September 2011 | Nate Pedersen

The Further Reminiscences of Norman Kane (Part 1 of 2)

Norman Kane photograph by Lorne Bair, used with his permission
In this month's digital issue, we published an interview profile of Norman Kane. Due to space constraints, we were forced to edit the interview down from its full length. Thanks to popular request, we are now posting the rest of the interview on the blog. In part one, we will feature the rest of Norman's answers to bookseller related questions and in part two (to be published next week) we will feature further details from Norman's interesting personal biography.

And so, without further ado:

NP: What was the first catalog you issued?

NK: A friend of mine, myself, and our wives wandered down to Arch Street in Philly where there were still a lot of businesses selling type. We bought a little hand-press with drawers and drawers of type. Some of which was pied [mixed up]. Never buy pied type! [laughs] I set to work printing a book catalog just from the stuff I'd collected up to that point. I printed up a catalog on nice stationary of surely less than 100 items and probably less than 100 copies, sent it out, and got a few orders. And that was the first catalog.
NP: Do you have other favorite catalogs that you produced over the years?

NK: Decades and decades ago, before it was even a glimmer in anyone's eye, I was putting out catalogs about women and Afro-Americana. One catalog of Afro-Americana I took into a Philadelphia librarian and said, "I'm going to mail this out today.' He bought it all! I ended up selling him the entire catalog; so it never got mailed out. [laughs]

NP: Other favorite book fair memories?

NK: Well, I did not enjoy the New York book fairs. When we did them in the Armory, the National Guard would run their vehicles in and out right next to the exhibition area, filling it with exhaust. Also, the roof leaked. At one fair I had a large atlas folio of the map that goes with the official records of the War of Rebellion and it was placed, of course, directly under a leak! [laughs]

There was a book fair once in St Petersburg, Florida. The ball park was just across the street and I had tickets to see a game there. That evening my daughter introduced me to White Russians. And I thought, "Gee, this tastes good, I'll have another!" By and by, I rolled out of bed with no pain but woke up with the damnedest hangover you can imagine. I couldn't get on my feet until about noon. When I finally dragged myself into the exhibition space, there was a loud applause. I never did make it the ballgame either.

I suppose I don't mind sounding like a reprobate... [laughs]

There was also a room in a hotel in Boston where we stayed for the book fair that they called the Library. It was where they had all these shelves filled with no good books. We were all in there feeling no pain and we started wondering if you could find a good book in all that junk. We started on the lower shelves and, of course, found nothing. About the time Peter [Howard] and I were working on the top shelves, the hotel manager walked in, having been warned by somebody. And boy, she scolded us! [laughs]

NP: What are some of the most interesting books you have bought and sold?

NK: The famously rare stamp act newspaper with skull and crossbones comes to mind. Whitman rarities and correspondence... A Washington letter watermarked "G.W.", the rare first of "Charlotte Temple," the first American edition of Shakespeare, etc, etc.

NP: What booksellers did you admire when you first began?

Well, there was John Kohn of Seven Gables Bookshop in New York. He was not just a fine bookseller but a fine gentleman of the old school. Very liberal with his knowledge. He even once got me tickets to a Yankee game. [laughs]. I think everyone would agree that John Kohn was a fine individual.

Dick Wormser was, I think, a brilliant fellow. He was what I would call a scholarly bookseller, with a very alert and active mind. He was interested in all sorts of nooks and crannies in the book world. A very stimulating fellow, intellectually.

Howard Mott - the firm, by the way, is still run under his name by Howard's son Rusty who is a first class bookseller himself. [A recent Howard Mott catalog was reviewed last month on this blog] But Howard, well, here is a man who delved into areas that at the time had not been given sufficient notice, such as American humor. I think as a result of frequent trips to the Caribbean he also became an expert in West Indian imprints and other exotic imprints, before anyone else. The last time I saw Howard and his wife was on the way home from the Boston book fair. It used to be held later than now and we ran into terrible weather. My wife and I stopped on the Mass turnpike to get gas and at the same time a car pulled up to the pump and who should be in it but Howard Mott. There was a freezing, sleeting, chilling rain coming down - so the two of us stood there in this terrible weather and exchanged pleasantries about the Massachusetts weather. I think that was the last time I ever saw him.

Sam Murray was a great guy, he and his wife were just wonderful people. They had a big old house in North Wilbraham Massachusetts and books were scattered everywhere - on marbletops and so on. They were extremely genial people. Sam was a traveling representative of a number of small presses, so he went around the country visiting new bookstores, representing a dozen or more small presses, but while he was at it he'd visit old bookstores too and he'd buy books. My wife and I always enjoyed visiting them; they would put you up for the night or the weekend. In those days, everybody entertained each other in restaurants and at book fairs.

Joe Molloy, who for years and years dealt in review books. He was for a long time the librarian of the Philadelphia inquirer. Since that was a night job, (as the Inquirer was a morning paper), that left him part of the day free to work with books. For a long time he wrote up the sales for Freeman's in Philly. When the stock of Leary's [a former landmark bookshop in Philadelphia long since closed] was sold at auction, he was the one who found the Declaration of Independence in a locked desk. That was sold separately by Freeman's with appropriate hoopla. I think a fellow in Texas bought it. After that sale the old ladies in Philadelphia started looking in their safety deposit boxes and lot of these Declarations of Independence came out of moth balls and started appearing everywhere. But he was the first on the block. [laughs] He was a wonderful fellow and I was one of his pallbearers when he died.

In later days, I greatly admired Peter Howard, Franklin Gilliam, John Crichton, Alan and Pat Ahearn, and others.

Part 2 to come next week... In the meantime, visit Norman online at