Monday, February 27, 2023

Encounters with Bookmen E. L. “Shorty” Shettles and J. Frank Dobie

J. Frank Dobie

I was a book greenhorn when I first encountered Elijah L. Shettles (1852-1940) and J. Frank Dobie (1888-1964), two legendary Texas bookmen and personalities.  My early discovery of Shettles and Dobie did much to inspire my interest in the history of book collecting and rare bookselling. 
            This momentous event happened while I was cataloging the Dudley R. Dobie collection of J. Frank Dobie material, the finest Dobie material to appear on the market, offered in a 1992 Dorothy Sloan catalogue.  (Dudley was J. Frank Dobie’s cousin and a noted bookseller.)  I discovered J. Frank Dobie’s eulogy “E. L. Shettles, Man, Bookman and Friend.”  Dobie read it at Shettles’ funeral in 1940, and it was published in the January 1941 issue of the Southwest Historical Quarterly.            
Dobie’s tribute began, “It was in the fall of 1925, nearly fifteen years ago, that I first came to know E. L. Shettles as a conversationalist, as a friend, and as a book man, and to realize the extraordinary riches within his mind.  In my life I have not met more than two other men who possessed such a wealth of minute, accurate, readily available information.  His memory was to me perpetually marvelous; his justness was comparable to his memory.” 
            Dobie then recalled a recent interaction with the aging but still mentally limber Shettles, “How Mr. Shettles loved to talk books to somebody who could understand and whom he liked!  Last winter [1939] a book dealer from Kansas City came to Austin and expressed the wish to meet Mr. Shettles.  What dealer of any consequence in America does not know his name?  I took this one out [to meet him].  Mr. Shettles had been confined to his room from which he received us.  The Kansas City dealer mentioned some rare pamphlet that he had come into possession of.  He had forgotten the date.  Mr. Shettles supplied it, told him where the pamphlet was printed, gave him more facts about the author, recalled how, when and where he, himself, acquired his own first copy of it, at what price, to whom he sold it and at what price.  He went into the subject matter of the pamphlet, noted casually certain printed items that had preceded it, and then named a still rarer pamphlet in reply to it.”

