February 2010 Archives

Book collectors can be obsessive types. I’m reminded of the movie “The Conspiracy Theory,” in which Julia Roberts’ character, upon entering the apartment of Mel Gibson’s character, finds a multitude of copies of J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye and is a bit taken aback by his obsessiveness.

Walk into the home of Bill Ewald and you’ll see an obsession he’s developed all on his own. He has upwards of 700 copies of Two Years Before the Mast, written by Richard Henry Dana Jr. and first published in 1840. The Auburn Journal profiles Ewald, here.

It begs the question then - what’s the one book you keep collecting? For me, I once was smitten by this book.

ThoreauSociety.jpgWould a printed poster of Thoreau’s Concord look nice in your library? Is a Thoreau stamp with first day of issue cancellation more your style? Or Don Henley’s drumsticks? Today begins the Thoreau Society’s annual online auction fundraiser. Various Concord-related books, collectibles, tours, and gift certificates have been donated to the society to be auctioned off between now and March 17. (Fine Books is offering a year’s subscription to our new print quarterly to one lucky bidder.) Saunter over and take a look. 
Casanova.jpgThe news this week that the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris had acquired the manuscript memoirs of the great eighteenth-century Venetian lothario known to one and all as Casanova--Tiger Woods can only dream of walking in this guy’s remarkable footsteps--brought to mind a very nice book published a decade ago by Louisiana State University Press, Casanova Was a Book Lover: And Other Naked Truths and Provocative Curiosities about the Writing, Selling, and Reading of Books. This smart collection of bibliophilic essays was written by John Maxwell Hamilton, an occasional commentator on NPR and dean of LSU’s School of Mass Communications; you have to love a book that is dedicated to “all reviewers,” and includes the explanation that “only ungrateful asses would pan a book after having it dedicated to them.”  

Hamilton’s title piece took irreverent note of the fact that Giacomo Girolamo Casanova de Seingalt (1725-1798) spent the final years of his eventful life as a librarian in the household of Count Joseph Karl von Waldstein of Bohemia, and it was in that dreary castle that he took pen to paper and wrote Histoire de ma vie, the racy memoirs for which he became famous, and which an anonymous benefactor acquired on behalf of the French National Library (BNF). Though the actual purchase price was not disclosed, the figure was widely reported to be five million euros, about $9 million, which, if correct, would qualify it as the costliest manuscript transaction on record. The papers--comprising 3,700 pages of yellowing sheets--were transfered Monday to the BNF in thirteen boxes, and represent the complete, uncensored account of Casanova’s amorous adventures. The material had been owned since 1821 by the Brauckhuas publishing company in Germany, and was once thought to have been destroyed in World War II; it was later found safely stored in a bank vault.

Overdue.JPGFor those truly interested in the role of librarians, especially those coping with so many seismic changes brought on by the twenty-first century, I heartily recommend a new release from HarperCollins, This Book Is Overdue: How Librarians and Cybrarians Can Save Us All, $24.99, by Marilyn Johnson. A staff writer for Life magazine. Johnson says that she first became interested in the subject while doing research for her first book, a well received examination of obituaries wryly titled The Dead Beat: Lost Souls, Lucky Stiffs, and the Perverse Pleasures of Obituaries. “With the exception of a few showy eccentrics, like the former solder in Hitler’s army who had a sex change and took up professional whistling, the most engaging obit subjects were librarians.”

Before long she was fully involved in the world of these wonderful professionals whose sole goal in life, it seems, is to provide knowledge and information to others. Johnson’s coinage of the word “cybarian” takes note of the changing nature of the business, and of the many ways the people she proceeded to spend so much time with have adapted to the new technologies. She describes the modern librarian as a person whose job is to “create order out of the confusion of the past, even as she enables us to blast into the future.”

The result is a most enthusiastic book that is great fun to read (and one which, I feel bound to disclose, makes generous mention of several books that I have written.) Its greatest contribution, I think, is that it pays tribute to an essential public service that so many government officials blithely feel can be cut at will during budgetary crises, reductions made especially easy for them to impose since these temples of wisdom have no well-heeled lobbyists throwing corporate money around to champion their cause. The epigraph to one of Johnson’s chapters says it best: “In tough times, a librarian is a terrible thing to waste.”
In the past few days, two rather large donations to rare book repositories were announced. On Friday, the University of Pennsylvania’s Rare Book & Manuscript Library (home to 250,000 rare books, as well as the Michael Zinman collection and the Gotham Book Mart collection) announced a $4.25 million donation toward the renovation of the library. According to Penn’s press release, “The gift will support the first phase of a $15 million expansion project whereby the collection, study, and curatorial facilities on the sixth floor of the Van Pelt-Dietrich Library Center will be transformed into a new Special Collections Center. The redesigned Center will play to the strengths of the rare book library’s teaching and digitization program. The Center will encourage the use of special collections in both research and in the curriculum; a fully equipped and staffed conservation suite will ensure continued effective stewardship of Penn’s rare book and manuscript collection.”

library.jpgAnd just in time to celebrate Washington’s birthday, Mount Vernon announced a tremendous gift. The Donald W. Reynolds Foundation, a regular supporter of the historic site, has pledged $38 million to construct a George Washington Library at Mount Vernon. From the press release: “Construction of the 45,000 square foot facility, which will be named the Fred. W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington, is expected to begin in early 2011, with a completion date in 2012.” Currently Mount Vernon holds 45 books from Washington’s original library, as well as 450 letters and manuscripts in his hand, and about 1,500 additional eighteenth-century books and documents. Seems like they have a bit of buying to do -- book dealers, take note.


