Tuesday, November 9, 2021

William P. Barlow Jr. (1934-2021): Personal Rewards and Universal Benefits


Bill Barlow in his library 2011

William P. Barlow, Jr. (1934-2021) collected books for almost 70 years – an admirable run achieved by few collectors, and rarer still was his ability to recall just about every acquisition going back to the beginning.  A CPA by vocation, Bill was organized, and in case he needed to refresh his memory, he could consult his large, hefty ledger book in which he had written in chronological order each book acquired since the early 1950s.  And there were thousands and thousands of them recorded within.  I saw this ledger first-hand on a memorable visit with my friend Douglas Adams to Bill’s home in Oakland, California in 2011.  News of Bill’s passing on October 21st at age 87 from a heart attack shocked me and stirred many thoughts.
        I first met Bill in the mid-1990s while I was working at Butterfield & Butterfield auction house in San Francisco.  He was of medium height, openly friendly, quick moving, and dressed well, if a tad progressively, almost always wearing the light-colored sport jacket and flashy tie, for example, at a formal gathering of dark-suited bibliophiles.  He was easy to spot, and I don’t think he minded that.  We discovered we shared a common interest in book collecting history.  By then Bill was already a legendary bookman with a long list of accomplishments: Grolier Club Council member, earliest elected president of the Roxburghe Club in San Francisco, winner of the Thomas More Medal for Book Collecting, teacher with Terry Belanger at Rare Book School of a class on book collecting and the disposition of collections, notable speaker on bibliophilic topics, and proprietor of his own private Nova Press.
        Not long before we first met, I’d run across his talk published by the Library of Congress, Book Collecting: Personal Rewards and Public Benefits, A Lecture Delivered at the Library of Congress on December 7, 1983. (1984).  Bill was an enthusiastic promoter of book collecting, and this essay proved inspirational to me.  Using examples from his own collecting, he explained with wit and clarity the wide range of delights (and a few pitfalls) one could expect when rare book hunting was taken seriously.  The following cheeky excerpt struck a particular chord for me as I progressed into collecting “books about books” association copies.  He wrote:
            “There is a species of books generally classified by antiquarian book dealers under the heading ‘books about books,’ which is supposed to be distinct from a related classification called ‘bibliography,’ although the distinguishing characteristics are not always clear.  The species includes reminiscences of book dealers and book collectors, collections of essays allegedly of interest to book collectors, instructions intended to enhance a book collector’s fun or profit, and books designed to encourage non-collectors to collect.
“Although described as ‘books about books,’ these are really ‘books about book collecting.’  I am always amazed that so many of these books are published and even more amazed that they are sold.  But the most astonishing thing it that they are written!  The collecting experience, it has always seemed to me, is so personal that it is both painful to write about and impossible to communicate.
“Nevertheless, that is what I have been asked to do, and I am going to do it in the same manner most ‘books about books’ are written: I will describe my own experiences as a book collector and hope that something universal may emerge.”

        Bill recalled how the purchase in ca. 1953 of his first collectible book, Milton’s Paradise Lost and Paradised Regain’d printed by John Baskerville in London in 1758, shaped much of his future collecting.  The collecting of Baskerville imprints and ephemera soon led to an interest in provenance of various copies, spurring the gathering of auction and bookseller catalogues offering Baskerville material.  This evolved into a wider collection of catalogues numbering in the tens of thousands (separate warehouse space required), with significant offshoots of collecting fine examples of printing, a large Thomas Dibdin collection, in-depth holdings of private library catalogues, and the history of bibliography.  Later in life he gathered a massive collection of material related to Duncan Hines and his travel guides dating from the 1930s.  The wellspring was memories of he and his brother and parents traveling across country in the 1950s in the family Cadillac, using the travel books published by Duncan Hines as a guide to the restaurants and hotels they encountered along the way.  Oh, and he had huge holdings of stamps and related philately items stored in rows of file cases.  I believe wines also had a niche.  But books and printing were his primary focus.  No wonder he didn’t retire early—acquisition funds were needed!
One highlight of my Barlow collection is a typescript of his “Adventures in Book Collecting” read before the Roxburghe Club, January 16, 2001.  He sent me the manuscript with a nice note after one of our biblio-discussions.  Presented as an overview of gathering his Duncan Hines collection, it is a tour-de-force example of a book collector at the height of his powers.
Bill gave a version of this talk a number of times. Andy Foster of Milton and Hubble Books in Pasadena, CA was present at one.  He wrote recently on a memorial thread to Barlow:
William Barlow’s 2011 address to the California Rare Book School, detailing his Duncan Hines collection, its genesis and growth, must rank among the great bibliophile lectures of all time.  Before his talk, with all honesty, I thought that Duncan Hines was a cake mix. Then, I was educated.   
“Biography, methodology, and details guided my understanding of who Duncan Hines was, why he shaped history, and how Duncan Hines's particular actions produced thousands of printed artifacts.
“William P. Barlow Jr.’s lecture demonstrated how a masterful collector hones to a theme with alert intelligence and creates an asset with lasting utility and untold significance.
“Thanks Bill.   I’ll really miss you.”