            I asked Dorothy Sloan about the intriguing Shettles.  She pointed me to historian Archie P. McDonald’s entry for Shettles in the Handbook of Texas (the actual volumes, pre-internet).  McDonald’s brief essay was lively and pulled me in further, beginning thus:
            “Elijah LeRoy Shettles, Methodist minister, magazine editor, publisher, and bibliographer, was born in 1852 in the Flatwoods country of Mississippi near Pontotoc, the son of Abner and Caroline (Browning) Shettles.  His maternal grandfather, the family patriarch, was a Baptist minister and had a lifelong influence on Shettles.  During his eighty-eight years Shettles worked as a teacher, a farm-implement salesman, a law student, a pressman for a newspaper, a freight agent, a public weigher, a coal supplier, a gambler, a saloonkeeper, an insurance solicitor, a preacher, a church administrator, an editor, a book collector and dealer, and a representative of several university and public libraries.  He was also a friend of the governors of two states, companion to men of prominence in business and letters, chaplain of the Texas Senate, publisher of books, and humanitarian.  Shettles was over 6’5” tall and had the unlikely nickname of Shorty.
            “From 1881 to 1891 he traveled the Southwest as a hard-drinking, cheating, itinerant gambler, who frequently stopped long enough in a town to operate a gambling hall and saloon; most of these years he spent in Texas. He responded to a revival preacher on April 27, 1891, and soon thereafter felt a calling to the Methodist ministry. Shettles's ministerial career, all of it in Texas, spanned over thirty years. Always a devoted bibliophile, he revealed much of his secular reading in his early sermons.”
Shettles was certainly a man with an uncommon bibliophilic focus—apparently not letting a gambling career or the call of God distract him from his book collecting and bookselling. I immediately warmed to him and wanted to know more. 
            I cheekily asked Dorothy if Shettles was a role model for her as bookseller.  She smiled and said she only bet on rare books. 
            I soon found that Dobie revisited Shettles in a 1957 essay “The First Book-Seller to Enrich My Life.”  Dobie’s book collecting is little mentioned nowadays, but he assembled an exceptional collection of material related to ranching and the Southwest.  The books went to the University of Texas after his death, and for many years were housed in their own room in the library.
            Dobie writes in the essay of his beginnings as a collector and his fortuitous meeting of Shettles, “About three years after a tide in human affairs made me aware of range life and folk tales of the Southwest as subjects for learning and writing, Oklahoma A&M College offered me the chairmanship of its Department of English at a salary beyond the barest subsistence level. . . [In 1924] I began writing for The Country Gentleman for money. . . Now a little book money was a wonderful addition to my life.
“[In Guthrie, Oklahoma] I walked into a kind of racket store – as a store of odds and ends was then called.  This one did not have much in it, but I noticed two books on a half-empty shelf.  They were duplicate copies of Robert M. Wright’s Dodge City, Cowboy Capital (Wichita, Kansas, 1913) in mint condition—a term I had just acquired. . . the storekeeper [said] if I would take both copies I could have them for $2.50.  I took both.  They had no doubt been on his shelf since the year of publication.  In my ignorance the title was new to me, but instinct plus knowledge of something else told me I had made a find.
            “The next year we went back to Austin for keeps, and I began spending an afternoon hour every week or two in H. P. Gammell’s Book Store. . . That ancient Dane was as rare as and a lot thicker than any of his quartos; he knew the prices of nearly all the scarce items but was not strong on the contents of many.  If somebody told him his price was too high, he either moved the decimal point a figure to the right or put the book in what he called his ‘private library’ to wait for time to justify what he asked.  One day in Gammell’s store I met one of his best customers, E. L. Shettles.  He invited me to come to see him.
            “Shettles had somehow learned that I had a duplicate copy of Wright’s Dodge City, Cowboy Capital, and did not try to disguise his eagerness for it.  I think it was selling for up to $25 or better at the time, and I am sure that he had an order for it from an unquibbling customer.  Contrary to my practice in the stock market when prices are going down, I was not in a hurry to sell now, but finally Mr. Shettles got it for about $40 in trade.  He was always generous with me and wanted me to learn and acquire books both. . .
            “Mr. Shettles did business, mostly by mail, in his cottage home out in a plebian part of town.  He might have had three thousand, maybe more, books, not counting duplicates, mainly Americana, with emphasis on Texas, the West, and the South.  He was an expert at acquiring remainders of privately printed historical material and then controlling the market on it.  He was a great pamphlet man.  He had been trained – as a professional gambler on cards – to remember concretely, precisely.  He knew the bibliographical facts about almost every title stored in his capacious memory and knew an extraordinary amount of the contents of thousands of books and pamphlets.  He could gut one very quickly.  Some of the most knowing collectors in the nation were on his list.  Once in awhile one came to see him.  He located tens of thousands of dollars worth of old newspapers, magazines, pamphlets and other material purchased through the Littlefield Fund for the University of Texas library.
            “Many times I would visit Mr. Shettles without buying anything, but never without learning something important to me.  Almost anything that I took down from a shelf could lead to a revealing remark about its author, its relationship to another book, its pertinence to a patch—if not to a field—of knowledge.”
            In reading the Dobie essays, I learned Shettles had written an autobiography, first published serially in the Pontotoc Progress newspaper from 1935-1936.  Archie McDonald edited it for publication in 1973 as Recollections of a Long Life, reprinting Dobie’s “E. L. Shettles, Man, Bookman and Friend” as the foreword.  I acquired a copy quicker than a rousted paisano bird.
