October 2012 | Nate Pedersen

The Bibliophagist: An Interview with Garrett Scott

From his outpost in Michigan, Garrett Scott continues a unique tradition of Midwestern bookselling which is characterized by a sympathy for the marginal players in American social history, a well-honed sense of "intresting-ness" in books, and an ability to write fascinating catalogue copy.  The particular tradition to which Scott is heir began with Ernie Wessen and his Midland Rare Book Company, continued with Bob Hayman, and lives on in the present era with Scott. We recently exchanged e-mails with Scott in a wide-ranging conversation about bookselling and collecting, his place within the Midwestern bookselling tradition, and the attraction of these forgotten corners of Americana. What follows is a full, unedited transcript of our e-mail Q&A:

Garrett Scott Bookseller.jpgNP: How did you get started in rare books?

GS: Taking the long view, the basic itch to accumulate interesting things began pretty early on when I was growing up in Normal, Illinois (a downstate college town of moderate size) in the mid-to-late 1970s. I always had an active collection of baseball cards or football cards going and what I remember best about those collections were the playground trading sessions where we'd try to hammer out whether an All-Star card really merited three non-All Stars, etc. I remember one particularly rowdy sleepover party where I wanted to go to bed but I had one friend who just wouldn't settle down and I finally told him I would give him the Harvey Martin card he had coveted earlier in the evening if he would just shut up and let me go to sleep. So I guess I had a pretty early interest in these sorts of markets and their various frustrations and satisfactions (even if I had a pretty dim grip on the basic purpose of sleepovers, which it turns out weren't really about sleeping).
But I was never the kind of kid who put together a complete set of cards for any given year. I preferred the short-term pleasures of the wheeling and dealing. I also preferred the pleasures of taking my cards home and putting them to some sort of use. Often I would gather together enough cards to run the football players through scrimmages based on the figures and charts I found in our old World Book Encyclopedia; I was probably one of the few fourth graders running the single wing formation at that point. But besides the pleasures of putting my football cards through their paces, I just enjoyed arranging them and rearranging them on my bedroom floor in arbitrary but what I thought were interesting ways. One iteration I remember offhand was my all-hair football team--viz. Thom Darden ca. 1975 was a starting linebacker, Otis Sistrunk (despite his claims to have matriculated on Mars) permanently relegated to the bench--and looking back on it now I guess this suggests the ways a bookseller tries to create unexpected groupings and yokings in his inventory to create or to find otherwise hidden veins of interest.

I also put together a collection of beer cans as a kid and I was proud of that collection because neither of my parents drank beer. They would on occasion let me prowl the off-campus housing areas near the local college on Sunday mornings after house parties in search of rarities. They also very gamely would pester their few beer-drinking friends and extended family members to come up with examples for my collection. One weekend we somehow managed to secure a coveted Iron City Beer can commemorating a Steelers Super Bowl victory and we persuaded my Uncle Bill drink it. I seem to recall he said it tasted like piss. (This was shock to my young sensibilities, Uncle Bill being usually a paragon.) But perhaps my greatest coup was a batch of Swedish beer cans I persuaded some family friends to bring back from a trip and which apparently caused them some problems at customs coming through O'Hare but really were the visual cornerstone of my collection. I sold the whole lot for a few hundred bucks once I lost interest in it after junior high school.

Some latent bookish bug was lurking there all along of course. I read everything I could get my hands on--stories of crime-solving kids, or World Almanacs, or books about sports--and one of my first book scouting coups came when I was about eight or nine, when I landed an old copy of a Hardy Boys book in yellow cloth that had somehow survived from the antediluvian days of the 1930s. I understand now of course that the volume didn't have much resale value but it put me onto the idea that old books might survive and somehow provide an extra-textual thrill.
The last formative experience I can readily point to was some Sunday night in junior high school when I had a report due the next day on the Black Hawk War and I had characteristically left it to the last minute. The family World Book didn't have much for me and we were supposed to have used more than one source in any event, this being a scholarly paper, and the local public library had long since closed for the night. My dad took pity on me and drove me over to Milner Library on the campus of Illinois State University. He took me in and we went to the card catalog and I found there was something like an entire shelf full of stuff on the Black Hawk War! After Dad instructed me the basics of the Library of Congress call number system we set out into the wild of the stacks and I came out of there with something like 20 or 30 sheets of photocopied pages of prime Black Hawk info. The particular intersection of my joy at finding this plenitude of information easily available to the curious with the emotional satisfactions of doing something so grown-up as research in a college library with my dad no doubt added another link to the chain of associations that sent me down a bibliophilic path.

