From “The Petite Memoirs of a Petty Book Collector”

In the last issue of Endpapers I contributed the article “A Pre- Post-Mortem Addition to a Book Collection” which I understand evoked a few responses by some who thought the sentiments were rather poignant. Subsequently, I corresponded with Gordon Peiffer about printing more excerpts from my forthcoming Petite Memoirs of a Petty Book Collector which he thought would be a good idea except for my use of the word petty. Gordon wrote that “I know you are being clever and poetic but the word “petty” has other meanings besides small and those other meanings don’t describe you who are always helpful, friendly and willing to share your knowledge –just the opposite of mean, jealous or petty.” Well my helpful demeanor hasn’t changed, nor has the word “petty,” but please allow me to offer an explanation.

Petty has been overused in our times to mean small minded, picayune, or trivial, and we often think of pettiness as a reprehensible and even contemptible behavior; however, I’m using petty in quite another way. The original Middle English meaning was that of something small or minor, and was even at one time an alternative to petite which is best illustrated with examples like petty officer, petty cash, petty bourgeoisie, petty offense, or even pettygod (now there’s a word we don’t often see used today). Simply put, petty prefixed to these roots has the affect of telling us that these are not the big guys, the big bucks, the big crimes, or the major gods. I’d like the readers to view my entries from the Petite Memoirs as just what they are, the reflections of a book collector who has neither had the time, the over abundance of brains or business smarts, and the bucks to be a collector on the level of a J. P. Morgan, a Robert Hoe, an Estelle Doheny, or any of the more modern well heeled collectors described in Basbanes’ A Gentle Madness. Perhaps the best personal contrast I can make is with the dear departed friend of mine, Norman Strouse. Norman was a Mosher collector like me, but unlike me he was also able to substantially pursue interests in bindings from The Doves Bindery, autograph letters of presidents, to collect works by Robert Louis Stevenson (now housed in his Silverado Museum in St. Helena, CA) and Thomas Carlyle, a complete collection of the Kelmscott Press and other British presses, California presses, and a number of other areas which only a person like a former president of J. Walter Thompson could feel free to collect. Such bibliophiles are big time collectors, like many a Grolier Club member, but I’m just a little guy by comparison. Now to be sure, the one’s level of collecting is subjective and relative. Strouse wrote the book, A Poor Man’s Morgan Library, thinking that though he wasn’t a J. P. Morgan, he nevertheless was able to do some pretty remarkable collecting. By means of the book’s title, however, to suggest he is a representative “poor man”, well really, give me a break.

So, by petty I’m simply referring to my small corner of the book collecting world where I’ve been able to do some serious and thoughtful assembling of what is now a major research collection –in this case a collection of the books surrounding the publishing life of Thomas Bird Mosher. Being small doesn’t mean that one can’t do a hell of a good job at assembling a great collection in one area, an achievement which I readily admit to, but it does mean I have been limited and certainly not of the caliber of some of our adopted saints and idols of the book collecting world. That being said, I offer a few excerpts from my little memoirs, excerpts which reflect the experiences and ruminations of a small time collector whose done a big time job of it one or a few books at a time.

This might be called an anecdote about how things seem to come around and work for the good even after a short-sighted attitude, an awkward miscalculation, and a failure to purchase a good book when it’s availability first becomes known (and even a few times thereafter), all seemingly conspire against the book ever finding its way into a collection, in this case my Mosher collection which currently has 310 volumes from Thomas Bird Mosher’s library. Another thing this story points out is the games we people often play, myself included, and that helps to reveal the other, more common side of “petty” which we all recognize from time to time and from which I don’t claim to be totally disassociated.

Three years ago I visited a dealer’s newly opened store in a New England antiques mall. After going through a few cases, I came across a slender bibliographical work by Fred Coykendall entitled Arthur Rackham-A List of Books Illustrated by Him Compiled by Frederick Coykendall with An Introductory Note by Martin Birnbaum ([Mount Vernon, NY]: Privately Printed, 1922), limited to 175 copies printed by William Edwin Rudge. Mr. Coykendall was chairman of the trustees of Columbia University and also served as director and, later, as president of Columbia University Press. Included in his private library was every title in limited, signed edition (and otherwise) illustrated by Arthur Rackham, and the bibliography most certainly relied heavily on his own extensive Rackham collection.

