Serendipity and Eureka: 100,000 Books to be Sold

When Serendipity Books of Berkeley, California, closed in September 2011, the auctioneers were summoned, for its longtime owner, Peter B. Howard, was renowned in the rare book world for his acumen in buying and selling incredible books, art, and archives. Through numerous lots spread over a year’s worth of auctions and shelf sales, Bonhams dispersed some of Serendipity’s high spots, including a James Joyce broadside for $17,500, a John Steinbeck screenplay for $12,500, and a signed copy of Faulkner’s Sartoris for $9,375.

Serendipity.jpgStill, many books remained in the Berkeley landmark. Some estimated the number at 50,000, but Scott Brown of Eureka Books in Eureka, California, who purchased Serendipity’s closing inventory this fall, says the number of items actually reaches 100,000. Brown, the former editor of this magazine, says he has spent the last few weeks looking at every book in the store. “And by book I mean every scrap of paper, letter, flyer, broadside, prospectus, poster, oil painting, engraving, sculpture, baseball, and African mask,” he adds. “We definitely didn’t realize the magnitude of what we were undertaking, but overall it’s going pretty smoothly and we are right on schedule.”

Eureka Books is now planning a series of sales over the next five weekends at Serendipity’s Berkeley location, 1201 University Ave. Aside from the poetry, drama, and Canadian sections, which have been sold en bloc to other buyers, all books will be offered at $5 each the first two weekends, dropping to $3 at later sales, and $1 during the final weekend. (The full schedule is here.) It will be a book scout’s dream. “The books are quite good and they are going to be very cheap,” says Brown. “There’s a sense that the store’s picked over, but that’s really not true. Sure they’re probably aren’t very many $500 books left, but there are a lot of hundred-dollar books left.”

Howard, it seems, predicted this end for his shop. He once told Nick Basbanes that he would have liked a colleague to take over the business, but he knew better: “I have made my business so big and so complex that no one in their right mind but me would ever want to take the responsibility for it.” The second-best option would be to sell the books to other booksellers and collectors, therefore supporting the market that he helped to create over his fifty years in the business.

For Brown, sorting through the final contents of Serendipity has been exciting, exhausting, and a little sad. Customers have come in to reminisce about the good old days, and Brown himself recalls Howard’s generosity toward young booksellers. He said, “It’s been great talking about Peter with people who knew him in many different ways--it’s really like an ongoing memorial service for him at the store right now.”

What better memorial than a legacy of books to be shared by so many.

Image Courtesy of Eureka Books. 
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