But my career in rare books proper started with a fortunate work-study job in the summer of 1990 just prior to my senior year at Stanford University. I was trying to piece together enough work to afford to stay out in California for the summer and was sitting in the modular trailer office where they had the binders of library jobs and there was a posting for a position in something called "Special Collections." I had only the dimmest idea what the Special Collections was about but they offered good hours so I applied and got hired.

They immediately put me to work paging material from the stacks and processing archival collections and otherwise doing all the small things that are needed to keep a special collections department humming along. One day I would be plowing through the correspondence of some Nobel Prize winner like Felix Bloch and the next I might come up from the stacks with some book from Coleridge's library and get a chance to read his marginalia. The folks in Special Collection figured out pretty quick that I was taken with this sort of stuff--the books especially--and provided me with bibliographic education (collation signatures! half calf!) and with encouragement. (They encouraged me up to a point, anyway, as they essentially had to start kicking me out because there were limits to the hours they could let students work.)

Eventually I was in charge of unpacking the boxes of new arrivals and checking them off against the dealer catalogs, which obviously exposed me to a lot of material I wouldn't have otherwise handled at such a tender age. I seem to recall that the day Stanford's order came in from Ximenes Fielding catalog was a treat and I spent a good chunk of time even without unpacking the order just going through Steve Weissman's entries and delighting in examples of bibliographical research. It was one of the first examples I had of how much deeper you could go with an author or a period than an undergraduate usually saw in our literature survey courses; this catalogue hinted that there was a lot I didn't know out there that would be fun to dig into.

One final and strangely enjoyable aspect of this job that I particularly recall was the cloak-and-dagger aspect of orchestrating how to make the new arrivals appear as if by magic in the office of Michael T. Ryan, then head of Stanford's Special Collections. Apparently the sight of a student employee was unduly distracting--at this point I might be sporting a neatly trimmed sideways mohawk (my "hawkmo") or some other variety of self-inflicted haircut and I tended to dress in stuff picked up at thrift shop bag sales, so perhaps I was unduly distracting--so I was charged with putting together a book truck full of new arrivals and then awaiting a phone call from upstairs to alert me that Michael T. Ryan had left his office and the coast was clear. At that point I would dart out of my back room with this book truck full of post-incunabula or Fluxus pamphlets or 18th century novels or some other nifty material and zip through various back hallways and elevators until I had arrived at a trot at his office and could lay out the new stock on his approval shelf and spirit away the material he had seen. I doubt at this point over twenty years later that he would be able to pick me out of a line-up--which presumably hasn't done my sales to him any favors over the years--but such I suppose is the price of being a conscientious employee.

I had never been a particularly zealous student and this library job didn't help my attendance at classes any. By the time the end of senior year rolled around I was a few credits short of graduation but was about to get kicked out of the work-study program. I decided that I needed to get a job working with rare books. So quite reasonably I went to the Yellow Pages made some notes and ended up sending my resume to all the booksellers in the San Francisco Bay Area Yellow Pages to ask them for work. This was pretty naive of course and I got turned down with varying degrees of kindness by nearly everyone in the field but, happily for me, John Crichton of the Brick Row Book Shop in San Francisco was about to need somebody to replace his longtime shop manager Matt Lowman and decided I was worth a shot. I spent the first year leaving the duplex I shared with a couple of college buddies in Sunnyvale, California at 5:30 AM and taking the train into the City and learning the basics from John and Matt. (Eventually I moved up to the City and had an easier time of it.) I remember after I had been there a couple of years I told John that I was starting to get the hang of it all but still couldn't figure out how you priced a book. I think John may have said there were some days he couldn't figure it out either.