The thin white volume was in a torn, darkened glassine dust wrapper and the spine’s tail curved to the right. It must have been inappropriately placed somewhere for years causing that bend to become a fixed part of the book’s physical appearance. When I first held the book I noticed it was inscribed to “Thomas Bird Mosher with the esteem of Fred Coykendall” dated March 1923, only a few months before Mosher’s death. A second inscription reads “I am happy that this book is to have its second home with my friend George Grady [signed] Fred Coykendall” and is dated November 30, 1948. There is sure evidence of a Mosher bookplate which at some point had removed –perhaps because of the somewhat erotic nature of the breasted griffins– and, most importantly, there is a letter loosely inserted from Coykendall to Mosher (more on that shortly). Given the book’s condition, and even with the letter, I couldn’t see why it should be priced at $425. In my judgment it should have been price around $300-$325. While at the bookshop, I hurriedly jotted down the contents of the enclosed letter all the while thinking to myself that I had read this somewhere before, but where? I was almost incensed at the price, especially since this was no big time dealer, and nobody else cared much for Mosher except maybe when they’re quoting me. Now in all fairness, the book was designed by Bruce Rogers and bears his signed monogram on the colophon page, but I’ve seen plenty of other small BR designed works which didn’t even come close to the price this dealer was asking. The dealer wasn’t there, and so I parted the store without the book, but determined to discover where I first saw that letter and then to contact the dealer to see how much better he was willing to go on that horrendous price.

I did find the letter. It was fully transcribed (with an error in transcription) on p. 185 of Keith Gibson Huntress’s 1942 PhD dissertation, “Thomas Bird Mosher-A Biographical and Literary Study.” That was nice. I could have the actual letter Huntress accessed, and the book to boot, but there was that ungodly high price. I contacted the dealer, but no response. Then at a New York book show I came across the same dealer and asked him about the book after purchasing another book from Mosher’s library he had there at the show. He said he’d get back to me. I called again and left a message. Nothing ever happened and I had all but given up hope that anything ever would. However, after two years since originally coming across the Coykendall book, I was at a book show just outside of Washington, D.C. and the same dealer was there. To my surprise he said he brought along the book I was asking about, bent over and rummaged inside a showcase, and pulled out the book. Good heavens, perhaps now we could get matters settled. He handed it over to me and I opened it to see the letter. The book’s spine had the same bend, and then I looked at the price. Good heavens! The book now carried the price of $475. If I was just about incensed before, you can imagine what I felt like now. Here it was within my grasp, but the price is even priced higher! Grrrrr. I handed the book back to the dealer and said I’d come back. After giving myself a little time to think it over, I went back to the dealer with a price written on the back of my business card (I’m also a book dealer) and handed him the card along with my comment that if he was interested that was the price I was willing to pay. I think I had something like $325 written on it. He looked, didn’t say a word, and turned around to continue his business. I didn’t stick around longer to see if he was in agreement feeling that his body language was saying all that needed to be said. Now this might be a good time to mention that if you’re really interested in a book but find the price too high, you really only have a few options, fess up and buy it, shut up and walk away, try to reason with the dealer, or make an offer. So often, however, making an offer can seem like delivering an ultimatum, and especially so in this case. That was a dreadful mistake, as it would have been to hold my tongue and walk away, but I managed to do BOTH. At the time, reasonable discourse seemed to be out of the question due to our past brushes and the resulting frustrations. Anyway, what I really should have done was to bite my tongue and fork over the money less the courtesy dealer-to-dealer discount which is often 10%. I didn’t, so the book and I once again parted company, yet I still felt a bit smug in assuming that the book certainly wouldn’t sell at that price. Surely he’d come to his senses and sell be the book at a reasonable price. Right? Wrong!

