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.

            Donald Dickinson’s entry for Mendoza in Dictionary of American Antiquarian Booksellers is the best short synopsis of Mendoza’s background and importance.  He writes:  "At the age of eighteen [1883] Mendoza started working as a clerk for Michael J. Hynes, who owned two bookstores in New York, one a large outlet on Broadway and the other a small basement shop on Ann Street.  The young man must have made a good impression since after only three months he found himself in charge of the Ann Street location.  When Hynes died in 1887, Mendoza took a job as the cataloger for the bookselling firm of Bowers & Loy on Nassau Street.  After twelve years of varied experience working for others, Mendoza decided to go into business for himself.  On 1 November 1894 he opened a shop at 17 Ann Street in the heart of New York’s book district.
            “Opening under the name Old Ann Street Book Store, Mendoza and his three sons built a huge stock and attracted a steady flow of business.  Mendoza was particularly aggressive in buying private libraries and the contents of other bookstores.  At one point he bought the entire backlist stock of the Stone and Kimball publishing firm.
            “Mendoza numbered among his distinguished customers many bankers, city government officials and business executives.  In 1904 he sold two libraries en bloc to Henry E. Huntington—the Charles A. Morrogh library of first editions and illustrated classics and the John A. Morschhauser library, made up of English and American literature and fine bindings.  Huntington continued to buy from the Old Ann Street Book Store up through the early 1920s.  Other regular customers included Mr. and Mrs. William Rose Benet, Amy Loveman and Mr. and Mrs. Christopher Morley.  It was said that once you entered the six-floor, gas lit shop, it was almost impossible to leave without making a purchase from the estimated half-million volumes.
            “Mendoza’s three sons, Aaron, Mark and David, ran the business for thirty-five years after their father died.  When David died in 1972, Walter Caron bought the stock along with the right to continue to use the family name.  Although he changed the emphasis from antiquarian books to mysteries and science fiction, the atmosphere remained the same.  With its windows set back from the sidewalk on one of the city’s oldest and narrowest streets, its floor-to-ceiling shelving and tables of books everywhere, the Mendoza store was for many New Yorkers the essence of what a bookshop should be.”
            Other information about Mendoza is found in Madeleine Stern’s Antiquarian Bookselling in the United States (1985) and Marvin Mondlin and Roy Meador’s Book Row: An Anecdotal and Pictorial History of the Antiquarian Book Trade (2004).
            I have in my collection an association copy of Goodspeed’s Yankee Bookseller: Being the Reminiscences of Charles E. Goodspeed (1937).  It is inscribed, “Mr. Isaac Mendoza, with compliments of Charles E. Goodspeed, Oct. 16, 1937.”  (Particularly poignant as Mendoza would pass away two weeks later on November 3rd.)
Mendoza played a key role in Goodspeed choosing bookselling as a career.  Without Mendoza’s early encouragement and advice Goodspeed may have never established his famous Boston bookshop. Goodspeed writes, “I found myself without a job in the fall of 1898 [because of the 1893 Depression and aftermath].  The silver lining in that cloud was the opportunity of fulfilling a long cherished desire.  Now, I said, I can do what I always wished to do; I can try bookselling.  The love of books had become a passion with me. . . So, when a change of business was forced upon me, I went to Isaac Mendoza, who still occupies the store at No. 15 which I most frequented at the time, and said, ‘Mr. Mendoza, I have lost my position here in New York.  I am going back to Boston and in these times there are no new jobs to get.  I am planning to go into the secondhand book business.  What do you think of my chances?’
            “I got my first encouragement from his reply, ‘I never knew but one man who failed in it; that was Tom ---, and he drank rum and played the races.’  Stimulated by this assurance I invested my savings of a few hundred dollars in miscellaneous purchases at Bang’s Auction Rooms and some ‘remainders’ which I bought from Mendoza.  The latter included a lot of books from the bankrupt stock of Stone and Kimball, of which Mendoza had been a large buyer.”
The following transcription of the manuscript is basically verbatim, leaving in the occasional idiosyncratic grammar for flavor, only lightly edited when it is distracting.  I’ve added a few clarifying notes in brackets and given a brief commentary at the end.