In all I spent seven years working for John as a cataloguer and packer and all-purpose employee. He taught me anything I know worth knowing about how to run an antiquarian book business. (All my bad habits--e.g. my near-phobic relationship with the phone--are my own.) One example he gave me in starting out was a willingness to buy and sell not only high spots but also the lesser-known works of famous authors as well as the peripheral works of a period. To work for a man who could get excited over (say) the first book appearance of George Pope Morris's "The Oak" ("Woodman, spare that tree!"-- The Deserted Bride; and Other Poems, 1838) was a pattern to my future enthusiasms.

In 1998 my fiancée (now wife) was hired to work at the University of Michigan and I threw up the steady gig with the Brick Row and moved to Ann Arbor. I sent out the germ of my stock and after some fits and starts was soon operating out of the basement of our rented duplex as Garrett Scott, Bookseller. I issued my first catalogue in early 1999. I was pretty psyched when The Book Collector gave it a notice in their Catalogue Review section and mentioned (charitably enough in all conscience) something to the effect that it was perhaps the most extensive run of 18th century Henry Hills verse piracies they had even seen gathered between the covers of a single catalogue.

NP: How would you describe your stock?  How would you respond to the idea that you sell "weird books"?

GS: I bristle a bit at the characterization of weird. I prefer to think I'm trying to offer interesting material. I think I do fairly well trying to find odd corners of 19th century and early 20th century American life that are worth closer examination. American popular entertainments, popular medicine, social reform movements, mail order and canvassing schemes, literature of various stripes, and fringe religious movements are all grist for my mill. (Whether you consider examples of this last topic weird or not depends in part on your attitudes towards religious experience--certainly pamphlet accounts of the spirit-world visions of cave dwelling snake ranchers like James Ernest Child's ca. 1917 Visits in the Unseen World have a certain piquant charm--but you can't deny that the central role of religious experience in American life.)

Part of the reason I'm drawn to out of the way topics--besides intrinsic interest--is likely because even way back when I first started on my own in 1998 and the Internet wasn't much more than tin cans and string, you could still see that online listing was going to drive prices down. I decided that if I tried to buy material that nobody else could be bothered to catalog then maybe I could price it however I wanted. This meant I ended up often going after books with regional imprints, or after material that was unique but undervalued in some way, or after 19th century pamphlets that were ephemeral at best. As a consequence, this strategy often led me to handle books and pamphlets by people against whom the usual doors of conventional publishing were stubbornly barred.

So I will admit that I harbor an affection for authors who hew fast to seemingly strange ideas--John Merrill of East Canaan, N.H. and his hollow earth cosmogony, or David Wardlaw Scott and the other Zetetic astronomers, or various zealous reformers like Mrs. Elizabeth Osgood Goodrich Willard (who famously claimed in 1867 that "A sexual orgasm is much more debilitating to the system than a whole day's work") all of whom certainly strike our current sensibilities as a maybe a little weird. But strangeness is a species of pleasing newness. I think strangeness is a quality we perhaps too often forget or condescend to when we think about 19th century life and literature.

NP: Have you come across any thinkers, poets, or writers in your exploration of these forgotten corners of Americana that you think deserve to be remembered on par with their contemporaries who were better treated by history? How about any that you just have a strong personal enthusiasm for, regardless of their broader historical merit?

GS: I guess I've come to believe after all these years of handling forgotten material that being remembered by history seems to result from a combination of talent, hard work, and just dumb luck. Industry is necessary but of course not sufficient--in fact, I just recently catalogued a ca. 1880 promotional pamphlet for the Compound Oxygen home medical treatment that includes a testimonial letter dated January 1, 1878 from the indefatigable T. S. Arthur (author of the immortal Ten Nights in a Bar-Room) whose writing career stretched over some 30 years. Arthur notes of his home oxygen treatment, "I had laid down all earnest literary work and never expected to take it up again. . . . But within six months my pen was resumed, and before the year closed I had completed one of my largest and most earnestly-written books; closing the last page without any of the old sense of exhaustion."

