When a List Begins to Dwindle

–Memento Mori–

On the 28th of December 2006 two very special Mosher books with a couple others were flown in from a West Coast dealer. It was a special package, one whose contents I thought I might never see. I’ve been seeking these two volumes for over twenty years, and I must admit that I’m still a bit atwitter. Incidentally, you know, when I discuss such finds, I am writing about my personal goals and accomplishments–after all, they are excerpts from my memoirs as I mentioned back in September 2000 when I began these essays for Endpapers. These books are some of the last on my Wants List, and when I begin to see another series completed, or the long line of self-assigned tasks achieved, I can’t help but begin to reflect on my own “ends of days,” you know, the end of one’s life. In a strange sort of way a life-long collection itself become a memento mori because you know the notable results in front of you signifies that things are beginning to take the last turn around the bend. The collection reminds one of one’s mortality, and questions like “what will be the final disposition of these materials?” and “now that I’ve completed this to what should I turn next?” begin to crop up with added frequency. You hear others asking the same thing, and you begin to reflect on the years over which you’ve traversed and the size and depth that the collection has taken. You’ve seen that others have moved in the same direction, similarly collected, and then had their collections dispersed after death (sometimes before) or had the whole collection placed for “safe keeping“ in an institution. When these two books came to me these are exactly the thoughts which intermingled with the feeling of jubilation, and so I reflected on the collection from whence I knew these books came.

Even though over twenty years have passed, I still have vivid memories of a huge yellow Connecticut colonial-styled house in the woods. My wife, the kids and I took the Saw Mill Parkway and followed the detailed directions to the old collector’s house. We made good time arriving promptly and feeling no worse for the long drive which was along our way to Maine anyway. We got out of the car and I knocked on the door, a knock which was to become the beginning of a two decades venture. The collector’s wife answered, but we were asked to remain outside until HE was ready for our entrance. After five or so minutes she came back and ushered us in. There he was, properly seated behind his large desk while making final adjustments to his bowtie. After a few pleasantries and some explanation of things in the room, he wanted to take me to preview the house’s collections. The kids and wife were asked to remain in the front room where, quite frankly, I don’t know what they did to bide the time while under their directress’s care. God love ’em, for this was but one of many such adventures where they’d have to persevere while papa made his rounds.

I’ll never forget the literal whirlwind tour I experienced with this gentleman-collector. We rushed from one set of shelves to another, his opening this book and that and after a few brief seconds dalliance we were flitting off to another book he wanted to show me all the while mentioning how difficult is was to find or how rare it was, and then another, and then another, and yet another. For at least two hours it went like this with us madly rushing about the house from book to book and collection to collection. We finally got to the Mosher Press area which was what I had come there to see in the first place. There in a closet converted with extra shelves were all his Mosher books lined up by series. They were so unlike the books I saw that day bound in human skin, or the books with medallions in them, or the oddly shaped or otherwise curious books, or the boxes and boxes of miniatures, books still in their original, unopened mailing boxes, or the books in crazy bindings. The Mosher books seemed to be a bastion of normalcy in a sea of the weird and bizarre. It became one of my first forays into the upper echelons of book collecting–a smorgasbord dose of Grolier a la gratin.

Over the years this wealthy collector and I corresponded, and at one point he called a former president of the ABAA from whom I had just bought a rather rare Mosher book from the Reprints from ‘The Bibelot’ Series. The collector’s entreaties managed to squeeze the buyer’s name from the lips of the dealer, to my disquietude, for he telephoned my home three times, each with an ever increasing demand that I sell him THAT book. I also received one of the most unsettling letters I’ve ever gotten from a book collector claiming that I wasn’t a bookseller or else I’d sell him that book, and mentioning he was going to report me to the ABAA! For what?!

