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2015 Bookseller Resource Guide
Gently Mad

Exceptional Ephemera

Prior to shipping the material off to Delaware, the Grossmans stored everything in twenty-nine legal-size, four-drawer fire safes and flat files, each weighing about 850 pounds when fully loaded. “When we moved out to Tucson from California, we were able to find a very large house,” Grossman said—“everything out here is pretty much on concrete slabs”—so there was no risk of having a building collapse on top of them from the sheer weight of their treasures.

As the couple approached retirement, they began to think of the collection as a scholarly archive that belonged in an institution, and started looking for a proper home. “We felt it was time for somebody else to enjoy it,” Grossman said, and the first person he contacted was McKinstry, librarian at the Winterthur (pronounced winter-tour), who he knew as a fellow member of the Ephemera Society of America.

Founded in 1932 by Henry Francis du Pont, the Winterthur Museum is an outstanding collection of American decorative arts, boasting eighty-five thousand objects made between 1640 and 1860. The library has its own collection of ephemera from that period, but nothing nearly as extensive as the Grossman collection, which was placed on deposit three years ago with the hope that sufficient funds can be raised by September of 2012 to buy it under terms that have been agreed to privately by both parties.

“It is a wonderful complement to the collection of printed ephemera we have,” McKinstry told me. “One problem with this material in general is that because it was ephemeral, so much has disappeared, and there are no examples left of so many things. So what has survived is remarkable—and only because so much of it was beautifully done that people did somehow keep it.”

Given the almost incomprehensible size of the collection, one question that begged to be asked was whether or not Grossman felt that he knew every item that he had acquired. “I certainly handled everything,” he answered without hesitation. “I also know that if I am at a show and I see something, I will know instantly if I have seen it before. Once in a while I might have bought a duplicate, but not very often. I have a real visual memory for this kind of imagery. But yes, sure, I occasionally would buy a few dupes, but not often—and never especially rare things. If I did, I would just trade them off with someone else anyway.”

The John & Carolyn Grossman Collection of Ephemera finding aid, incidentally, is 137 pages long and fully accessible online. Take a look. Nothing ephemeral at all about it.

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Nicholas A. BasbanesNicholas A. Basbanes recently received a National Endowment for the Humanities fellowship to work on his book on paper, which is forthcoming from Knopf. His most recent book is Editions & Impressions, a collection of essays. His other works include the acclaimed A Gentle Madness, Every Book Its Reader, Patience & Fortitude, Among the Gently Mad, and A Splendor of Letters.