Book Trivia

construction_hat.jpgQ) Who invented the construction hat?

1) Gertrude Stein
2) Franz Kafka
3) Donald Trump

A) Franz Kafka. Although this story is considered by some to be a wee bit apocryphal, Kafka did work at the Worker’s Accident Insurance Institute in Bohemia in 1912. It is a little doubtful that he actually invented it, but it is generally considered to be true that Kafka insisted upon its use since Kafka would have been professionally interested in lowering accidents. It was management guru Peter Drucker who first spread this story. However, there are no records to prove Drucker’s theory true.

There is absolutely no truth to the rumor that Kafka was one of the founding partners in Terminix.

If you’re just joining the saga of the 2010 San Francisco Antiquarian Book Fair, please read Part 1 and Part 2 of this post first.

And now, the conclusion of the 2010 San Francisco Antiquarian Book Fair . . .

When Tom -- who worked very hard and never complained -- had finished helping me unpack the Bookmobile and put some books on shelves, Thoughtful Husband, Huck, and our neighbor, who, in keeping with the Tom Sawyer theme, we’ll call Joe Harper (close friend of Tom Sawyer), came to pick up Tom and go the aquarium in the City. I finished setting up the booth and set out to find the book of my dreams, the sleeper no other booksellers noticed, the book on which I could make some money.

As I set out to make a circuit of the large exhibition hall, I took along a few Dante catalogues to distribute to the other booksellers. Due to the delay in receiving the print catalogue from the printer, I had mailed the catalogue to customers and other booksellers only a few days before the fair. I decided to mail catalogues to local booksellers who would receive it before the fair and to personally give a catalogue to out-of-town booksellers at the fair. If I had mailed it to them, they wouldn’t have received it in time for the fair.

Before I got very far, I saw a bookseller I know walking my way. This is the same bookseller who at a bookseller holiday party had scoffed (and rightly so) at the idea of the Dante catalogue ever making its way into print after nearly three years. I made sure to mail him a copy of the catalogue as soon as I received it. I wanted him to know I had finished it at last.

I worried what he’d say to me. Here was a bookseller who (justifiably) thought that because of an almost comical amount delays I perhaps wouldn’t be able to finish my catalogue. Here was a bookseller who quite likely wondered if, when I did finish the catalogue, the books offered by this newcomer would be worthwhile. Would the catalogue prove that it was worth the wait? I wanted to hide behind the trophy case in my booth or dive beneath the tables. Perhaps the only thing worse than not completing the catalogue would be to have completed it and have people think it was no good.

Well, even worse than that, really, would be to sell no books from the catalogue. I know I shouldn’t be too wrapped up in what other people think of it. But still . . .

I looked around and saw nowhere to hide. I briefly hoped that maybe he hadn’t had time to look at the catalogue before the book fair. “Chris!” he called out to me, striding towards me. No hiding now. He shook my hand warmly and said, “Your catalogue is beautiful. I hope you won’t mind, but I’ve forwarded it to a customer who I think will be quite interested in it.”

Would I mind? Of course not. Heartened, I thanked him for his kind words and set out to find some books and give out the rest of the catalogues. I found a few nice books while making the rounds of the other bookseller’s booths. Three beautifully bound books about Italy, some original photographs by an American woman photographer, and a few other little gems written by American women. The fair was indeed getting off to a good start, though there was not one “amazing” find in particular. All of my finds were good solid books priced at a point where I could still make a profit.

When I returned to my booth, one of my favorite bookselling friends was waiting for me. She’s a mom to two boys, too, and she completely understands why things like Cub Scouts and homework projects might make me take me so long to complete the Dante catalogue. Showing her solidarity as a fellow bookselling mom, she asked me to sign her copy of the catalogue. A couple of other people asked me to do the same thing. I was bemused and surprised but flattered.

Two other booksellers whose long experience I respect and admire told me they were going to keep the catalogue on their shelves as a reference. I nearly fell over. The catalogue, along with the hard work and research that went into writing it, was being taken seriously. Though I generally try to be a modest person, I have to say that I was pleased with the positive reception given to the catalogue by others in the trade. It helped make all of the struggles of completing the catalogue worthwhile.

When it opened to the public on Saturday, the fair was a busy one. I sold books of all kinds to book lovers, book collectors, and booksellers. Sunday was a bit slower, with less sales, but I sold a few expensive books that day, so it was a good day for me. It was a great fair, this time as much about my catalogue’s coming out as it was about selling books. I had a great time.

At the end of the weekend, I had ten invoices to book lovers and collectors, nine invoices to booksellers, and one invoice to a library. Some of the invoices were for multiple items. There was no one type of book sold. I sold all kinds of books, ranging in price from $25 to $1,000. This fair was the first in a while where booksellers in particular seemed to have a little bit of cash to buy books again. That wasn’t the case this past year at the Santa Monica or Sacramento fairs. That, or maybe I didn’t have the books people were seeking at that fair. That’s the fun part of the book business. You never know what will sell, and sometimes you are pleasantly surprised by what does.

I realized that the 2010 San Francisco Antiquarian Book Fair was three days I will always remember when I look back at my progress as a bookseller. After three years, I had reached a goal I had set for myself a long time ago. I had written back in 2007 that the two of the hallmarks of a “real” antiquarian bookseller are selling books at book fairs and issuing print catalogues. I’ve since learned that there are other equally important qualities (like buying books at a good price; forming relationships with colleagues, customers, and librarians; and learning how much you still don’t know), but it’s fun to go back and think about what it took to get here.

