Friday, December 30, 2005


Tales of the Booksellers Row - Part V and VI

LOOKING BACK by Wally Dobelis
How does a Fourth Avenue book scout like the notorious Bruce (of whom youv'e read in prior stories) acquire his superior knowledge of scarce editions? Is it long exposure to books? If so, then the bookdealers of Fourth Avenue would never throw a rarity, such as H.L.Mencken's "Ventures Into Verse" (Baltimore, 1903), out on their 50c tables, for a scout to snap up. I was actually there when this book was picked up by "sleeper" hunter, on the West side of 4th Ave, outside one of the smaller stores. I tried to offer the finder a premium if he'd let me buy the book. If recollection serves, he simply stuck his tongue out at me, speechless in the face of the enormity of his good luck. (Mencken, incidentally, was so prolific that he wrote under 44 pen names, from George W. Allison in the Baltimore Sunday Herald, 1902, to Robert W. Woodruff, in his Smart Set magazine. One was the exotic Seumas LeChat, not to be confused with the Monsieur LeCoq of George Simenon's - who wrote under 17 pen names.)
The answer is that the scout learns constantly, by reading, talking and lifelong enthusiasm. Book scouts devour antiquarian bookdealer sale lists and auction catalogues, they study author and subject bibliographies and may even visit the Berg Collection of Rare Books in the NYPL. Many antiquarian bookdealers are too busy to do that kind of studying.
I remember having a strange copy of Robert Browning's anonymously published "Pauline, A Fragment and a Confession" (1833), in a beautiful binding, with the Ex-Libris of H. Buxton Forman, a XIX Cent. authority. I bought it at the value of the binding from a New York dealer, who knew books. I knew that it had to be a spurious edition, particularly because Forman had been associated with Thomas Wise, the great bibliographer and forger of Browning and other first editions, and acquired it as a curiosity. There might be a story behind it.
There almost was. I brought the book to the 42nd Street Library, signed it through the guards at the entrance, and took it to Dr Gordan, the librarian of the Berg Collection, where they have two of the real first editions. We agreed that my copy was a forged first, and Dr Gordan very kindly permitted me to take pictures of the title page of the real first edition with my precious Honeywell Pentax single-lens reflex, while he held the book - and then the book got lost! It had been signed out by an attendant, I gave it back to the good doctor - but somehow it disappeared. Dr Gordan became truly excited and called for help. I could not help to overhear that "this man came it, took pictures with his little snap box (what an insult to my best camera), and now the book is gone!" I was politely asked to remain in the reading room, I think they put a guard, discretely, outside the door. In a short while the embarrassed librarian found the book, I was given a perfunctory apology and left Berg Collection feeling that I had exhausted my welcome in these quarters.
I did not return to researching the source of the forgery for a few years, when Marjory Wynne of the Beinecke Library at Yale offered to help. She asked me for photocopies, and determined, in short order, that my book was a part of a known reprint. The venerable Buxton, or more likely someone else, had taken a Browning Society pamphlet, reprinting the text of the even then rare book of poems, then stripped off the front matter, and had the poems expensively bound. Who was behind the the charade is moot, but since the pamphlet was printed by Thomas Wise in 1886, who had passed off other pamphlets printed by him as first editions, it may be that this copy was meant to fool people. Forman's bookplate would have added authenticity.
In scouting for books I've had to fool people too, not illegaly. When my group of book scouts visited the East Coast dealers on Saturdays, looking for good buys, bookdealers would study our purchases carefully, and sometimes renege on price, claiming that the marked amounts for certain books should have been updated. This was not fair, but in order to keep our welcome green, we would submit to it.
Once my group of Saturday collectors went out of town to an advertised sale by a dealer who had bought a private library and was trying to get rid of the chaff. There were tables of 10 books for $5, 10 books for $10, constantly being replenished. I was looking through the better books, when my eye caught a German title, "Koenig, Dame, Bube," by W. Nabokoff-Sirin, published by Ullstein in Berlin, 1930. This was certainly a find, an early book by the author who signed such later books as "Lolita" with the name of Nabokov. I carefully picked 19 other books at that table, including more foreign-language titles, all worth the money and some of them quite flashy, and walked over to the cash register. The dealer examined most of my purchases practically with a magnifying glass, and gleefully withdrew four titles, graciously letting me pay $16 without insisting that I pick four more items. Nabokov's second non-Russian book passed without a second glance.
My triumph was short-lived. When I happily examined my great find at home, it turned out that the front end-paper, the folded page which holds the binding and the book together, had been carefully detached. It probably held the author's inscription to a Lotte Brandenstein, whose ownership stamp is in the book, maybe too intimate to be left in the book when she disposed of it.
If you think I'm too fanciful, here's a story told by Ike Brussel, the great bibliographer of Anglo-American books. It seems that Theodore Dreiser, who was a big chaser, would ask every woman he met to sleep with him, counting on the fame of his name and on the law of averages for a supply of bedmates . A young girl in the office of his British publisher succumbed, and at the end of the brief encounter humbly asked the great author to inscribe a copy of "Sister Carrie" for her, hoping that this would make a nice souvenir for later years. Dreiser inquired for her full name, and wrote:"To Mary Smith, in memory of a certain wall in London." He grandly handed her the book, she thanked him, and, upon reading the inscription, burst out in tears. But the author would not waste another copy on a short relationship, and the girl tore up the inscription. So Ike was told.

