A Collector’s Decabiblon

Strouse, Norman H. A Collector’s Decabiblon. San Francisco: The Gleeson Library Associates, 1972, pp. 2-6. The first part of this printed address deals with Strouse’s collecting the Mosher books, and how the 1948 sale of Mosher’s library provided the occasion for his first of “ten most exciting experiences as a collector,” thus the title, a collector’s ten top book experiences: A Collector’s Decabiblon. The following are his comments with regard to Mosher:

With respect to my own collection of some six thousand volumes, brought together from the four quarters of the globe, I have a catalogue card which tells me when I purchased each item, from whom I purchased it, and the price I paid. But these facts are simply the menomic starting points which help to recreate the innumerable incidents of acquisition which provide so much pleasure to recall in the quiet moments of one’s life.

Because we are honoring here today a distinguished collector who built his collection in the same rewarding fashion as I have, it seemed appropriate on this occasion to devote my talk to the kind of reminiscence I believe he would enjoy. I have tried to select from innumerable incidents of acquisition those ten that I feel were the most exciting for one reason or another. Because a wide spectrum of emotions are inevitably involved in the constitution of any collector, my choices will be more subjective than the result of any bibliographical value judgments.

I began to buy books at a very early age, my available funds confining my purchases to second-hand books. Actually I was acquiring them for reading purposes. It never occurred to me that I was a collector. But in fact I was, because the books I was buying were readily available to me at the local Carnegie library. That I wanted these books on my own shelves as my own permanent possession made me unknowingly a collector.

I took my couple of shelves of books to Seattle with me when, at the age of 18, I decided to try my Dick Whittington luck in the big city. I deliberately left behind Dr. Elliot’s Five Foot Shelf of Books which I had been persuaded by a smooth-talking door-to-door salesman to purchase as a certain open sesame to wisdom, if not affluence. I had soon discovered that the standardized format and monotonous typography of Dr. Elliot’s masterpiece was more to be recommended for their soporific qualities than for their intellectual stimulation. That’s the last set I ever bought except for reference purposes.

Seattle was an exciting city after my restricted small-town life, and I explored its streets during noon hours, after work, and on weekends, and discovered, much to my surprise and delight, that there were stores devoted exclusively to second-hand books, with proprietors of seemingly endless knowledge of books and an apparent delight in encouraging a young man to browse.

I soon fell in with an old Scandinavian dealer located on my walking route home, and he began to introduce me into the arcane of press books. He explained the rationale behind the typography, margins and placement of type on page, and the fine press work, and I became convinced that I could attain wisdom more easily through reading beautiful books than those which were dull and listless to the eye. I must confess that this is a conviction which I find it difficult to shake.

I knew nothing of William Morris or Cobden-Sanderson and their theories of bookmaking, and I’m sure neither did my bookseller friend, as I never saw a Kelmscott or Doves Press book on his shelves. The best typographical examples he seemed to be able to advance from stock were from the Mosher and Roycroft Presses.

After having exhausted my first enthusiasm for the self-conscious gaudiness of Elbert Hubbard’s imitation Kelmscott bound in ooze calf, I began a love affair with Mosher Press books which has lasted for more than 45 years. Fortunately it was an affair I could afford, as Mosher books were cheap in those days when the big collectors were going for the far more expensive productions of Kelmscott, Doves, Nash, Grabhorn and Bruce Rogers.

In fact, I saw and purchased my first Doves Press book only after I came to San Francisco in 1929, and became acquainted with a budding young British antiquarian dealer on Post Street who was undoubtedly hanging on as tenuous a financial thread as I was. The Doves book violated every principle of economic good sense I had ever learned, but charmed by its sheer beauty encased in simple vellum, I threw caution to the wind and had my fling.

But Mosher was my idol, and I rummaged the shops of San Francisco and Los Angeles methodically for these lovely little volumes, and during the next twelve years assembled a very respectable Mosher collection—good enough, in fact, to have prompted an invitation from the Roxburghe Club to present a paper on Mosher, with a representative exhibit of his works. This was in 1937, and I worked hard on the preparation of the paper and arrangement of the exhibit. Much to my astonishment it turned out to be a huge success. I was elected to membership by acclamation (the Club was far more informal in those days than today), and I was urged to do further work on the paper with the idea of eventual publication. I did precisely this, but 27 years later.