Given that in 1877--the year he turned 68--Arthur had apparently managed to produce The Bar-Rooms at Brantley (437 pages), The Latimer Family (182 pages), The Wife's Engagement Ring (278 pages) and Strong Drink: The Curse and the Cure (676 pages), all the while keeping up with the operation of Arthur's Home Magazine, seems no small recommendation to the efficacy of Compound Oxygen. But one also wonders (and here I come to my point) whether anyone has lately picked up The Bar-Rooms at Brantley out of a sense of either duty or pleasure. (I think one tends to look on Arthurs work's and mightily despair.)
Admittedly that's an oblique answer and I don't hold him up as a neglected figure since I'm not sure T. S. Arthur deserves anything besides a paragraph or two in a literary survey, and in that respect he has gotten his due. But I'm trying (perhaps clumsily) to suggest that neglect or attention both waxes and wanes, and that a bookseller has a pecuniary interest--this interest perhaps best supplemented with an emotional or intellectual or idiosyncratic interest, but at its base a financial interest, which makes an effective goad--in arguing to have a writer or a work dragged back into our attention.

But those who have followed my catalogues would notice certain recurrent figures who deserve (in my opinion) closer study and whose works pop up with some frequency, like the eccentric itinerant minister Theophilus Gates (1787-1846), known as the Battle-Axe; Gates eventually embraced Perfectionism and in 1837 published without permission the a letter from John Humphrey Noyes outlining his views on the "nullity of wives," which in turn led to the foundation of Gates's small colony of fellow Battle-Axes near Pottstown, Pennsylvania, where the group became notorious for its ready embrace of free love and ceremonial nudity. (I found a fellow Gates enthusiast of course in colleague Norman Kane, a less controversial former Pottstown resident.)

I've also advocated at length for the nutty early 20th century proto-dada poet Richard Griffin, whose visage graces the shop's website banner, and who has a coterie of enthusiasts that range from bookseller Eric Korn (whose essay on Griffin in the TLS first turned me on to this mad New York poet) to the cartoonist Glen Baxter. Griffin was also perhaps a distant echo of McDonald Clarke, "the mad poet of Broadway," an eccentric peripheral figure in Knickerbocker New York who died in an asylum cell in 1842 when somebody left the tap running and he drowned.

There's also the naive poet and utopian thinker Lyman Stowe--an astrologer and Civil War veteran in Detroit whose magnum opus Poetical Drifts of Thought (Detroit, 1884) is an earnestly clumsy but charming examination of social institutions, free thought, cosmology, theological questions of suffering and evil, Darwinism, cosmology, paleontology, and such future scientific advances as air warfare, the revival of the dead, the production of seamless garments from water and electricity ("Possibly this was the manner in which Christ's coat was manufactured"), and the replacement of food with nutritive gasses inhaled through tubes. Plus it has a three-foot long foldout view of Detroit. I first saw an example of Stowe's work at Robert Fraker's Savoy Books some years ago and was hooked. I have since found fellow enthusiasts of various stripes, and (I hope) created a few enthusiasts as well.

Finally, it would be a stretch to call these figures forgotten, but I've developed a fondness for radical American reformers like Thomas Low Nichols and Mary Gove Nichols, Lois Waisbrooker, Josiah Warren, Marie Howland, Charles Knowlton, Edward Bliss Foote, Ida C. Craddock, or the Tilton sisters. I'm not anything like an expert or a specialist in these fields, but I like to do what little I can to keep their works in circulation.

But in the end most of these figures are at best footnotes and curiosities. Perhaps advocating for the forgotten authors helps me come to terms with the fact that the details of most lives--rich as they are in the daily living--end up largely forgotten. It's some consolation and perhaps not surprising that I'm something of a footnote enthusiast and that most of the best parts of what I read seem squirreled away in the notes and apparatus. (And what are imprint bibliographies, those doorstops so beloved of the bookseller, but the end matter to an entire chunk of printed culture?)