See you in the stacks!

about_logo.gifI’m going to say it: I’ve had just about enough of the Google Book Settlement. At yesterday’s hearing, Judge Denny Chin of the Federal District Court for the Southern District of New York said there was “just too much to digest.” He’s right -- it’s mind-boggling. (For those of you who would like to attempt it, though, here’s a report from the New York Times, and another from Publishers Weekly.)

When I spoke to Harvard University Library Director Robert Darnton about it in late October, he said he encourages large-scale book scanning but worried about Google’s commercial power over the information. About the GBS, he said, “The settlement, in my view, has the makings of something that could be of great benefit to the country, but it requires safeguards.” Darnton envisions a universal library, funded by the government, if necessary.

Sparring with the Authors Guild in the February 25th issue of the New York Review of Books, Darnton reiterates his points:

Yet the settlement could be modified to promote the public good. As things now stand, most twentieth-century literature--the great majority of books published since 1923--cannot be made freely accessible in digital form, owing to the excessive restrictions of our copyright laws. This problem could be resolved by legislation concerning orphan works or a revised version of the ASA, which would adapt one of its current provisions for the public good--that is, rightsholders of out-of-print works would be deemed to have accepted the settlement unless they opted out.

Better yet, the federal government could finance a national digital library by working with Google and the Library of Congress. The Authors Guild accuses me of utopianism by arguing for this solution, and I plead guilty. There was a utopian element in the Enlightenment and in the thought of the Founding Fathers. I think we should draw on it. We have the means; we merely lack the will. President Nicolas Sarkozy of France recently announced that the French state would devote O750 million to the digitization of France’s “patrimony.” Why doesn’t the Obama administration make a similar commitment? For a smaller sum it could digitize the entire Library of Congress and remedy a great deal of unemployment at the same time.

Hear, hear!

You can read Part 1 of this post here.

Eleven-year-old Tom, my assistant for set-up day at the book fair, and I clambered over bookcases and boxes and into the Bookmobile. I sped down the highway toward the City, watching the sun poking through the grey rain clouds. The Bay Bridge and the Transamerica Pyramid rose in the distance against a backdrop of choppy Bay waters, and we blasted Tom Petty’s song “Runnin’ Down a Dream” on the radio, singing along as loud as we could. As we got closer to the City, I left behind the exhaustion of mailing out 300 + catalogues and the stress of what was going to be a heavy schedule for the next ten days. I’m always excited to go to book fairs. There’s just something about the moments before a fair when all is possibility -- the possibility of many books sold and of a few good book finds -- that makes me extremely happy.

Often, I hear booksellers say that book fairs aren’t worth it. In order to sell at a book fair, booksellers take time away from the business (in some cases an open shop), lug a bunch of heavy books and bookcases a long distance, and spend money to travel and stay in a hotel. And sometimes no one buys any of your books, or at least not enough of them for you to make back your costs. These are valid complaints and they can affect decisions whether or not to do future fairs.

For example, The Santa Monica Book Fair was a break-even event for me this past September. I had fun at the fair but really had to question at the end whether it was worth it to be away from my family for five days if I was only going to break even. The Central Valley Antiquarian Book Fair, held the weekend after the Santa Monica Fair, was also slow fair for me. It’s usually my highest grossing book fair each year.

Not this year.

Needless to say I was nervous about the San Francisco Book Fair. Would it be a good fair for me? I had invested every bit of cash flow into printing and mailing the Dante catalogue. What if I lost money on the fair, too?

I tried to remember a couple of years ago, how I felt when I did this fair for the first time, when I compared myself to the title character in the movie Rudy:

I was just happy and amazed to be there, and, like Rudy standing alone on the big-time field at Notre Dame before he plays, I thought about the potential a big fair offers a small-time bookseller like me. Would I sell the most books of any seller there? Would I find the unrecognized treasures that every bookseller looks for when shopping at a book fair? Would other booksellers even know who I am or visit my booth? Would anyone buy any of my books? Probably not. As a new, small bookseller, I would likely be overlooked. I was, as usual, filled with anxiety over these issues, but mostly I just wanted to stop and think about what might be and to be grateful to be a small part of it.

What has changed since then?

I have more experience. I have done many more book fairs since I wrote that I felt like Rudy. I am now aware of all that might go wrong at a book fair and the myriad ways to lose money at a book fair. But driving to the fair, the old feeling of excitement came back to me, as sure as if it was the first time I ever sold an antiquarian book to a live human being.

Wait a minute. What has changed since then?

I have more experience. I have done many more book fairs since I wrote that I felt like Rudy. I was now aware that most of the fairs I do are profitable for me. I’ve also developed a good eye to hunt for and find good books at fairs, books on which I can make a profit at a future date. And as an added bonus, I’ve developed a great network of bookseller friends to visit with and to buy books from and to sell books to. I had dinner with several of them on FridaySaturday nights.

As I said in that 2008 post when I did the San Francisco Antiquarian Book Fair for the first time:

I just know that I wanted to be an antiquarian bookseller so much that I didn’t care whether I could be a top-tier bookseller. I want to be a part of the antiquarian book world, regardless of how well-known of a bookseller I ultimately become.

I took stock for a moment.

Yes. I could say the same thing today, and even more vehemently than I said it two years ago.