When my book Rare Book Hunting: Essays and Escapades came out earlier this year, I included Bill in my essay “Book Hunter Bypaths Explored and Exposed.” Here I recalled my visit to see him and his surprising sporting activity that created some unusual private printings from his press.  I wrote:
“Bill Barlow is very clubbable and is an active member of long-standing with the Grolier Club of New York and Roxburghe Club of San Francisco.  He taught a class for many years with Terry Belanger on ‘Book Collecting’ at Rare Book School in Virginia.  He’s an active public speaker on bookish topics. His accomplishments are many.  And he is the only private citizen I know of with a Hinman collator in his dining room—not just any collator, but the one used by Hinman himself in researching the printing history of the First Folio of William Shakespeare.  But that is another story.
“Bill is also a printer.  He privately prints whatever he finds interesting or amusing, usually in pamphlet form, typically under his Nova Press imprint.  His printing shop is set up on the second floor of his house in Oakland.  The weight of the machinery and type must be several tons.  The books (and a large collection of stamps in file cabinets) add several tons more.  A delightful visit several years ago resulted in a question about structural integrity.  Bill just shrugged.  There is a guest room on the first floor but I didn’t stay there.  If I had, I wouldn’t have slept much thinking of the weight of the bibliophilic world literarily above my head.
“Bill is the consummate host and over wine and an Asian meal at a nearby restaurant, I was surprised to learn something decidedly non-bookish about him.  William P. Barlow, Jr. was a champion water skier in his youth (and beyond).  The image of this tanned bookman on skis, deftly slaloming and jumping, waving effortlessly to adoring fans as he sped by was disconcerting at first.  And it was revealed he had also printed a few items relating to water skiing.  I will mention two examples, each combining his creative bent and sense of humor. 
“The first is A Playlet for Water Skiers [In One Actlet] (1961).  The playlet records the lively banter between a water ski judge and his assistant as they reflect on their underappreciated talents.  Barlow writes in the preface, “For a number of years I have been distributing Christmas booklets regularly dealing with printing or book collecting.  This has been a bit unfair to my water skiing friends, who have been regularly mystified by them.  This year, out of respect for them, I have written something about water skiing.  They may still be mystified.”
“The second is Songs for Water Skiers: Another in the Continuing Series of As-Yet-Unsuccessful Attempts to Inject Water Skiing into the Mainstream of American Cultural Life (1967).  Bill points out in the introduction that all popular sports have their own songs, a good example being baseball’s “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.”  To remedy this for the sport of water skiing, Barlow wrote and composed two original songs included here—“Sweet Anna Lee,” and “Go, Go Trickin’ With Me.”  This second song incorporates water skier slang throughout.”
Soon after my book was published, I received an unexpected email from Bill Barlow.  I’m reproducing it here in its entirety as it is not only informative but also exemplified Bill’s continued interest and engagement in book collecting even as relentless age took a toll.

March 30, 2021
Dear Kurt,

I got wind of your book Rare Book Hunting at one source, bought it on Amazon, received it today, and went straight to the index.  What did Kurt have to say (if anything) about me, since it has been a couple of decades, I guess, since you last visited my home and saw some of my collections.  Well there it was, two pages listed in the index (actually a page and a third to be honest). And a pretty amazing recollection of what you saw and we talked about considering the intervening period.  I am flattered, which is almost always welcome (unless it precedes a pitch for a charitable contribution).  And I am humbled to be so mentioned among the many great collectors you have seen and written about.  I have only skipped around a bit so far, but I wanted to get something off to you as soon as possible.
        Obviously you can now be assured that I am still alive.  I reached 87 in February, and it appears I am going to get through the pandemic.  The collection is still pretty much as you described it.  The Hinman collator has gone to the Bancroft Library.  The Baskerville collection is stronger than ever (another Baskerville binding spotted on eBay and added to the dozen or so others last week).  The Dibdin collection is also more nearly complete.  The Duncan Hines material may actually have been started after you were last here.  The auction catalogues continue to be acquired, although not nearly in the numbers that were previously common. 
        The Nova Press is more or less idle, as my eyesight is not great and my ability to stand in front of a press is similarly reduced.  The Christmas cards or pamphlets are no longer being produced (so don’t feel that you have simply been dropped off the list).  And the weight over the heads of those downstairs has grown by another thousand pounds or so, I suppose. 
        When I last saw you, you were regularly coming to the SF/LA Book Fair each year.  I don’t know whether that is still the case (or was before they became virtual).  If you are coming out this way, I would love to show you a few new things and perhaps enjoy a dinner together so we can share stories about book collecting.
        I hope this finds you in good health, and I hope your book will get a wide and distinguished circulation.  I know, of course, it was not written to provide funds for your retirement, but it would be nice if it at least managed to pay for itself.
With all best wishes,
Bill Barlow
Feeling very remiss, I immediately dashed off a presentation copy to him.  He liked that, too.  Bill always seemed timeless to me, both a living and historic figure in rare books, with his own recollections of earlier book hunters he had met in his youth stretching his connection with the bookish past back over one hundred years.  Such a distinguished bibliophile certainly gained quick and well-deserved admittance to Book Valhalla.  And there I imagine he is already collecting, printing, teaching, and regaling the group, much to the delight of his fellows.  His hope that from his own story something universal would emerge was realized.  Vaya con libros, my friend.

Kurt Zimmerman and Bill Barlow in Barlow's Library 

The Nova Press Room at Bill Barlow's Home

There have been a number of tributes / obituary notices that detail more of Barlow's accomplishments.  Here are two:


  1. A wonderful piece Kurt, thank you!!! It has brought back a lot of pleasant memories this afternoon But yet another loss, the last 10 years have been hard on the "book collecting" world. I sadly only had the pleasure to meet Bill in the late 90s and see is collection on one occasion-- after playing 'taxi driver' and taking Nicholas Barker from Ian Jackson's home over to Bill's, with Nick and I getting throughly lost for a bit in the process (pre-Smart phones with maps). Thank you Kurt!