunt industriously until you discover a fine copy.  Before making this modest purchase, buy a copy of First Editions of Charles Dickens, by John C. Eckel (London: 1913), and seek also for the Grolier Club Catalogue of the Works of Charles Dickens.  Absorb all you can from these two valuable guides, then hit the trail” (p. 55).
          Eckel’s bibliography First Editions of Charles Dickens, first published in 1913 was revised in 1932.  Eckel also wrote Prime Pickwick in Parts (1928) with an introduction by A. Edward Newton, a good friend of both Eckel and Currie.
          Eckel maintained regular contact with many members of the book trade including prominent Philadelphia dealers A.S.W. Rosenbach and Charles Sessler.  He cited numerous other dealers and collectors for their help on both the first and revised editions of the bibliography.  The majority of Eckel’s library was sold by Anderson Galleries on Jan. 15-16, 1935 and scattered to the winds.
          Eckel’s position of prominence and respect in the rarified book world of his time makes this an important association copy: not only sentimental for the friendship it highlights but also for its broader appeal as an important artifact in the history of American book collecting.
          Now back in the present, a number of my friends have recommended I see the latest Star Wars spin-off Rogue One.  An excellent suggestion but you better believe I’ll be checking any potential auction bids closely before heading to the movie theater. 

On a chilly morning a few days after my blog post, I received an email from Richard Gresh.  I didn’t know Gresh but discovered that his mutual interest in Currie had led him to my blog.  He collects the Cape Cod author Joseph C. Lincoln, a friend of Currie.  Gresh was kind enough to notify me that there was a Currie letter to Eckel for sale on Ebay.  (It turned out there were two letters.)  The letters were listed as “buy it now” instead of at auction so I hadn’t seen them.
          I immediately swooped down like a Star Wars X-wing fighter plane at full throttle.  Within a few moments both letters were mine.  And what magnificent letters they are!  Each referred directly to Fishers of Books and the signing of a copy for Eckel.  The seller of the letters had nothing to do with the auction house where I got the book.  The serendipity of this whole episode reinforced my belief in a benevolent Book Deity.  In reality, it was a fellow collector generously sharing his knowledge with another.  I have found such camaraderie to happen frequently, unless of course one has an interest in the same item.  Amor Librorum Nos Unit. 
          Barton Currie’s letter dated Oct. 12, 1931, reads in part, “Dear Mr. Eckel:  Many thanks for your kind comments on my book [Fishers of Books].  I dropped in to [Morris] Parrish’s twice to sign your copy but it was not there.  I had a lot of fun writing the ‘opus’ but hardly thought it would have the spread of interest it seems to have developed. . . .”  Currie writes again in a different vein on Oct. 28, 1931, “You are a brave man to attempt to say anything good of my book after the reviews in the Saturday Review of Literature and The Publisher’s Weekly.  The latter calls it a dangerous book.  The reviewer works for The Brick Row Bookshop and I have one or two veiled references as to how I was almost bilked by [Byrne] Hackett [proprietor of The Brick Row].  But the Sat. Rev. of Lit. goes out of its way to be nasty. . .  Of course, I attacked the special pets of the review, and failed to include [Christopher] Morley as among the worth-while Americans to gather in, but I stated plainly enough that I reserved the right to collect whoever I damn pleased, and I never will include Morley. . . I’ll get in to Parrish’s in a day or so and write in your book.”

            So indeed Currie did visit Parrish shortly after and inscribe the Fishers for Eckel now in my collection.  Morris L. Parrish (1867-1944), the mutual friend of Currie and Eckel, was a fellow Philadelphian and famous book collector.  Parrish focused on Victorian authors and was a condition fiend, allowing only the finest copies in their original state on his shelves.  In doing so he established the legendary “Parrish condition.”  Parrish wrote a number of ground-breaking bibliographies of Victorian authors, the most famous being Victorian Lady Novelists: George Eliot, Mrs. Gaskell, the Bronte Sisters, First Editions in the Library at Dormy House, Pine Valley, New Jersey, Described with Notes. (1933), limited to 150 copies.   His collection eventually went en toto to Princeton University.
          And serendipitously yet again—to end my story with a gilting of the edges--I happen to already own a copy of Victorian Lady Novelists inscribed appropriately to Currie, “For ‘Fishers of Books’ from ‘Victorian Lady Novelists,’ 12th Sep. ’33.”

I am ready and willing for a sequel should it come.  May the Force be with me.