We parked the car and checked in to our booth, Booth #205. Adjacent to us in Booth #305 was my bookselling friend and mentor, Mr. Z. We’d requested that the fair organizer remove the partition between our booths to make one very large space with Mr. Z’s books on one side and mine on another. Here’s a photo of how it looked after Tom unloaded my boxes and Mr. Z’s assistants Kara and Jill unloaded his boxes:

Some of my books and ephemera are in the left-hand trophy case. Mr. Z’s are on the right.

Tom, my able assistant, got right to work unloading 22 boxes of books and 8 bookcases for me. If you will permit a moment of motherly pride, I marvel at the fact that my “baby” (don’t tell him I used that word) is growing up and that he is now big enough to lug heavy boxes and furniture. When he had finished a couple of hours later, Thoughtful Husband and Huck came up to the City to check out my booth and to pick Tom up.

Here are a few photos of my side of the extra large booth:

Some books from the Dante catalogue.

A small collection of Kate Greenaway ephemera.

Interesting books on all subjects.

Western Americana.

Books by or about American women.

I had four other book cases on the outside perimeter of the booth for a total of seven bookcases, one trophy case, and half of a glass counter case.

With the words to Tom Petty’s song echoing in my ears, I was ready to run down my dream.

Tom Petty - Running Down A Dream
It was a beautiful day, the sun beat down
I had the radio on, I was driving
Trees flew by, me and Del were singing
Little Runaway. I was flying

Yeah running down a dream
That never would come to me
Working on a mystery
Going wherever it leads
Running down a dream

I felt so good like anything was possible
I hit cruise control and rubbed my eyes
The last three days the rain was unstoppable
It was always cold, no sunshine

Yeah running down a dream
That never would come to me
Working on a mystery
Going wherever it leads
Running down a dream

I rolled on as the sky grew dark
I put the pedal down to make some time
There’s something good waiting down this road
I’m picking up whatever is mine

Yeah running down a dream
That never would come to me
Working on a mystery
Going wherever it leads
Running down a dream

TOMORROW: The third (and final) post about the fair: Was It a Success? Rare, Fine, and Sold.

Alright: It’s more than a week overdue and I am still swimming in oceans of work to do after returning home from ten days on the road. Still, it’s high time I wrote a little report of the 2010 San Francisco Antiquarian Book Fair. I put the boxes of books to be re-shelved to the side for the moment. Part 1 of my report appears today with more to follow tomorrow.

Two years ago, I wrote about selling books at the San Francisco show. It was only my second book fair.

I was quite excited and quite nervous.

This year’s San Francisco Antiquarian Book Fair is book fair number ten. I’ve gained a lot of experience and made a lot of progress since the 2008 fair.

I was quite excited and quite nervous.

Not only would I be selling books at this fair, I’d be personally handing out a lot of copies of Book Hunter’s Holiday Catalogue #1 to customers and to other booksellers. What if no one liked the catalogue? What if they wanted to know why all of the “serious” Dante books from the 1500s are not in my catalogue? I had just mailed out the catalogue three days before the fair, and people’s reactions were just beginning to trickle in. So far so good, but watching people examine the catalogue in person could potentially be gut wrenching.

Added to the catalogue anxiety was my usual lack of sleep the night before a fair, when I am kept awake by the nightmarish thought that I have since learned haunts most booksellers: “What if no one buys any of my books?”

Did I mention that Tom and Huck’s school also gave them a 10-day “ski week” vacation, beginning on Friday, February 5, the set-up day of the fair? Not only would they be home from school for the duration of the fair, but they wanted to leave for the snow on Monday, the morning after the fair ended. The plan was to come home on Thursday night and then for me to leave Friday to attend (but thankfully not to also sell books at) the Los Angeles International Antiquarian Book Fair. That’s a full calendar, and it would require that I be away from home for about 10 days. I was exhausted from getting all of the catalogues in the mail, too. I was beginning to feel a little bit overwhelmed.

Maybe I should just stay home.

“Not on your life,” said Thoughtful Husband. “You’ve worked on this catalogue forever. You love book fairs. Get out there and sell some books!” He took Friday off of work to stay home with the boys. I got a hotel room in the City so I could focus on the fair.

My room in the literary-themed Carriage Inn -- the Lawrence Ferlinghetti room. The Carriage Inn and its neighbor, Good Hotel, were home to many of the booksellers for the weekend of the fair. It’s near the fair venue and the rates are affordable.

My room came with its own Remington typewriter. I loved that.

In trying to sort out all the details for my travels, a remarkable thing happened. Tom, who is almost twelve, is looking for ways to earn his own money. He wanted to know whether I would pay him if he came with me to help unload boxes and book cases and to get them set up in the exhibition hall the day before the fair.

Absolutely relieved to have help with the heavy lifting, I said, “Sure. I’ll pay you. But you really have to carry a lot of stuff and you can’t go home until Dad can come and pick you up in the afternoon. It’s hard work to set up at a book fair. I don’t want any complaining.” Secretly, I was happy he would get to see that the life of an antiquarian bookseller involves more than sitting at a computer in a tiny corner of our dining room.

Tom rolled his eyes, said, “I’m strong,” and joined me. He wouldn’t let me take his picture because I told him that, as my employee, he had to wear a collared shirt. What’s a mother for, if not to bust her kids’ chops once in a while? :) We compromised a little bit. He was allowed to wear jeans. It is set-up after all, and it’s sometimes dusty and messy work.

We loaded up the Bookmobile and set out for San Francisco, about 30 minutes from our house. Though rain was in the forecast, it was shaping up to be a pretty nice day.