We had several points of contact after the telephone incident, and as he aged even further–he already seemed very old when I first met him–he became increasingly interested in selling the duplicates of his collection. I bought into it and at his request he offered to sell me some of these extras if I’d take the ol’ Saw Mill excursion again. When I got there with the photocopies of his self-made library cards showing which books he’d part with, we proceeded to “the closet” but after pulling out three or four he announced a change of heart and said he couldn’t bear to part with any of them. Maybe next time, he suggested. That was it! I was never going to set foot in that house again. Even when he approached me to sell the whole collection at 70% of retail value I would have nothing to do with it. Later on a grandson approached me at a show I was doing in Winston-Salem, NC, and I told him to relay that I was interested but I knew the outcome. Only death would part him from this collection, and so it was.

The house was cleaned out with all the books taken by a few dealers, including the last left to mop up the place. The Mosher books headed westward, and at a Boston book show I heard about the dealings through the grapevine, and so began what was to become a sort of cat and mouse game to see who could persevere. They wanted to sell the Mosher collection as a whole and I was given a lot price which I just simply couldn’t afford, and it wasn’t particularly agreeable to me to take on so many duplicates when all I really wanted was a handful of the best material. It remained unsold after repeated tries, and remarkably I was offered a small package of material which really was quite good, but which didn’t cut into the collection of the books themselves. What I got were oddities, like a book from Mosher’s collection with his notes for a title he’d himself publish. This was remarkable material and I was very pleased to acquire it, but all my suggestions about selling certain items were politely rebuffed to the sidelines. Then it happened. A crack in the dam appeared, eventually widened, and ever since I’m been the recipient of a number of the key books I’ve been after, including two very special ones which even Mosher himself commented.

On July 15, 1914 Mosher wrote to W. Irving Way (formerly one of the partners of Way & Williams of Chicago, but then of Los Angeles as librarian for the Zamorano Club) about Dr. Mitchell’s The Pearl. Mosher explained the difficulty in trying to find a copy which “in my judgment from hell to hackney that can be had at any figure” and “as the years wander on this will be a little piece of Americana that princes may compete for but only Huntingtons can buy. I would say the same about the Whitman on pure vellum in re Memories of President Lincoln.” After a twenty year search what was in the box I received both a fine copy of S. Weir Mitchell’s The Pearl (1908; Bishop 286) with glassine dust jacket and slipcase intact, and also a very fine copy of the large quarto sized Memories of President Lincoln and Other Lyrics of the War by Walt Whitman (1912; Bishop 239). The latter is still in its slipcase and the silk ties have never been tied so they remain flat with the whole book bound in classic vellum still carrying its thin ephemeral printed dust jacket. The copy is No. 7 of 10 signed by Mosher in his shaky hand–a condition brought about by an earlier illness. Mosher made several references to the value of this book, including on January 17, 1913 when he again expressed to Way that “I also did ten copies on pure classic vellum at $75.00 and of these but two copies remain for sale. It would have seemed that such a book would have made the people sit up in California! Nothing I have done has gone beyond it and the price was a mere bagatelle to those who cared for Lincoln in the choicest shape that it has ever been expressed in this country.” That’s saying quite a lot, but just one look at this book and one’s head automatically nods in approval. I was once asked by the book designer and Grolier Club member, Jerry Kelly, in my estimation which book of Mosher’s stood out as being the finest specimen of design. I told him that for me there were two: Calvert’s Ten Spiritual Designs (1913) and Whitman’s Memories of President Lincoln (1912). The former was placed in Kelly’s & Hutner’s A Century for the Century, but the Memories of President Lincoln will always remain for me one of the choicest, made ever the more special since only this title, unlike the other, was printed on vellum.

There’s another reason I’ve been seeking the vellum Memories. It now completes the full range of all the printed options conceivably available, because it completes my holding in the collection:

  • the printer’s mock-up/dummy of the book
  • the Italian paper version with printed green covers
  • a variant of the Italian paper version with a green cover
  • sans printed title on the cover
  • the Japan vellum copy, and now
  • the pure vellum copy.

One could not possibly put together a finer and truly unique assemblage showing the book’s printing in all its states. Eventually I would like to have a special clamshell case made to house all this material in one place.