“Booksellers of the Early [Eighteen] Eighties”

William Gowans [1803-1870] had just passed away and his immense stock consisting of over two hundred thousand rare and valuable books had been disposed of by auction at Leavitt’s rooms in the old Mercantile Library Building in Astor Place.  When the writer got a job, as it was then called in a small basement book shop on Ann St. the duties consisting of minding shop during the proprietor’s absence, and running the list, which in those days meant going the rounds of other book shops picking up such books, wanted by customers.  These tours brought the writer close to the booksellers of the day.  A few of his recollections might amuse and interest the reader. 
Leggat Bros had an immense shop [corner of] Beckman St and Theatre Alley and was the rendezvous for all collectors, particularly those seeking bargains.  It was common among collectors to be on hand when a new library was put on exhibition, there was surely to be some rare finds.
Many anecdotes were told about this shop. Andy looked after the accounts and cash while Dick took charge of buying and selling.  Dick was not well posted on rare books, but had a keen commercial instinct, so would often place some of the rare books of doubtful value to him on the counters, and judge the asking price by the fondness with which the customer would handle the volume.  In a large library “recently purchased” there happened by chance a useless volume issued by the Patent Office found among the unmarked rarities, a collector knowing the ways of the establishment picked out this report in a manner indicating his desire for possession, inquired the price from Mr. Leggat, and Dick after closely examining the volume, then scanning the customer’s face said $2.50.  The customer eagerly took the book, placing it under his arm, said, “This is a bargain, Mr. Leggat. Why, do you know what this book is really worth?”  “No,” says Dick. “Not a damn cent says the customer throwing the book down and walking out.  After which Dick went next door to Regans (?).
Charles L. Woodward [1832?-1903], in the little rear room at 78 Nassau St had the finest collection of Americana, and [was] known the country over as an authority on the subject.  Unlike most booksellers, he did not care to have his customers handle his wares, and never catered to browsers, yet never hesitated to show any book in stock when inquired for.  To discourage browsing, his books were laid flat on the shelves, with the bottom exposed with the title[---] in but projecting so it could be read by himself or “Polly” his daughter, if asked for.  Early American books, local histories, and the genealogies, so much sought for now, went begging at a dollar or two.  It can safely be said, Woodward started most of the big Americana collections, like [George] Brinley, Clark, [Brayton] Ives, [Robert] Hoe and many others.
Woodward tells the story on himself, of how careful he prepared his catalogues without grammatical or typographical mistakes, and invariably someone would call his attention to glowing errors.  He decided finally to issue a catalogue positively without errors.  At that time he purchased a number of books on the Mormons, and here was his chance.  He prepared about five hundred books on this subject, after going over and correcting [the] manuscript many times, to issue the catalogue, heading it Catalogue “Scallawagiana” [1880] he confessed to the writer he read the proof at least six times, to be sure of no errors.  The catalogue finally appeared in print, and most of his customers knowing of his correctiveness complimented him upon his finally issuing a catalogue without error.  He felt very proud.  After nearly a year he read a letter, from a Mormon elder named Smith, of Salt Lake City taking issue about the title given to the catalogue [Bibliothica (!!) Scallawagiana] with notes, criticisms, etc. mentioning “Scallawagiana” telling Woodward he no doubt must be as unreliable as his spelling, that this word [in the title] was incorrectly spelled.
Ed Nash, the old clerk for William Gowans, started a small shop on Nassau St. in a rear room up a pair of dingy stairs.  Nash had good schooling at Gowans and tried to follow his former master.  Here could be found stock of good books, particularly first editions by the authors of the Elizabethan period, such as Ben Jonson, Beaumont and Fletcher, Greene, Peele, Shirley and others, and they were offered at prices so ridiculously low compared with the auction records of today.  The writer distinctly recalls a copy of James Shirley, The Doubtful Heir, 1652, in immaculate condition bound in full crimson morocco marked in plain figures $17.50.  An inferior copy in the Hoe collection fetched $185.  The again a copy of Sir Philip Sidney’s The Countess of Pembroke’s Arcadia, London, 1593, marked $35.  This went under the hammer in the same sale (Hoe) for $2,250.  Robert Hoe without doubt secured many of his first editions from Nash.
Reeves on Fulton St, a very amiable and learned gentleman, conducted a very orderly shop.  Shelved on both sides, to a height of six feet, so that every book shelved was easily accessible, the proprietor always remarked what’s the use of having literary property for sale if it could not be seen and handled.  There was always an inviting odor to this shop. It was a pleasure to be around when the new cases just arrived from London.  The collectors gathered around the box while John the porter was removing the cover, eagerly scanning the titles and occasionally putting the treasures under their arms in fear some other collector would order it before them.  After the box was emptied, the buyers one after the other would seek the proprietor to have his selection priced.  S. B. Luyster succeeded to this business later, and did business much the same way, and I may say on a larger scale with much success.
Nathan Tibballs was the theological book dealer at this time.  His entire stock was destroyed by fire in the burning of the World building situated at Park Row and Beckman St.  After the fire, Tibballs with his three sons, John, Nathan, and Cyrus opened a shop on Nassau St. handling books along the same lines.
Thomas Bradburn had a shop corner [of] Fulton and Nassau Sts. with shelving outside the building.  This was the hunting ground for dealers.  Bradburn being commercial rather than literary, never hesitated to let a book go for a dollar that cost 50 cents.
Thomas Morrell who made a specialty of the Drama, had a very neat shop on Nassau St. where the connoisseur could find Ireland’s New York Stage, or a portrait of his favorite player neatly arranged and at reasonably low prices.
Joseph Sabin who later developed into the great authority on Americana had his shop at 84 Nassau.  His immense work The Dictionary of Books Relating to America will ever be a monument to his memory.  Unfortunately his death left this work in an unfinished state.   Yet the literary world does congratulate itself that Mr. Wilberforce Eames (an old clerk of Charles L. Woodward) formerly Librarian of [the] Lenox Library is continuing this work to completion.