To be continued . . .

catcher_roughs_stage569_0.jpgThe Creative Review blogged this week about type designer Seb Lester’s designs for Salinger reprints. Lester was commissioned by Hamish Hamilton (part of the Penguin group) to create a set of book covers for Salinger’s books: Catcher in the Rye, For Esme With Love and Squalor, Franny and Zooey, and Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour. Above are Lester’s sketches for Catcher

“It turns out that JD Salinger had some very basic (and strict) rules about how he wanted his book covers to look. He was adamant that the only copy that should appear on his books was his name and the title of the book. No quotes or plot summary, no author biography. And definitely no marketing blurb. Just the title and his name.”

the_catcher_in_the_rye_0.jpgThis finished product was approved by the author before his death last month. The typeface, designed by Lester, is known at Hamish Hamilton as ‘The Salinger.’ Said Lester, “The inline treatment and style of flourishing have echoes of classic typefaces and lettering from the mid-twentieth century period when the books were written.”

The four reprints were originally due to be published in June. The pub date has, however, been moved up to March 4. 
For our Valentine’s Day special, I’m sending you off to the blog of Joel Kimmel, a Canadian illustrator who runs Papillon Press. His essay, “My Illustrated Book Marriage Proposal,” relates how he re-purposed an 1883 Collier’s Cyclopedia into what has to be the most romantic proposal ever.

Kimmel writes: “For the final touch to the book I decided to cut a hole inside to hide the ring. When the story ends there is one final illustration with a fold up flap that opens to reveal the ring hidden inside (that’s my cue to propose). I cut down about an inch into the book after gluing the pages together with an acrylic painting medium. It worked perfectly and from the side you’d never know there was a ring hidden inside.”
So the 43rd California International Antiquarian Book Fair is here! (Or actually, there, since I’m still in NY). For those of you attending, be sure to check out the special exhibit, “From Author to Oscar,” which focuses on Oscar-winning films that were adapted from books. Rare copies of the books will be on display, along with photos, posters, and related ephemera from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ Margaret Herrick Library.

To coincide with the exhibit, rare book experts Kevin Johnson [read a Fine Books First Personal Singular with Kevin] and Jim Pepper and Los Angeles Times film critic Kenneth Turan will hold a panel discussion on the role of great books in Oscar-winning movies, as well as the impact of Academy Awards on the book collecting world. That’s tomorrow--Saturday--at 3 p.m.

Have fun!

With President’s Day fast approaching here in the United States, it’s no wonder that old George is popping up at auction this week. Yesterday, Arts and the Antiques reported on a fascinating, record-breaking auction of what is believed to be Washington’s personal copy of the map of the Battle of Yorktown. Jim Julia of James D. Julia Auctioneers in Fairfield, Maine, said of it, “This is the most exciting thing I have ever handled.”

A larger copy of the map exists at the National Archives and was always thought to be Washington’s, however, now that this smaller version has come to light, it is assumed that the pocket-sized map was Washington’s, while the larger was sent back to the Congress. The small map, which brought in $1 million (without premium), was owned by the family of Tobias Lear, Washington’s aide-de-camp.

lf.jpgHeritage Auctions is currently offering (sale 6038, lot 37023) this scarce G. Washington bookplate (now hinged at top of the verso to a mat). Many forgeries and re-strikes have fooled collectors looking for original Washington bookplates, but this is the real deal. Starting bid is $1,500; estimate is $3,000. Absentee bidding ends today at 10:00 p.m. CT. 

Thanks to Jeffrey Murray and Stephen J. Gertz/Book Patrol for the presidential tips.


IMG_0994.jpgAs if independent bookshop owners aren’t getting run over by enough trains already, a planned light rail line may spell the end of the line for Thomas Stransky in St. Paul, Minn. 

“We’ll probably have to go out of business,” Stransky says from behind the cash register of Midway Used & Rare Books on University Avenue, where a series of recent developments make it all the more likely construction will eventually start on a transportation project aimed at moving commuters between downtown St. Paul and its twin city Minneapolis on the other side of the Mississippi River. Stransky and an array of light rail opponents ranging from civil rights activists to government waste watchdog groups see the Central Corridor Light Rail Transit Project as a some $1 billion government boondoggle aimed at wasting taxpayer dollars and closing the book on local businesses.

To borrow a sentiment of a previous president, I can’t help but feel Stransky’s pain. I’ve seen plenty of mom-and-pop shops get pummeled by government transportation projects that claim to alleviate congestion and improve quality of life -- only to make both worse. 

I visited Midway Used & Rare Books during a trip to Minnesota in January. I was drawn in not only by the words “rare books” on his sign but words of protest written on his shop’s windows. How often do you see a storefront that raises the question, “Who is John Galt?” 

I was also attracted to the store by the supply of on-street parking. I won’t often make the effort to patronize a store if I can’t park there. Not even a rare book store. I tend to buy heavy books or sets of books that are too bulky to lug around. 

Stransky knows I’m not alone. 

He is one of the business owners who has fought the project for more than two decades. If the Metropolitan Council gets its way, and it appears that’s likely, the regional transit and planning agency will complete its $135 million-per-mile project by 2014. The Metropolitan Council will permanently eliminate all on-street parking and, if history around the country is a gauge, traffic will be a nightmare during the years of construction.

“It’s tough to get people to walk anywhere in a Minnesota winter,” Stransky says. “They’re not going to walk from a transit station to get here. People aren’t going to stop here when they drive by during construction, either. Traffic is going to be horrendous. They’re just going to want to get home and they’re not going to stop at a bookstore.” 