Then World War II came, and I enlisted. The uncertainty of the future prompted me to sell my library. Most of my books went to Newbegin’s, but I didn’t want the Mosher collection of 224 volumes broken up. I consulted George Fields, with whom I had become a Saturday afternoon bourbon buddie in the backroom of his Polk Street shop, and he was able to come up with a buyer to whom the collection could be disposed and kept intact. I never knew until after the war who this unknown buyer was.

Four years later found me in Detroit, out of the service and handling the advertising for Ford cars. I had resumed my old collecting habits by first acquiring a wife and three children before turning my attention to books. At this point, the only part of my pre-war library I regretted having sold was the Mosher collection.

In starting collecting all over again, I was able to profit by my earlier mistake of eclecticism—the purchase of various kinds of books that interested me, but a collection so scattered in various fields that there was no depth in any except, of course, Mosher.

So I determined after the war to concentrate in the specific field of the Art and History of the Book, which was at the same time general enough to allow me to purchase almost anything I really wanted to buy. In my bibliomania there has always been some method, as you can see.

At any rate, I began to find Mosher books here and there, and was beginning to have an attractive shelf of these little beauties when all of a sudden the first of my ten most exciting experiences as a collector transpired.

The library of Thomas Bird Mosher himself came to auction in May of 1948, twenty-five years after his death. The possibility of a “great leap forward” in Mosher was at hand.

My book buying funds were quite limited indeed at the time, and with the guidance of a rare book dealer located conveniently in the same building with my office, we set our strategy. $500 was the budget; all I could afford. We marked the items most important to a representative collection of Mosher Press, and decided upon cumulative bidding. As we were outbid on an item, the reserve for that item was added to the pot for additional titles.

We bid in 102 titles, but what an array! All books were from Mosher’s own library, almost all on Japan Vellum, marked Copy No. 1, some on pure vellum, four copies only.

The first three publications of the Mosher Press were George Meredith’s “Modern Love,” James Thompson’s “The City of Dreadful Night,” and Robert Bridges’ “The Growth of Love.” All three fell to our bids, each copy a large paper edition limited to 10 copies printed on Japan Vellum.

The next Mosher series was called the “Bibelot Series.” Of the ten titles published, we got eight, all on Japan Vellum, limited to 25 or 50 copies. The cornerstone of the Mosher Press productions is the “Old World Series,” of which there were fifty titles published from 1895 to 1909. We got 45 of these so titles, all on Japan Vellum, limited to 50 to 100 copies.

The “Quarto Series” are the largest and most handsome books Mosher ever published, and, devoted to the works of Swinburne, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and Walter Pater. Ten titles, in eleven volumes, these books are seldom seen on the market, even today. We acquired every title on Japan Vellum, and two of them in duplicate on pure vellum—and what a delight to the eye these vellum copies are! Mosher mastered the art of printing on this tricky medium, one which Nash and Grabhorn avoided like poison.

A scattering of books in other less important Mosher series completed our objective. If I had no Mosher books in my collection other than those acquired in this 1948 auction, it would rank as one of the important Mosher collections in this country today. But during the 23 years that have elapsed since that exciting experience, my collection has grown to more than 800 items, including a mass of original manuscript material of poetry and essays which Mosher wrote during his younger days, practically none of which ever emerged in print.

But as Eve discovered that there is a worm in every apple of satisfaction, (the snake may be the tempter, but the worm is the source of discontent), I look back at that auction catalogue today with regret that I had to pass up so many things through sheer lack of finances. For example, I could have bid in 45 Mosher titles on pure vellum for about $1,200.00. A fine run of original letters and inscribed copies from Robert Frost to Mosher went for bargain prices. These are today in the Waller Barrett collection at the University of Virginia, a most appropriate place for them.

What I regret most, probably, is having to pass up the original correspondence from William Sharp to Thomas Bird Mosher, 61 pieces which went for $170.00. These letters deal with the various works of “Fiona Macleod,” the fictitious kinswoman created by William Sharp to disguise the real author of a series of remarkable prose-poems. All letters were signed “Fiona Macleod,” and were in the handwriting of Sharp’s sister. Only after the death of William Sharp did the real identity of Fiona Macleod become known.