            The whole work is robust and entertaining.  Shettles devotes a chapter to “My Experience as a Book Collector.”  He provides a rare account of book hunting in the South from the 1890s-1920s including areas of Texas, New Orleans, Nashville, Mobile, Louisville, Kansas City, etc.  He traveled often as a Methodist minister and he continued hunting after retirement, rarely passing up a bookstore or bookman.
            Shettles particularly favored visiting a dealer named Paul Hunter in Nashville, “from whom I had been buying books and pamphlets and all sorts of material to be found in the South.  I soon became very much interested in him, he was a jolly good fellow, all the time making out as though he did not know much about books and at the same time getting out of you all he could of what you knew about books. . . I bought extensively from him.”
            Shettles writes of another trip visiting Hunter (“I spent more than a week in Nashville”), then he adds, “I extended this trip to include Louisville, Cincinnati, New York and Washington, D.C., but about all I saw on the trip was old bookstores and old books.  When I returned home and began to open the boxes I felt like my wife, from the way she looked at me, thought I had lost my head.  In a way I had, for when a man gets to be a full fledged bibliophile, he is in a way, half crazy.”
            This half-crazed bibliophile describes several interesting finds and broadly evaluates the book hunting opportunities, “Next to Tennessee were Kentucky and Louisiana, both rich in early historical material. . . I always made a number of trips to Kansas City and always with profit.  I liked the dealers, and I liked Mr. Purd Wright, Librarian of the Kansas City Library.  I made several trips to Oklahoma and to Arkansas.  I made nine trips to Arkansas in one year.  I made two or three trips into Mississippi and Alabama, neither of these states was very good hunting ground, but Georgia was.  But many of the states had been impoverished by the [Civil] War.”
            In 1921, upon retirement, Shettles transitioned from book collector to full-time book dealer.  He had begun cutting books loose a few years earlier.  He recounts, “On a trip to Austin in 1918 I carried with me a long list of duplicates in my collection.  I showed it to Mr. [Ernest] Winkler, then consulting librarian and buyer for the Littlefield Fund of the University of Texas.  He bought most of them and said, “Why not sell us your Texas collection, that is, such as we do not have?  I agreed and began at once to list and ship over as fast as I could my collection; it was then I found out how deeply wedded I was to my books, but they must go. I sold to the University Library, the State Library, the Southern Methodist University library, the Rosenberg and the San Antonio libraries and to Miss Ima Hogg most of my collection that I had been many years accumulating.  I have kept most of the invoices of these sales which would be a very good bibliography if arranged in alphabetical order.”
            “After I moved over to Austin and began anew to hunt for material I made an agreement with Mr. Winkler that if he would give me the privilege to represent the Littlefield Southern History collection of the University I would give him the first chance to pick over what I bought and buy it, if he wished.  I think the plan worked out very well.”  
            In my own three decades of hunting, I have found little for my Shettles collection.  One gem did surface years ago, an undated Shettles catalogue, ca. 1930, possibly a proof copy in galley format, that had belonged to J. Frank Dobie and was annotated by him.   
            Then in 2022, I got a call to do a possible insurance appraisal for a small group of books in Beaumont, Texas.  Beaumont isn’t a typical destination city for tourism or travel, but I didn’t mind the two-hour drive through East Texas, a mix of beautiful, wooded pines juxtaposed with pocketed poor areas that jar a suburbanite’s senses.  My fried catfish lunch at Fish Tales in Sour Lake, Texas was first rate.
            A recently retired gentleman met me at the door of a spacious, newer one-story home with a landscaped backyard the size of a football field. 
            My wife and I enjoy gardening, he said. 
            He also enjoyed books, but the ones I was there to evaluate were mainly from his father’s Texana collection, formed decades earlier in the 1960s-1980s.  Most of the rarities were sold at a notable sale in 2004 by Sotheby’s New York.  The few remaining did not meet the reserve at auction and were retained by the family.  The son had sent me a brief list of the items before my visit.  And what a list it was. 
            Books included Joseph Field’s Three Years in Texas (1836), Arthur Ikin’s Texas (1841), and David Woodman Jr.’s Guide to Texas Emigrants (1835), all potentially valued in the $20-40,000 range.
            Most intriguing to yours truly, however, was a group of manuscripts and typescripts containing over thirty essays by J. Frank Dobie.  Many had Dobie’s notes and annotations.  His father had purchased them from Texas booksellers John Jenkins and Ray Walton in the 1970s-80s.
            I began sorting through the essays, reliving my Dobie cataloging experience thirty years earlier at Dorothy Sloan’s.  I paused.  In my hands, I held Dobie’s annotated typescript for “E. L. Shettles, Man, Bookman and Friend.”
            Dare I hope for more? Yes. A minute later, I found the typescript of “The First Book-Seller to Enrich My Life.”
            Oh reader, how I was suddenly overcome with the desire for possession.  A hot flame burned within, and I think its heat was obvious to the owner.  He had watched his father build a great collection and he knew the signs.  He gave me a whimsical look.  We talked.  I have something else related, he added.
            He soon appeared with a large, custom case that housed the very rare original Pontotoc Progress newspaper issues of Recollections of a Long Life that had published Shettles’ autobiography serially.  It was J. Frank Dobie’s set with notes. 
            My car drive home found me in unusually fine spirits as I zipped through the Piney Woods.  I don’t sing often for good reason, but on this occasion, I was alone, the music was cranked up, and I belted out my favorite songs.  I glanced regularly at the Dobie-Shettles items in the passenger seat, quickly warming to the fact they would soon be on my shelves.


  1. Very fine, almost one would say mint, essay!

  2. Makes Anyone want to collect.
    Bravo Kurt!

  3. A fantastic find Kurt!! Congratulations!