The project continues to face strong opposition from people who will be hurt by the light rail project. Minnesota Public Radio is the latest entity to file a lawsuit against the project. Meanwhile, a coalition of civil rights activists, business owners and Rondo neighborhood residents have also filed a lawsuit to stop the project in its tracks. Stransky wishes them well and plans to do what he can to stop the light rail line from destroying his business. 

“I’ll also keep putting up signs as close to obscene as I can,” the frustrated entrepreneur says.

His feisty side turns to sadness when he reflects on the blow the Central Corridor will deliver to book lovers.

“A lot of customers tell us they remember coming here as a kid,” he says. “They say, ‘You brought the world of books to us.’ They tell us that we show them there’s something besides the Internet and chain stores. They find surprises here. Serendipity. You never know what you’re going to find each time you walk in. That’s the essence of what we bring to the community.”

We’re running a fun little contest on our Facebook page, so be sure to pop by and check it out. If you’re not already one of our “fans” on Facebook, come on over!
Well, we’ve had some pretty interesting responses to my open request earlier this week for movies that have had something to do with paper, the only stipulation being that they have some basis in fact. For those who need to be brought up to speed on what’s going on, here’s the link to my column. I will present the films in the order that they arrived.

I heard first from Pradeep Sebastian, a literary columnist in India, who offered the following dozen--count ‘em, twelve--first-rate suggestions:

The Hoax (2006), a film about Clifford Irving, and the fake Howard Hughes biography; F For Fake (1974), written, directed, and starring Orson Welles, and based in part on the forgeries of Irving, and others, and available in DVD; Selling Hitler (1991) a made for TV movie based on Robert Harris’ book about the faking of a Hitler diary; The Last Station (2009), about Leo Tolstoy’s manuscripts and will, and recipient this week of an Academy Award nomination for Christopher Plummer for best actor. Also from Sebastian: Creation (2009), a dramatization of the life of Charles Darwin, featuring his diaries and notebooks as he developed his theory of evolution; Sylvia (2003), starring Gwyneth Paltrow as the tortured poet Sylvia Plath, seen often scribbling in notebooks, tearing up and burning pages; Naked Lunch (1991) William Burroughs, hallucinating over a clattering typewriter, with reams and reams of paper around him; Factotum (2005, based on the life of the hard-living, hard-drinking poet Charles Bukowski; Shattered Glass (2003), based on the fabrications of writer Stephen Glass, published unwittingly in The New Republic; and The Whole Wide World (1995), about pulp fiction writer Robert E.Howard, and the writing of Conan the Barbarian.

As a bonus, Sebastian offered a pair of documentaries: BookWars (2000), about New York City pavement book sellers, and Paperback Dreams (2008), profiling the struggle to survive among independent bookstores.

Arriving about a half-hour after that dazzling list came a terrific suggestion from Benjamin L. Clark in Oklahoma--he has a pretty nifty book blog of his own called exilebibliophile, which I highly recommend--to wit:

Cimarron (1931), winner of six Academy Awards, including Best Picture, based on a novel by Edna Ferber (and winner of a Pulitzer Prize in 1929), which was partly inspired by the life of T.B. Ferguson, a cursading Oklahoma newspaper editor, and his wife, Elva.

Next came an email from Eleni Collins, an assistant editor for the Martha’s Vineyard Times, who wondered if a couple of movies based on outstanding children’s books, Harriet the Spy (1996) and The Mixed Up Files of Ms. Basil E. Frankweiler (1968), might not create a category in their own right. I love the idea--maybe we can do that next (think Maurice Sendak and Where the Wild Things Are)--but more on point for this particular exercise was her third suggestion, Between the Folds (2009), a television documentary about the world-wide mania for origami that aired in December on PBS, and has just been released in DVD.

A suggestion from reader Mike Gindling advised that a key scene in his favorite movie, Lawrence of Arabia (1962), has Lawrence writing out an IOU to a shiek in return for help in the taking of an important city. I like that--an IOU is an example of a piece of paper whose value is only as good as the word of the person who gives it.

Just this morning, Joe Fay, manager of rare books at Heritage Auction Galleries in Dallas, offered these beauties:

The Whole Wide World (1996) starring Renee Zellweger and Vincent D’Onofrio, a biographical account of the relationship between pulp fiction writer Robert E. Howard and Novalyne Price Ellis; Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998), based on the life of Gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson; The Rum Diary, to be released this year, also inspired by life and career of Thompson.

Fay mentioned a 1988 mini-series starring Stacey Keach as Ernest Hemingway, titled Hemingway, and cited one documentary in particular as outstanding, Lovecraft: Fear of the Unknown  (2008), about the science fiction writer H. P. Lovecraft.

Finally, from daughter Nicole, who is weathering out the blizzard in Washington, D.C., a news flash about the release of a documentary with the improbable title of Miracle Banana, a Japanese film with English subtitles, “based on an actual project to make paper from banana trees in Haiti.” To prove that this was no joke, she furnished this link.

Honestly, I am lost for words (that never happens with me).  But I do thank one and all for these fabulous films. I promise you, they will be used.
To celebrate the publication of The Folio Society’s new edition of The Canterbury Tales, with illustrations by Eric Gill, the company posted a podcast that features UK stage and screen actor Simon Callow reading from the deluxe edition. Limited to 1,980 copies and bound in Nigerian goatskin, this edition is a facsimile of the The Golden Cockerel Press edition of 1929-1931 (an original is on the market at Maggs for about $10,000). Fun Friday viewing!

