Wednesday, March 30, 2022

The Love and Pursuit of Books Unites Us


It’s a pleasant thought, isn’t it?  That the free-ranging, capitalistic mind, linchpin of our economy, pauses for a moment and rises to a larger cause.  In this case, my book collection.  Booksellers and book collectors share a symbiotic relationship.  We are bound together with ecstatic moments and occasional torment, in the best of cases a fulfilling long-term union develops between us, in rare instances, an acrimonious separation.
            Most professional rare booksellers I’ve met tune in quickly to a serious collector’s interests.  I collect material about rare booksellers themselves, past and present, so this uncommon bypath usually is met with surprise and curiosity by those currently active in the trade.  It is not often a bookseller gets a request for their own material – previous catalogues, perhaps a bibliography written by them, an essay contributed to a journal, and so on.  I love this kind of stuff, and once we get through an awkward courtship period (“You really want my first catalogue, inscribed?”) they often become enthusiastic supporters of my collection.  And this is a good thing, for rare booksellers are always on the hunt.
            I’ve acquired many items through the kindness and thoughtfulness of the rare booksellers.  I don’t see enough of these two traits mentioned in print.  It’s not always a merchant mentality of buy low / sell high.  Placement of an item in the right home is a priority to many booksellers.  Two of my recent acquisitions are good examples.
            The first was a long-sought desiderata of mine, the kind that nibbles annoyingly at your collecting sub-conscious for years, nay, decades in this instance.  The book is William Reese’s Winnowers of the Past (1977), his Yale undergraduate thesis, published in an edition of 25 copies reproduced from the original typescript.  The precocious Reese writes in Winnowers the most thorough history to date of the great 19th Century Americana collectors and dealers with accounts of Obadiah Rich, Henry Stevens, James Lenox, John Carter Brown, and many others. 
            I already have two examples, but they are later copies, although not without merit.  The first is a copy made ca. 1990 from the one in bibliographer Michael Winship’s collection. He introduced the work to me when I took his bibliography class at the University of Texas.  The reading of this work did much to stir my interest in American book hunting and was instrumental in sparking my collection.
            The second copy reflects a special memory.  While visiting Reese in 2015, I spotted a later, unbound copy housed next to his original.  I asked if it might be available.  He did not hesitate, and it passed directly into my hands.  He was kind enough to add an inscription, “For Kurt Zimmerman, A later edition of my senior thesis at Yale, still useful in places!  Bill Reese, Sept. 19, 2015, New Haven.”
            But these did not satiate my desire for one of the original twenty-five.  Over the years, I’ve encountered only a single example for sale, but it bore no obvious provenance and it sold before I could buy it.  (I later found out Reese himself had purchased it!)
            In November 2021, I received an email from Nick Aretakis.  Nick is the head of Americana at Reese Company, having taken over shortly after Reese’s death in 2018.  Big shoes to fill but Nick has done so admirably.  Nick worked earlier in his career for Reese before going out on his own as an independent rare bookseller.  His return to the Reese Company after Bill’s death was a homecoming of sorts, albeit a solemn one.  Nick and I have known each other for many years.  We share common interests in bibliophilic history, the writings of collector and bibliographer Henry Wagner being one example.  And we geek out over particularly juicy Wagner association copies as only two cognoscente can.