Computers have truly changed our lifes, simplifying and eliminating jobs such as typesetting and final proofreading. They have also enlarged the scope of human errors, making it possible for a whole page of text to disappear. That is what happened last week with my description of the Friends Fair, and the volunteers, such as the doctors and other overworked professionals who give up a Saturday to sell books. Hence the segue from Jan Hird Pokorny, the architect of the Dvorak statue pedestal, to the barber-surgeons of yore. But the Fair is over, and you'll have to wait for the story of how to get a free medical diagnosis while buying old books until the next Fair, in May 1996. But, if you'd like a hundred or more brightly jacketed, or conversely, scholarly looking books for a studio background, leave a message for me at Friends Seminary, c/o Susa n Malin, 979-5030.

LOOKING BACK by Wally Dobelis
Tales of the Booksellers Row - Part VI
A book scout on 4th Avenue had to know authors' handwritings. Not only the distinctive copperplate of George Washington, or the bold A. Lincoln signa ture, not just the well-known, easy to remenber letter styling of Charles Dickens and William Makepeace Thackeray. For instance, when examining an XVIII Century tome, British or American, it is a good idea to check page 100, looking for Thomas Jefferson's initials. To foil people who did not like to return borrowed books, the great book collector put secret ownership marks on his copies. Not all the books in Jefferson's second collection ended up in the Library of Congress (the first burned up), there are still some floating around. But watch out if the book with the Jefferson markings is dated after July 4, 1826, the day when the author of the Declaration of Independence shared the sweet chariot with his early-life enemy and late-life friend, John Adams. You will have a forgery in your hands.
Forgeries of Presidential documents showed up now and then on Fourth Avenue. A friendly bookseller would show me a payment order signed by George Washington: "They tell me it is a Spring forgery, but I don't believe it. Looks too perfect." I would nod affirmatively and politely keep quiet about the fact that Robert Spring, the first American autograph forger of distinction who started work in the 1870s, had a supply of genuine printed forms from the Office of Discount and Deposit at Baltimore. He did Washington forgeries so expeditiously and without the normal hesitation marks that it takes an expert who knows Spring's handwriting to detect them. Joseph Cosey, in the early XX Century, was the most prolific forger. While specializing in A. Lincoln letters, he could and did imitate the hands of other statesmenof the Revolutionary period, and was very careful with his paper. Button Gwinnett, the rarest signer of the Declaration, was a challenge to forgers. A farmer who died soon after the signing, his signature is the hardest to get, and new findings are immediately suspect. I have heard a story of a contemporary storekeeper's credit book, in which a forger made an entry on a free line for Button Gwinnett's purchases. Not exactly an autograph, but ...
In our bookcase there is a document signed by George Washington at Valley Forge, May 12, 1778, abjuring allegiance to George the Third, and swearing allegiance to the United States, as the commander in chief. The document is fill-in, with name, title and the word "swear" (permitting "aver," preferred by non-swearers) written in. I know that this is a XIX Cent facsimile, framed by an art dealer on Madison Ave (the phone number is Ashland 6348) but that does not stop me from annually taking it out of the bookcase and re-looking, just in case old George's signature should magically have turned to blue ink.
Not all forgers were just mercenaries, looking to sell phoney letters. Among the Brits, Thomas Chatterton, who killed himself at 17, wrote a whole body of highly regarded poetry, purportedly by a 15th Cent monk, Rowley. William Henry Ireland wrote poems, correspondence and a whole drama, "Vortigern and Rowena," all attributed to Shakespeare. On the other hand, Major George Gordon Byron pretended to be the son of the poet and was so convincing that he sold forged Byron letters even to the poet's publisher.
In my bookcase also sits a carefully repaired two-volume set of Harriet Beecher Stove's "Uncle Tom's Cabin," the less-likely-to-survive paperbound edition, dated Boston, 1852, the year of the 1st edition. It looks precisely like a first, except when one examines the verso of the title pages against the light. There are two light spots, where someone carefully erased the notices of the 2nd printing. I'm keeping my George document, but I may let you have this set inexpensively.
Back to handwritings. Browsing in the 4th Avenue bookstalls sometime in the 1960s, a nice clean volume in a green cloth binding called out at me. "Annals of the Poets," by Chard Powers Smith, it contained amusing literary anecdotal observations. I picked it up, and saw a long pleasant inscription to Dear Gertrude, in pencil. Sorry that you are in the hospital, hope this book will help you pass the time, your friends miss you, words to that effect. The signature of Thomas Wolfe was hard to decipher, but the Smith book was published by Scribners in 1935, the year when the great editor Maxwell Perkins helped to reduce the second ungainly suitcase full of papers brought in by the former NYU teacher into a thousand-page book, under the title of "Of Time and the River." Wolfe could easily have picked up the Smith curio in Perkins' office.
I take the Smith tome out periodically. Tom Wolfe says he got a good deal of entertainment out of this book, and I check through it reverently, looking for notes. Except for a foodstain or two (Tom's or Gertrude's?), there is nothing to indicate that this "omnium Gatherum," chockful of arcane bits (S. Johnson, Hood and Henley were sons of booksellers, lower middle class) has been seriously read by anyone. But at least Wolfe has held it, dipped into it somewhat, and I have promised myself to read it. One of these days.
One of these days Wally Dobelis will come back to current events.

Margery Wynn

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