Tuesday, June 8, 2021

Revolution, Redoute, and Why Collect Books?

 


The stray bullet shattered the hotel window narrowly missing the young American railroad engineer, Will Winterrowd.  He would save it as a souvenir.  It was February 1917 and Winterrowd was watching the plaza below from his hotel room in Petrograd (now called St. Petersburg).  He recalled the chaos he witnessed, “a hooligan with an officer’s sword belted over his overcoat, a rifle in one hand and a revolver in the other; a small boy with a large butcher’s knife, a soldier with an officer’s sword in one hand, without the scabbard, and a bayonet in the other hand; another with a revolver in one hand and a tram-railer cleaner in the other; a student with two rifles and a band of machine-gun bullets around his waist. All were singing, shouting, and repeatedly firing off their weapons into the air.”

Thursday, April 15, 2021

McMurtry, Pass By

Larry McMurtry & Kurt Zimmerman in 2012

Larry McMurtry died recently, and both the writing world and the antiquarian book trade mourn his passing.  McMurtry thought of himself as a bookseller as much as a writer, although that is not how he will generally be remembered.  For he was a good and prolific author of fiction; a natural storyteller that also ventured successfully into history, screenplays, and insightful essays which covered many topics.  I enjoy his essays the most.  But I still a have a tough time forgiving him for killing off Gus McCrae’s pigs at the end of Lonesome Dove.
        McMurtry scouted and sold used and rare books since his college days.  These scouting adventures were loosely drawn upon for example in his novel Cadillac Jack about a rodeo cowboy turned antiques hunter.  McMurtry had a predilection for buying whole book collections rather than straining out the rarities and leaving the rest.  He told me in 2012 he’d purchased the stock of twenty-six used / rare bookstores and over 200 private collections.  So, he dealt mainly in quantities of better used books rather than focusing on rare ones, although he sold plenty of the latter over a long bookselling career.  He would go on to establish used bookstores in Houston, Washington, D.C., and his hometown of Archer City, Texas.  He eventually closed the Houston and Washington, D.C. stores and doubled down on the Archer City location.  Here he filled a number of buildings he owned on the town square with over 300,000 books in all subjects.  He may have had an American vision of Hay-on-Wye in mind.  That didn’t quite happen, but he did attract a steady stream of book hunters to the tiny north Texas town far from big city amenities. 
I made my first book buying pilgrimage to Archer City in 2001.  I arrived on a toasty August day, stopped at the Dairy Queen for an Oreo blizzard, and got situated in my room at the Lonesome Dove Inn.  The Inn was owned by friends of McMurtry.  They were used to having a variety of book hunters come through – in fact, I think book people were their primary guests.  I still have my Lonesome Dove Inn t-shirt. 

Thursday, March 25, 2021

Nettie Lee Benson on the Development of Special Collections

Nettie Lee Benson

Library Special Collections are fundamental to preserving historical materials and providing resources for students, professors, and independent scholars.   But how were such collections formed and how do they continue to thrive?  I have encountered no better concise explanation than one given by Nettie Lee Benson (1905-1993), librarian and later director of the Latin American collection at the University of Texas from 1942-1975.  The revelatory essay came to my attention recently after the purchase of an offprint from the University of Texas Library Chronicle of Benson’s “The Making of the Latin American Collection” (1962).
            Her essay pertained to a state institution but is generally applicable to any library special collection.  The thoughtfulness of her answer brings together often compartmentalized ideas and forms them into a wider vista—a deceptively simple task.  Being able to grasp both the big picture and the details within is a decidedly uncommon talent.
            Benson’s outstanding career as a librarian, teacher, and scholar is outlined well in the resources linked below.  Benson natural curiosity combined with her historical bent guided her along an unlikely career path in a field dominated at the time by men.  From her small-town Texas roots she became an acknowledged expert in her field and rose to the directorship of a major library.