Michael Hurley: The Greatest Book Collector You Never Heard Of

Edd Cote

A Gentle Madness captured the world of antiquarian books in a pre-Internet age.

One room was abandoned when the piles neared the ceiling, and at some point a subsidence of books blocked the door from the inside, sealing the room off.  He established an annex in the garage, where piles of loose books mingled with unopened purchases from local shops and parcels from overseas....

Unless you are (or used to be) a bookseller in Los Angeles, or you were an especially close reader of Nicholas Basbanes' A Gentle Madness, the name Michael Hurley is unlikely to mean much to you.  But to more than one generation of booksellers in Los Angeles, Michael Hurley was something of a legend. 

In Basbanes' Gentle Madness interview with renowned Los Angeles bookseller Glen Dawson, Dawson observed that Hurley "never married...never owned a car...wore the same suit year in and year out...lived in a small house that he rented, and the only furniture he had was bookcases."  Reading this, one might be inclined to imagine rooms piled high with dog-eared copies of National Geographic, stack upon stack of yellowing newspapers, with perhaps an occasional great tottering mound of paperbacks thrown in for good measure.

But when Hurley passed away in 1984, what folks discovered was...

  • Shakespeare's Second Folio
  • the 2-volume First Edition of The Life of Samuel Johnson
  • the First Edition of Shelley's Queen Mab
  • an inscribed First Edition of Bram Stoker's Dracula
  • the First Edition of Winnie-the-Pooh, signed by Milne and illustrator E. H. Shephard, one of only 20 copies bound in vellum....
among many other wondrous items. All of which had been collected on the salary of a postal clerk over a 50-year period.  Some 35,000 volumes.

Because Hurley died intestate, posterity treated this wonderful collection very, very poorly.  Not only was Hurley's collection scattered to the winds, but an astounding number of rare and important books were sold for a mere pittance by order of the Los Angeles County Public Administrator . 

We should perhaps be grateful that Dawson's, which had learned of Hurley's death from Hurley's sisters, was able to select some 800 items for more respectful treatment.  These were cataloged by Stephen Tabor in two sales that Dawson's conducted in August 1984 (catalog # 477, 206 items) and May 1985 (catalog # 479, 554 items). It is from Tabor's introduction to these catalogs that we have what little is known about Hurley.  Even with this more respectful treatment of his books, the prices realized will make you weep.

Even in death, though, new life arises.  And from the ashes of a great but now obscure book collection arose not only a new generation of book collectors...but booksellers as well. Lillian Cole, for example....
The respected Santa Monica bookseller, a well-known specialist in gemology, was just getting into the bookselling business when Michael Hurley passed away.  She cites Hurley's death as one of the three major influences on her career as a bookseller:

[i]t was [then] that I experienced my very first auction, as well as the acquisition of hundreds of books that became my starter inventory. They were wonderful books on all subjects: travel, poetry, literature, children's and one gemological book - The Book of the Pearl by Kunz and Stevenson, published 1908. While I recognized it as a very special and unique book, I didn't have a specialty of any kind at that time, and so tucked it away very carefully for some future time.

Twenty-five years later (July 2009), Cole issued a very special anniversary catalog (depicted above left).  This catalog, along with the two Dawson catalogs and Basbanes' brief mention of the collector, will likely be Hurley's only legacy.  For a collection that Roger Gozdecki has estimated was likely worth several million dollars at the time of Hurley's death, this has to be accounted a major blow to bibliophilia....