NP: I'm very curious to know what you personally collect in these present days, owing to your deliberate and varied collecting during your formative years.  So, what do you personally collect today?

GS: I've got a small clutch of first editions by the poet Richard Hugo. I've also accumulated over the past nine or ten years a collection of American letters written in 1856, almost all of them by everyday people. (A few college letters from the future St. Louis educator and philosopher William Torrey Harris mark the zenith of fame in this archive.) I've got somewhere between 100 and 125 letters at this point and someday I'll get around to cataloguing them for sale. I've become something like the Ancient Mariner on this subject and am apt to buttonhole unfortunates who wander into reach to argue the critical role of 1856 as a pivot between the Gold Rush era of westward expansion and the nation's depressing collapse into the Civil War. (Though in truth 1856 was really just an arbitrary year I decided on to allow me the pleasures of accumulating interesting manuscript material on the cheap.)

But about the only personal collection I have anymore--one I actively collect for its own sake without any real eye toward resale--is my accumulation of early photographs of people who have baseball equipment but are in their street clothes rather than uniforms. I've got shots of boys playing catch, sandlot team portraits, kids just sitting around with their equipment scattered around them, dads and sons standing around with their mitts after dinner on a Sunday, etc. I've been lucky that our ten-year-old daughter loves baseball too, so I'm always on the lookout for examples of girls playing ball; one of my favorite photos is of an early 20th century sandlot team of boys that has included on their team a single girl and her catcher's mitt. I have approached this collection in much the same way as my childhood collections, with a sort of haphazard accumulation of pleasing examples rather than any kind of avid pursuit.

Baseball RPPC.jpg

NP: What are your thoughts on your Midwestern predecessors -- particularly Wessen and Hayman?

GS: I never knew either one of them, though I've heard stories about them both--Hayman especially--from colleagues like Marc Selvaggio and Ed Hoffman. I feel like I know them a bit through their catalogues. (Some bookseller catalogues seem like extensions of the personalities of the booksellers behind them. These are the catalogues I most esteem.) I still browse through their old catalogues--again, Hayman's in particular--looking for titles or topics I might not otherwise have thought to look for.

But I have to admit that when I read Wessen's catalogues I feel like I missed out on a Golden Age. But when you read Hayman's catalogues you feel like you still might come up with a few of his rarities. (Whether you want to or not is, I supposed, a matter of taste and inclination.) Off the top of my head I can think of Hayman championing J. P. Johnston's Twenty Years of Hus'ling, first published in Chicago in 1888--a picaresque tale of traveling sales in Gilded Age America--and that I wouldn't have been primed to pick up a copy had I not previously been browsing through Hayman's catalogues and unconsciously salting away his own tastes and advocacies.

NP: Do you see yourself as a continuation of the particular Midwestern bookselling tradition associated with them?

GS: For as little as I really know about either one of them, I do feel an anxiety of influence. When I did a catalogue a few years back that leaned heavily on itinerant preachers and missionaries, the topic was certainly a nod to Hayman. I feel a certain obligation to dig up material that helps folks understand that there were important or interesting aspects of American culture bubbling up both west of the New England parlors and before you got out into the wooly Wild West.

NP: What makes a good Midwestern bookseller?  Is it any different from what makes a good bookseller anywhere else in the world?

GS: I will hazard a generalization and say that the Midwestern sensibility skews perhaps toward nice. And when I come east I manage to feel a little lost and naive. This pleasant and nearly perpetual sense of disorientation perhaps helps me in some ways because in my case anyway I also have the tendency to have a bit of a provincial chip on my shoulder. I think this chip goads me to try to produce interesting catalogues and drum up interesting stock. (Though in true Midwestern fashion I seem to shun vexatious excess and stop short of trying to land actual high spots.) I doubt the booksellers of Manhattan are quailing at the prospect of another Garrett Scott catalogue hitting their desks, but I do hope that in some small way to draw the attention to the fact that you can find alternative or overlooked narratives to American culture in the material roots of the Midwest.