New York Times today has a nice profile of National Enquirer editor Barry Levin and his exceptional Ernest Hemingway collection:
Mr. Levine’s collection includes bullfighting programs Hemingway used for his research, check stubs for routine things like car repairs, and letters by Mary Hemingway, the author’s widow. Among those: a carbon copy of a typed note to the sheriff in Ketchum, Idaho, where Hemingway committed suicide in 1961, asking that the shotgun he used be returned.
It’s a nice look at the creative approach smart book buyers use to assemble their collections. My one quibble is this line:
Glenn Horowitz, a rare-book dealer and friend of Mr. Levine’s, said that while Mr. Levine lacks the ‘deep Champagne pockets’ of some collectors, his reportorial skills have helped him identify interesting items to put together an ‘imaginative, elastic collection,’ one in which each piece offers a little anecdote -- and some work together to tell a story.
The article bears out the second half of that statement very well. But the first -- that Levine lacks “deep Champagne pockets” -- may be tough for collectors on more modest budgets to swallow, especially when the article describes how Levine once “spent several thousand dollars at a Christie’s auction on another first edition of ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls’ -- this one a brilliant copy that Hemingway signed and that includes the author’s calling card.” 

While it’s true that such judgements are relative, in a small way the piece perpetuates the sometimes popular myth that book collecting is an activity only for the wealthy. I would love to see the Times profile a collection that was truly put together without the help of “deep Champagne pockets.” There are plenty out there.
salingerspread-sm.jpgHere’s a blast from the past: Back when Fine Books was called O.P. (short for out of print), we did a story about Lotte Jacobi, a German expatriate photographer who made a living after the Second World War taking author photos for the publishers in New York. One day in 1950, a 31-year-old writer about to have his first book published showed up in her studio. She took about 20 shots of him and moved on to other work. One of the photos ended up on the back of the dust jacket of Catcher in the Rye, a novel that turned into the surprise literary sensation of the year. Within a few months, the author, J. D. Salinger, asked that the picture to be removed, and no author portrait has appeared on any of his books since.

Back in 2004, following a tip that all the photographs from Jacobi’s Salinger photo-shoot were at the University of New Hampshire, we obtained sixteen unpublished photographs and permission to publish some of them for what we believe was the first time. We ran eight images in the March/April 2004 issue of OP. I wanted to put one on the cover, but given Salinger’s notoriously litigious nature and our meager finances, I chickened out.

While Jacobi never managed to capture Salinger with more than a half-smile, the unpublished photos are much looser than the published version, though the author never looks quite comfortable. One can imagine his disaffected literary creation, Holden Caulfield, whispering in his ear, “What a phony,” while Salinger tries to strike a suave 1950s pose.

Scott Brown

Perhaps given both J.D. Salinger’s reclusiveness and his refusal to publish any new work for the last forty-plus years (not to mention his long life - he was 91), the announcement of his death last week seemed to me to have been greeted with more of a whimper than the bang one might expect for a writer of his stature and importance. But he’d essentially been dead to his readers since before many were even initially exposed to his writing. Indeed ironically, his death again raised questions of the publication of posthumous Salinger books, and one could detect in some of the coverage a hope that his passing might mean new Salinger works could finally be given a life of their own.

As a rare book dealer, however, I’m much more curious to see what effect Salinger’s death will have on the market for signed material (books, letters, manuscripts, etc.). Specifically, I’m very interested to see how common/uncommon signed books become. It’s been pretty clear for many years that Salinger maintained a fairly extensive correspondence most of his life (for just one hint of this, read Lillian Ross’ lovely remembrance of her life-long friendship with JDS). That these materials have been relatively uncommon in the marketplace (though hardly as rare as most people imagine) has -- in my opinion -- been a reflection less of their true scarcity and much more of the loyalty (or fear) of those he was in contact with. It has long been rumored (unsurprisingly) that Salinger would cut off contact with those who spoke publicly about their friendships with him. I suspect his death will free at least some of these correspondents to part with Salinger material they’ve been sitting on (for example, like this). In other words, my guess is that Salinger letters and notes will become much more obtainable over the coming years. 

But the bigger question for me is that of signed books. My second-hand observations of this corner of the Salinger market is that there have been far fewer signed books (at least ones with solid provenance) available in the trade than other signed Salinger material. And prices seem to bear this out. While a JDS letter or note might be had for four figures, I can remember only one or two signed books that could be had for less that five figures. And if Salinger letters become increasingly available over the coming years, this discrepancy will only grow. 

Why would Salinger books remain so scarce even after his death? First and most obviously is that his reclusiveness provided little opportunity for his books to be signed. But even among those who came in contact with Salinger, my impression is that he was genuinely reticent (if not downright hostile) to sign his books - even in the years before his self-imposed “exile.” Did he sign books to his friends that -- like his letters -- might worm their way onto the market in the coming years? Only time will tell. But my guess is that getting a signed book by Salinger will remain a tough and very expensive proposition, while laying one’s hands on a signed letter or note will become somewhat easier and moderately less expensive. It will be fascinating to see how this market develops.

I’ll close with a small story to illustrate my point. A few years ago, I was in a home purchasing a small collection of books. The shelves were filled with mostly academic texts, but when I looked up at a bookshelf in the living room, I saw a neat row of all of Salinger’s books - all beautifully preserved.

“May I look at those?” I asked.

“Go ahead,” the owner said, “but they’re not first editions, they’re just what we bought when the books came out.”