            But his recent email was on a different subject.  It was short and succinct and made me momentarily choke on my still warm blueberry muffin.  Nick wrote, “I don't know if you've seen the recent list ‘Occasional List R’ issued by Dumont Maps and Books, but one of the items is the copy of Bill's ‘Scholar of the House’ paper, called ‘Winnowers of the Past,’ inscribed by Bill to Freddy White.  Not sure if you have a copy of this already, but this one is a pretty great association copy.   A scan of the relevant catalogue page is attached.”
            The muffin could wait.  The recipient of the book, Fred White, Jr. (d.1996), was one of Reese’s earliest mentors and business partners.  Reese writes in the preface to Winnowers, “Among many booksellers I am particularly indebted to Fred White, Jr. of Frontier America Corporation, Bryan, Texas.”
            I called Andre Dumont whose open shop Dumont Maps & Books of the West is in Santa Fe, New Mexico.  I know of Dumont, having visited his store once years ago on a trip, but we didn’t have a personal relationship.
            I introduced myself and cut to the chase, “Is the Reese still available?”
            “No, I’m sorry that just sold.”
            I don’t know if my deflation was audible (probably so) but Dumont sympathized.  I asked him out of curiosity where he’d gotten the book.  He replied that he purchased it many years previously after Fred White’s death and it had been in his reference collection ever since.    We chatted further about Reese, White, and bookselling.  I soon established my book collecting credentials.
            “Did the book go to a dealer or private collector?” I asked. 
            “It went to a dealer.”
            A glimmer of hope, “Can you tell me who bought it?”
            This is an appropriate question if the purchaser was a dealer.  Probing about a private client is typically considered out-of-bounds.
            Andre only hesitated briefly before he replied, “Andy Nettell bought it.”
            We finished our enjoyable conversation and you can guess who received my next call.  Nettell was not available but would return soon. His assistant took my name and number.
             Much like Andre Dumont, I knew of Andy Nettell but had no personal connection.  Nettell also has an open shop, Back of Beyond Books, located in Moab, Utah.  For over three decades it has been a fixture in Moab.  It is a general shop with a specialization in Southwest material.
            The much-anticipated return call from Andy comes and I’m fully focused, my senses heightened like the start of a job interview.  I introduced myself and briefly explained the circumstances.
            He replied with an ice-breaking laugh, “Oh, now you’ve put me in a tough spot.”  I took this as a good sign.
            Andy explained he bought the book for himself having never read it and he was also an admirer of Bill Reese.  I waxed poetically about the book’s attributes and even more poetically how much that particular copy would mean to me.
            I heard him sigh, for he is a bookseller first and foremost, and a damn good one.  “Alright, I’ll sell it to you.  Once it gets here, I’d be glad to send it on.”
            No price was discussed.  No details required besides an address. 
            Now I felt a little bad for Andy.  The coin had flipped.  Then a spark of inspiration on my part, “I’ll make a copy of the Winnowers that Reese gave me and send it to you.  I can also send you a copy of my own book Rare Book Hunting if you’d like.”
            He liked this idea very much and our deal was finalized.
            When the book arrived, I savored opening it, taking my time as I cut away the mailing tape, resisting the Christmas morning urge of youth to rip and fling aside the packaging separating me from the prize.  The book is nicely bound in quarter leather and marbled boards, certainly a presentation binding.  It also has some related ephemera laid in.  I winced as I unfolded the invoice but found the price to be exactly what Dumont had originally asked for it. Kindness. 