Half a year later I again saw the dealer set up at a show in Boston. By now we weren’t exactly on cordial speaking terms, so I just entered his booth, looked around, and there on a second shelf was this lonely little waif still unsold. I took it off the shelf, opened it up to the price and saw it remained unchanged at $475. While I was doing this the dealer was obviously keeping watch over me out of the side of his eye. Fair is fair, for I too was noting his reactions in the same way. I placed the book back on the shelf and exited the booth hoping that I would sell some books at my own stand so that I might be able to afford the book. Actually I could have afforded it all along, but psychological barbs of over-reasoning kept getting in the way. I kept saying to myself things like: the book was overpriced, why would I need it since the letter is already transcribed in the Huntress dissertation, the book is flawed so why didn’t the dealer take that into consideration (I’m a condition freak), and so on. Then there was that history between us. “OK,” I said to myself, “if a make a couple sales then I’ll come back and get it.” One hour after the show opened the requisite sales came my way and I excused myself from the booth to perambulated about the floor. Of course, I was really headed only in one direction. I knew just where the book was, the visual location being strongly fixed in my mind. I entered the booth, walked up to the shelf, reached up and… now wait, where is it? I scanned the shelf. Not there. I scanned the other shelves of the case. Not there. I scanned all the cases in the booth. Not there. I looked under the cases where sometimes a dealer places items sold. Not there. It was gone! So now, after all of this gymnastic reasoning and mental torture, somebody finally got it. We were in Bruce Rogers territory: Harvard. Boston. Cambridge. OK, so finally a BR collector saw its worth and stepped up to the plate. I didn’t fear a Mosher collector would grab it. Most are too impecunious or light weights as collectors for that. No, it had to be a BR collector. I was sure of it. Of course, I wasn’t going to ask or say anything to my “dealer friend,” and I parted the booth feeling downtrodden. I could just imagine the dealer with his own smug smirk behind me as I departed. I had been whipped by some superior force. What I didn’t come to understand is that that superior force was actually myself and my own inner tussle with a complicated set of circumstances partly of my own making. I thought and reasoned too much, and now I was reaping the consequences. Oh well, at least I had the text of the letter in the Huntress dissertation.

Another half year goes by and I again find myself at the next annual Washington, D.C. show along with that same dealer who by now has become a sort of icon of dysfunctional business relationships for me. I looked over his stock three times before the beginning of the show. He does get some unusual material from time to time and I always want to be sure I’ve thoroughly combed through his stock. Anything I was going to find was located and purchased. Several hours after the show began I felt like I needed to take a stroll to limber up the legs and dispel the boredom. I once again found myself picking through that dealer’s stock thinking to myself, “what in the world am I going to find? I’ve already seen this stuff three times!” Then I passed his bookcase with a small pile of books just about in the middle, and there in the pile… you guessed it… there was that slim white volume with the tattered glassine wrapper. So what happened in Boston had nothing to do with anybody BR collector purchasing the book, but was rather solely based on the preemptive action of that dealer. He saw that I was again looking at the book and decided he’d just take it from the shelves and hide it for the remainder of the Boston show. After recalling that last incident in a brief daydream, I snapped to reality and caught the dealer’s attention asking to see the little volume. He replied “what volume?” like he had absolutely no idea what I was talking about or even where I was pointing. I responded in explicit words: “The thin book, forth from the top of the pile in the middle of this case. Without a word he opened the case, reached down and pinched his fingers about the warped spine and pulled it out. He placed the book on the counter. I checked the price. Nothing had further changed. I asked what my price would be. He responded. I pulled out my checkbook and immediately wrote the check in the amount requested. The deal was transacted like there wasn’t a shred of history behind it whatsoever. The whole transaction was coming down fresh and clean. Perhaps we were both exhausted over the past and just wanted to conclude it all. Anyway, the book was now FINALLY in my possession, but even this isn’t the end of the story.

After getting the book home I had a chance to carefully compare the actual letter with the transcribed version in the Huntress dissertation. There is one differences: instead of “I have an extensive collection of Bruce Rogers’ books including one of the books done by him for the Riverside Press” it correctly reads “I have an extensive collection of Bruce Rogers’ books including all [emphasis mine] of the books done by him for the Riverside Press” Big difference and makes better sense. Around this time I was asked to write a monograph on the relationship between Bruce Rogers and T. B. Mosher for The Typophiles. Strange how some things just seem to click into place. The monograph, “A B.R. QUARTET–Letters from Bruce Rogers to Thomas Bird Mosher,” is now at the printer and will be released by The Typophiles in the fall 2000 [was actually released in March 2001]. In the monograph I took the opportunity to quote from Coykendall’s letter to Mosher and, of course, to remark that this letter is now in the Bishop Collection. If the readers of the monograph only knew how much effort it took to get just that one little letter into the collection!

© Philip R. Bishop
September 2000 Endpapers

This article is Copyright © by Philip R. Bishop. Permission to reproduce the above article has been granted by Gordon Pfeiffer, president of the Delaware Bibliophiles and editor of that organization’s newsletter, Endpapers, in which the article appeared in the September 2000 issue. No portion of this article may be reproduced or redistributed without expressed written permission from both parties.