Peter B. Howard

Sad news today in the antiquarian book world. Peter B. Howard of Serendipity Books has died. I was lucky enough to meet him, however briefly, at the California book fair in San Francisco this past February. In tribute, I am posting an essay Nicholas Basbanes wrote for this blog in August of last year, when a number of booksellers banded together to pay tribute to Howard, who had been ill for some time.

For the last couple of weeks, the Booktryst blog has been running a series of moving tributes to a legendary California bookseller under the collective heading, “A Wake for the Still Alive: Peter B. Howard.” People who either don’t know Peter or who have never been to Serendipity Books might reasonably regard this as audacious at best, but since everything about Peter is completely honest and candid, it is very much in character. For a case in point, just take a look at his no-nonsense website. “If you’re in Berkeley, California, feel free to come in and browse,” he writes. “We are usually friendly.”

It is no secret in the book world that Peter has been gravely ill for some time now. Indeed, the details of his illness were reported several months ago in several media outlets, one of which used the occasion to speculate on the future of his extraordinary bookstore. Always open and always willing to share his considered impressions on just about anything--I have never met a more forthcoming or more unassuming person in my life, and that is something to say for a person who has spent more than forty years as a professional journalist--Peter readily acknowledged the nature of his illness with the reporter, and offered the additional assessment that he was custodian of the “greatest bookstore in the world,” and used a descriptive adjective for emphasis to make his point--as only he can do...

...For myself, I am eternally grateful to Peter for being there twenty years ago when we met for the first time to talk about a range of matters. I had no earthly idea before we met how knowledgeable he would be about everyone and everything in the book world, or the depth, for that matter, of his piercing intellect. Especially memorable was his willingness to respond, on the record, to every reasonable question I put to him, regardless of the potential fallout. I can’t imagine writing A Gentle Madness without the benefit of his many insights, and when it came time to include a section on scholarly booksellers in Patience & Fortitude, he was the first person I chose to profile. All I can say, Peter, is thank you for sharing your wisdom with me, thank you for your friendship, and thank you for being such a remarkable bookman. You are truly one of a kind. -- Nicholas Basbanes
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