“Actually, these are first editions - all of them.”

“Are they? Well I only bought them because I grew up in the same building as Jerry [Salinger]. His mother used to babysit me. And once when he was in high school or so, Jerry watched me for an afternoon and took me on a walk around New York.”


“Yes. In fact I have some photos of Salinger as a boy around here somewhere...And some letters from his mother to me.”

“Wow. I’d love to see those. Have you ever thought about selling them?”

“Oh no,” she replied. “I couldn’t do that. Now I haven’t seen him in decades, but I don’t think Jerry would like that at all. No, he wouldn’t like that.”

Hmm. Remembering this story now, thinking maybe I should give her a call...
For any collectors of Booker Prize winners out there, you will soon have a new gap to fill in your collection.  Yesterday, the Booker Prize committee announced a long-list for a Lost Booker prize award.  The Lost Booker will compensate for a 1971 rule change which left a number of important 1970 publications out of the running.  Previous to 1971, the Booker prize was awarded retrospectively to a book published in the previous year.  In 1971 the rules shifted and the Booker began to be awarded to a book published in the same year.  (These rules still stand).  The rule change created a multi-month gap that left a number of 1970 publications out in the cold.

To compensate for this loss, the Booker Prize Foundation announced the creation of a special Lost Man Booker Prize Award and drew up a long-list of 22 novels published in 1970 that missed previous consideration.  The list includes Patrick O’Brien’s “Master and Commander,” Irish Murdoch’s “A Fairly Honorable Defeat,” Shiva Naipaul’s “Fireflies,” and Ruth Rendell’s “A Guilty Thing Surprised.” The short-list will be announced in March, at which point the public can vote for their favorite on the Booker Prize website.  The winner will be announced in May.

Read a longer article about this new award from the Guardian here.
The Northeast Document Conservation Center, which has very likely handled book conservation needs for all the major rare book libraries, posted a heartening report yesterday about its role in helping preserve a mid-nineteenth-century map for a local community. The Historical Society of Charlestown, New Hampshire, had a topographical map of Sullivan County, published by Smith and Morley, that was “coated with varnish, and attached to a decaying cloth backing.”

The Society applied for and received two small grants from local banks. With a little publicity on its side, the Society also pulled in a few more hundred dollars from a private foundation, thus enabling it to send the map to the NEDCC for treatment. There, conservators removed the yellow varnish using ethanol and washed the paper. “The decaying cloth backing was removed before the map was lined with Japanese paper. After being mounted on linen for additional support, the map was encapsulated in transparent polyester film (Melinex┬«) to protect against dirt, handling, and atmospheric pollution.” World-class treatment for Sullivan County!

Detail of the 1860 map.
In this day and age of downsizing print and book coverage, Fine Books is returning to print!

February 1, 2010,  Durham, NC.  Fine Books & Collections magazine, which targets collectors of rare and collectible books, will return to a regular print schedule in April 2010.

The magazine had suspended its bi-monthly publication schedule in November 2008, but published an edition in Fall 2009.  Based on very positive results, the publishers will return the magazine to print on a quarterly basis.  The annual subscription price will be $25.

In announcing its plans, the magazine said it would continue its monthly e-letter online and its very popular blog.  According to associate publisher Kim Draper, the web site has grown tremendously in the past year, having just topped 50,000 monthly visitors.  

“We don’t hope to achieve as much readership in print, but we do think print has a certain charm and value that is impossible to obtain online,” says Draper.  “It remains a conundrum why collectors of print love reading online, but we are delighted to be able to serve both needs.”

The online editor, Rebecca Rego Barry, will also serve as editor of the print edition.  According to Barry, the content of the magazine will be a collection of some material used online as well as new features, columns, and resources that will not appear online.  “We are intrigued with the idea of archiving some of our best online stories in a print format, but we will also be offering readers new content in each issue.  It was a formula that worked very well for us with the edition we published last fall.”

The magazine said that it plans some operational changes to make publishing more affordable, most notably that it will not process any subscription without a valid email address.  According to Draper, “When we looked at our operation, we realized that contacting people via the postal service was just too expensive.  We plan to handle all renewals and communication efforts via email, so there’s really no point in having a subscriber with whom we can’t communicate.”

Writers in the upcoming print edition will include Nicholas Basbanes and Joel Silver, two stalwarts of the book collecting world.  The magazine will continue its annual directory of booksellers started last fall that featured more than 700 book-related businesses, and it will add a feature called Biblio/360, an annual guide to classes, societies, fairs, and symposiums related to book collecting.

Fine Books & Collections was founded by bookseller P. Scott Brown in January 2003 as OP magazine.  It changed names in September 2004 and adopted a color format.  In November 2008, Brown returned to bookselling full-time, and the magazine suspended print publication until Fall 2009.

The magazine is published by Journalistic, Inc., a North Carolina-based media company.

Click here to subscribe

07photo-philippe-matsas.jpgAlberto Manguel, known to us for his wonderful A History of Reading and The Library at Night, has a new collection of essays out this month, A Reader on Reading (which I had the pleasure of reading and reviewing for our upcoming February issue). He’s in the states for a few days, for reading events at Yale University on Wednesday, Feb. 3 and City University of NY on Friday, Feb. 5. Manguel is a reader’s reader, and the list of his 100 favorite books on his site is breathtaking. From The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and Alice in Wonderland (of course), to Flaubert, Goethe, and Sophocles. 

Photo by Philippe Matsas, from Alberto Manguel’s website.
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