            The second item was a proactive acquisition that unintentionally turned into a Holmesian chase across the Baskerville moor.  My fellow collector, Douglas Adams, admonished me several years ago for not focusing enough on collecting my own contemporaries – collectors, dealers, rare book librarians, etc. active now.  So, in that spirit, I acquire current items and have gotten fine inscriptions from notable book people, many I can call friends, or at least biblio-acquaintances.
            I saw the notice for the recent Grolier Club exhibition “Sherlock Holmes in 221 Objects: From the Collection of Glen S. Miranker.”  Glen and Cathy Miranker have gathered over four decades an astounding collection of material related to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes.  Miranker, a computer scientist, started modestly enough both in collecting and employment and rose eventually to Apple’s Chief Technology Officer, retiring in 2004.  His collecting expenses and acumen rose as well.  He has a bibliophilic spouse and that can make all the difference when rooms overflow and the book budget becomes busted.
            I simply wanted an inscribed copy of the exhibition catalogue.  I considered ordering a copy via the Grolier Club distributor, but it would be unsigned.  It’s often easier (and more fun) to acquire one from the collector directly with inscription included.  I do not know Glen Miranker or his wife, but I do know rare bookseller Peter Stern, and Peter was not only a primary architect of the collection, but also wrote an afterward to the catalogue.  I reached out to Peter to see if he could facilitate and / or had any copies available.  I wanted him to inscribe it as well.  Peter is typically a quick responder to inquiries.  His email style foreshadowed the texting revolution– short, abbreviated and sometimes cryptic.  (This is just the opposite of his in-person conversations when drinks are encouraged, and stories abound.)    He provided Glen’s email and wrote me, “It’s an exceptional work. My contribution is minor. Glen and Cathy were responsible. PLS.”
            This help was appreciated, and I then emailed Glen Miranker, drop Peter’s name, and wait to hear from him.  In the meantime, I saw a post that Nicholas Basbanes, author of A Gentle Madness, and many other books about books, was going to soon interview Miranker at the Grolier Club as part of the exhibition festivities.  It’s on Zoom, so a couple days later I settled in with a beverage and began enjoying the exchange live.  Then my lightbulb flickered—not in my room, the one in my head.  I have Nick Basbanes’ cell phone number; he and Glen are together right now; they are at the Grolier Club and there must be copies of the catalogue available onsite.  I should reach out to Nick and see if he can snag me an inscribed copy.  So, after a moment’s hesitation I texted Nick during the interview.  (On reflection, this may have been an over-step.)  I must admit when I sent the text, I watched and listened for any buzz or ding or reaction from Nick.  None were forthcoming and indeed Nick had remembered to turn his phone off.  He contacted me later and explained he had not seen my text in time, but he promised to reach out to Glen about my request.  I appreciated that, too.
            Still no response from Miranker himself, and this was becoming more complicated than anticipated.  At this point, Miranker had probably heard from Peter Stern and Nick Basbanes, as well as my email, and considered me some sort of book stalker.  Shortly after the Basbanes interview, I made a rare foray onto Facebook.  (Who doesn’t want to see what their old high school classmates had eaten for lunch or what fabulous trips they’ve taken recently?) 
            One Facebook friend is mighty collector and bookseller Otto Penzler, proprietor of The Mysterious Bookshop in New York City since 1979.  Otto assembled over many decades one of the finest collections of mystery and detective fiction.  At one time, his personal collection held over 60,000 volumes! The top 5,000 or so books were recently sold in a series of auctions.  His book, Mysterious Obsession: Memories of a Compulsive Collector (2019) is a fascinating read.
            Otto wrote a post about Miranker’s collection and current Grolier Club exhibition and said that his bookshop had a few copies of the catalogue for sale.  He also echoed a Peter Stern comment that the first printing of the catalogue was all but sold out.   This spurred me to action.  I better just buy a copy and figure out the inscription later.  I emailed Otto that evening summarizing my pursuit.  He replied: “Happy to get this inscribed for you. [Glen and I] are having dinner tonight. . . You are dogged and am glad you saw my Facebook post. I’m on Facebook very seldom and rarely offer anything for sale.”
            Otto’s surprise reply of his upcoming dinner that very evening with Miranker ranks as one of my most serendipitous biblio-moments.  The next day, Otto emailed, “Hi Kurt—We had a great time, as we always do. Your inscribed copy is on the way. I told Glen that you’d been stalking him.”
            Indeed, Glen himself emailed shortly after.  I had trepidation about opening his message, but all was well.  He wrote, in part, “Any chance you will be in Oakland this weekend [for the ABAA book Fair] — I would like to have a whisky with you.”
            Alas, I would not be there, but I took a rain check that I intend to cash.
            One last step remained.  I boxed up the Miranker catalogue after receiving it from Otto and sent it to Peter Stern.  His inscription—certainly dashed off between selling exceptional books and a perhaps taking a nap – made me grin, “For Kurt – it is a rare occasion when I sign something other than a tax form or a check.”
            The practical result of all these twists, turns, and unexpected hurdles are two fine books on my shelves with stories to them.  But much larger than that is my continuing appreciation of the rare book trade, sympaticos in the love of the book, and the kindness and thoughtfulness of a bevy of bookmen who could have easily deaccessioned my pursuits rather than help me.   


  1. Thanks, Kurt, I always enjoy reading your posts! Congratulations on your successful quests for these two interesting books!

    1. Thanks for reading, Bob. And thanks for taking the time for the kind comments.

  2. I also love reading your posts. Books about Books are one of my favorite books to collect!

  3. I so envy the Reese acquisition; And the successful pursuit of the Miranker and Stern inscriptions does show how great book people can be-all involved. Thanks for sharing these adventures.