William Loring Andrews’ Old Booksellers of New York (1895) is a complementary work that mentions a number of booksellers referred to by Mendoza.  The primary focus of Andrews is William Gowans.

The importance of Charles L. Woodward is under-appreciated.  He was a primary player in the trade and a number of bookman such as Wilberforce Eames apprenticed with him.    Even the redoubtable Donald Dickinson overlooked Woodward and he has no entry in Dictionary of American Antiquarian Bookdealers.

C. N. Caspar’s Directory of the Antiquarian Booksellers and Dealers in Second-Hand Books of the United States (1885) has entries for the following:  (scan of Caspar available online).

Thomas Bradburn, 29 Ann St.
Albert L. Luyster, “Bookseller and Importer of New and Old Books” 98 Nassau St.
Edward W. Nash, 80 Nassau St.
Tibball’s & Son, 124 Nassau St.

Reeves’s Bookstore is written about by W. H. Wallace in “The Old Booksellers of Nassau Street Fifty Years Ago,”Publisher’s Weekly, Vol. 81, April 6, 1912.  He called it the “Bookman’s Elysium.”
Thomas Morrell.  See entry in Dictionary of American Antiquarian Booksellers.

Michael Burd of Kennebunkport, Maine was kind enough to bring to my attention the following 1990 newspaper article about the end of the Mendoza Bookstore:

About New York; As Dust Gathers, Oldest Bookstore Reaches the End
Published: February 3, 1990
The other day, somebody stole the big sign. It weighed better than 50 pounds and each morning had to be carted down to the street. It would be placed in front of piles of worthless old books to announce that on the second and third floors of the rickety six-story building at 15 Ann Street existed the Isaac Mendoza Book Company, New York City's oldest bookstore.
The sign was really no longer needed. On Feb. 28, the owner, Walter Caron, will forever close the doors of a shop that opened in 1894.
In the measure of things, the loss is small. The same books will still be sold elsewhere. And customers had already dwindled, with sales in recent months dropping to half the level of a year ago. There was no Christmas spurt. In December, for the first time, Mr. Caron, who is 70 years old, had to withdraw money from his savings account to pay the rent.
''I'm not being forced out,'' he said. ''I just feel that New York is getting terribly difficult.''
So the musty, dusty smell of Mendoza - its hopelessly jumbled mountains of aging tomes, its paint-splattered stepladders, its yellowing portraits of Herodotus and Kipling - will retreat to the corners of selected memories.
While the legend was apparently never true that the store sold a Gutenberg Bible to J. P. Morgan, the time will come when no one will be the wiser. And perhaps it will be correctly remembered that the likes of Buckminster Fuller and Christopher Morley browsed here.
One can hope. This is what Morley said of bookstores: ''Lord, when you sell a man a book, you don't sell him 12 ounces of paper and ink and glue - you sell him a whole new life.''
Mr. Caron will be glad to show you a yellowing photograph of Isaac Mendoza, but he never met him.
Isaac's legacy to the shop is a reputation for securing unusual books. Ownership passed to his three sons - Mark, the gentleman; Aaron, the scholar, and David, the wit.
It was David, the youngest, and his wife, Gilda, who were Mr. Caron's friends.
At age 20, he had descended on New York from Springfield, Mass., bent on realizing his dream of being a great ballet dancer. And indeed he danced a small part or two with the American Ballet Theater.
But that didn't pay the bills, and Mr. Caron found his way to Whyte's, a now defunct restaurant across the street from Mendoza. Everything at Whyte's was homemade, from breads to ice cream. The chefs were always European. Mr. Caron started as a busboy and worked his way up to head waiter.
But he found himself spending ever greater amounts of his time across the street helping out David and Gilda. He also began to collect books on his own. Concerned that people were rifling the 40 cases of books he kept in the basement of his York Avenue apartment building, Mr. Caron in 1960 rented a loft on Chambers Street for $65 a month.
''You start out by collecting, and the next thing you know you have so many books you don't know what to do,'' he said.
After David Mendoza died, it was thus only natural that Mr. Caron bought the store from Gilda in 1972.
So Mr. Caron in these last days stands behind a cluttered counter, often doing crossword puzzles or reading a mystery. He is glad to talk.
He tells the story of this piece of real estate. About five years ago, it was sold for $550,000, then flipped for $750,000 a year later. At the time of the second sale, the rent jumped such that he left the first floor of what had always been a three-floor shop and retreated to the second and third. Plans call for the building to be auctioned for a price estimated at $1.2 million, undoubtedly further increasing rents.
All that has left its impression, though he acknowledges rent is far from the only problem. ''I think the city is in the grip of real-estate dealers,'' Mr. Caron said. ''It's killing everybody.''
His are the tales of a hunter. He remembers buying his first copy of James Joyce's Ulysses near Times Square for $1. (''The Random House.'') He remembers how his heart raced when he found a perfect first edition of Ernest Hemingway's second book, ''In Our Time.'' He rues the day he turned down a chance to buy a crate of limited editions of Faulkner's novels for $500. They might draw $100,000 today.
And he travels back over the years to a happier time when a subway ride cost a nickel and you could spend a heavenly day in the Third Avenue junk shops. He tells of walking barefoot at 11 P.M. across Central Park, and having a policeman admonish him to go home and put his shoes on.
The phone rings. Somebody asks when the Isaac Mendoza Book Company is closing. There is a long pause. ''Do you mean tonight or forever?'' Walter Caron asked.


  1. Thanks for taking the time to tell the story and transcribe the manuscript, Kurt! Three good things that came of it (for me):

    1) I looked up and learned what a holographic manuscript was

    2) I requested the two early bookseller books you mentioned (the Stern and the Mondlin/Meador) from my local library

    3) This is the first rare book article I read for the launch of my new site tomorrow, the name of which occurs in the first line of your manuscript, which made me smile

    I have you on my Feedly reading list, and I'm sure you'll be hearing more from me as time goes on :)

  2. Kurt, great stuff, as always. I wonder if we should start writing up our encounters with shops and dealers--many of which and of whom are passing away.

  3. I had a Summer clerical job through my HS years in the early 70's, down in the Wall Street area, and quickly discovered the Mendoza Book Company on Ann Street. It quickly became my lunchtime haunt, and the usual reason for me to get back to work late from time to time. Mr. Caron was friendly (but intimidating to a teenager) and I loved to go through the SF and mystery stacks. The musty smell of age and books was amazing. Most of my meager pay was spent there on a regular basis, but I loved it. Thanks for your article, it brought back memories of a NYC long gone ...

  4. I was there, on the last day of the Mendoza bookstore.