In addition to the vellum Memories and Weir’s The Pearl, there also came along a copy of M.T. Space’s (George W. Elkins of Philadelphia) The Holy Jumpers, again a little book which has evaded capture for these past twenty years and which remained on my Wants List until now. But an even better find which was also included was a copy of Mosher’s 1894 “List of Books.” It’s incredibly rare. I know of only two other copies, one at Yale University and the other at Temple University. But the most marvelous part of it all is the fact that with this addition the Mosher collection here is now the sole repository of the full and complete run of the Mosher catalogues in the world! I already owned the rarest of the rare which even Mosher admitted was highly elusive and that he only managed to save but one and never saw another again, that being his very first 1893-94 “List of Books.” So now the Mosher catalogue sequence is complete, from the beginning of Mosher’s publishing career to the end, and then further extended with all the lists and catalogues of his assistant who continued the business until 1941. No other run of these catalogues exists in any other institution or private collection and I suspect none ever will.

What can I say. it was truly a remarkable flourish to the end of 2006 and I’ve added four things I wasn’t sure I’d ever be able to gather. Now they’re here. The flow hasn’t ceased either. I’ve continued to add every item I thought I’d want from the Connecticut collector’s closet collection. It’s been a remarkable January 2007 and I’d just love to relate just how I’ve been able to pay for what is a Huntington’s ransom, but that’s a long story and one which won’t be told for many years to come.

So, besides the obvious added strengths to the Mosher collection, what else does this suggest? As I mentioned at the upstart, it took the passing of one collector for these items, chosen over years–even before I was born–, to enter the collection. Here I see before me an astounding collection with the added joy of numerous sub-collections all revolving around the Mosher story. I’ve accomplished much of what I started out to do, and now, as with collectors before me, this too will eventually pass along without me. Memento mori. To be sure, I still have a number of things I want to add to the collection, in fact, my eye remains on two other private collections out there. I’m looking to surpass Norman Strouse’s acquisition of Mosher books printed on vellum (we presently remain only four books apart–27 and 31), but in remembering our three-years of correspondence with one another I can’t help but remember his last days and my subsequent visitation to a superb collection now at the Gleeson Library with some of the bindings at the Bancroft Library. Memento mori. I have a number of things I still hope to have published like the annotated list of books from Mosher’s library which Dick Fredeman had hoped I’d do. Dick so kindly wrote the Introduction to the Mosher bibliography and then passed away a short time after the bibliography was published. Memento mori. I’d love to update the Mosher bibliography, and complete a couple articles about Mosher’s sources for his book design. Speaking of that I’m reminded that I’m preparing the materials to be loaned to The Grolier Club for their upcoming Eragny Press exhibition, Illustrating the Good Life: The Pissarros’ Eragny Press, 1894-1914 in which there is a concluding section on the Eragny influences in America. Naturally one turns to the Mosher Press’s use of Eragny Press designs. And then there are the Mosher letters themselves which I’ve been asked if I’d consider editing and annotating a book of his correspondence since I have more of his letters (except for the Huntington Library) and copies of all the institutional holdings than probably anyone else in the country. There’s also the publishing of Dane Yorke’s biographical account of Mosher’s early years, the sole typewritten work and research notes which I have here. I had long hoped to work with an academic colleague on a complete Mosher biography, but as things now stand that probably won’t happen. The Mosher collection stands ready for a complete cataloguing which I’ve already begun. Perhaps an exhibition, perhaps more writing and the publication of the memoirs, all assuming that I will remain alive and well, but one never knows, does one? Memento mori.

© Philip R. Bishop
27 January 2007

Note: This essay is copyright © by Philip R. Bishop. Permission to reproduce the above article has been granted by Gordon Pfeiffer, editor of the Delaware Bibliophiles’ newsletter, Endpapers, in which the article appeared in the March 2007 issue. No portion of this article may be reproduced or redistributed without expressed written permission from both parties.