(When I make pronouncements like this I am reminded of John Gregory of Woburn, Mass. and his 1837 book The Bramble, where he wrote of a particularly contumacious critic: "'Our most humble self;' ha, ha--this reminds us of the fly that lit upon the hub of a coach wheel, and flapping its wings, exclaimed, 'See what a dust we kick up!' So much for the editor of the Ladies Repository." Perhaps it is characteristically Midwestern to worry about seeming to make too big a deal about what I do. So much for the proprietor of Garrett Scott, Bookseller!)

NP: You seem to have an excellent intuitive barometer for "interestingness" in books - is this something you've honed over time?

GS: I think any bookseller is always trying to find new or interesting stock. Broadly speaking, if you don't end up selling your schismatic Hicksite pamphlets then perhaps you grab the next batch of sexual quackery pamphlets to come to hand. (Or perhaps you end up saddled with them both.) But usually there's something about a given item--its curious regional imprint, its similarities to other interesting material I've handled in the past, or the fact that it's like nothing I've ever seem before--that prompts me to give it a second look. I knew nothing about the history of missionary printing in the New Hebrides when I bought an Aneityum primer last Spring, but it was one of those things that I just wanted to have. (On closer examination it turned out to be pretty cool; cf. http://blog.bibliophagist.com/?p=101).

I think interest is also something created in the cataloguing of the book. I had one dictum from the legendary cataloguer and book scout Karl Zamboni handed down to me (at second-hand) at an early point in my career: when handed a book to catalogue, ignore any other bookseller descriptions that might have come with it and don't go straight to the bibliographies. Focus instead on the book itself and with luck it might open up to you in an unexpected way. (Then of course you should find an appropriate bibliography to cite. The bookseller and the customer both feel cheated when the bookseller doesn't cite a bibliography.)
Anyway, I guess it goes back to having been such a lousy college student--I am too easily distracted and too easily led astray to become anything like a scholar. So instead I became a bookseller.

NP: Do you sell primarily to private customers or to institutions?

GS: Mostly to institutions and somewhat less the trade. I have a few private customers.

NP: What are your thoughts on the future of the book trade?

GS: I have never been particularly analytical about the trade. I tend to think ahead in 30-day to 60-day increments, depending on who owes me money and how much money I owe. That probably sounds flip, but I'm too close to the books and the pamphlets and the cataloguing and the selling to have any kind of perspective on the great motive forces behind the trade.

NP: Any book fairs coming up?

GS: I'll definitely be at the Ann Arbor show in May. I'm skipping the Boston ABAA book fair this November for some reason that made sense in June but that seems pretty stupid now; you will likely find me returning to Boston in 2013. Otherwise I huddle in my office--a converted garage in the back of a rather rambling building that houses a liquor store and cheese shop, a cupcake bakery and a music shop--plunking away at cataloguing and otherwise dealing with business. I welcome visitors to the shop in Ann Arbor (though it's best to phone first).

NP: How does one sign up for your catalogues?  Also, could you tell us about your most recent catalogue and any that you might have in the works?

GS: Though I've done a couple of broad subject catalogues, I tend to issue catalogues when I've finally got enough new stock to do something with. The last catalogue (no. 38) included 82 miscellaneous items in my usual fields of odd literature, obscure reform, American popular medicine, utopian and religious thought, etc. With any luck there will be a Catalogue 39 before the end of the year. (Interviewer's note: Catalogue 39 is being issued today.  Check out Scott's website).  I've yet to adapt to the visual age that so many of my colleagues have, with color printing and illustrations and the like. Instead you will find closely written and semi-legible little essays trying to persuade you of the merits of otherwise unsalable stock. If that appeals to you (and how could it not?) feel free to shoot me a note at garrett@bibliophagist.com or send a note to me at my post office box address:

Garrett Scott, Bookseller
PO Box 4561
Ann Arbor MI 48106