Reports from the Bibliographic Bunker
Jed Birmingham on William S. Burroughs Collecting
Labor Day Weekend in Baltimore. For those who decide to stay in town, and there are not many, this weekend is a time for sitting on a rooftop deck (the yuppie version of the good old stoop) and cracking Natty Bohs while deciding whether to head down to Obrycki’s to crack a couple dozen steamed Blue Crabs. The Ravens’ season is just one week away, and thankfully the Orioles season is almost over. Tourists flood into town for one more walk around the Inner Harbor. Down at the convention center just off the harbor is another rite of summer, the Baltimore Antique Show held this year from August 30 to September 2. Baltimore must be something of an antiquing paradise, because the Antique Roadshow pulled into town at the beginning of the summer to tape an episode. Just outside of Charm City, there are a handful of oases, like Ellicott City, for those partial to that which is old and worn. Meccas, like Adamstown and Kutztown in Pennsylvania, are just a couple hours away.
The antique bug never took hold of me although it was not for lack of opportunity. Many a weekend of my youth was spent in an antique mall in Adamstown with my father. Yet the Baltimore Antique Show is must-see TV, due to a small booksellers section that never fails to surprise and inform. I must admit that on entering the Convention Center I never expect much as it is largely a regional affair. There is a strong local flavor, think Old Bay with a splash of John Waters. There is much Chesapeake Bay material. There is much Wateriana, if such a category exists. The local sports teams of yore are prominently displayed. Signed copies of the Johnny Unitas Story or the Earl Morrall autobiography sprinkled with Orioles memorabilia from when Brooksie protected third and Palmer ruled the hill. Superfan Wild Bill Hagy died this summer, and Baltimore’s relationship with baseball is very much in danger as well. Football is now America’s game, and the Ravens clearly rule in Baltimore. Although for the collector it is all about the Colts. For the more literary minded, there is Edgar Allan Poe who died in a gutter outside the present day The Horse You Came In On bar in Fells Point. Word around town is that the bar is not long for this world either having been sold earlier this year. Yet there will always be a place in Baltimore for H.L. Mencken. Decades later Mencken’s critical voice is as much a part of the city’s vocabulary as calling someone “Hon” or exclaiming “Ain’t the beer cold!”
Beneath all the local color, I always seem to find a few items that fit in nicely with my collection. Years ago I passed on a complete run of Black Mountain Review for $400. Looking at it now that is quite a deal as single issues post on the internet for double that. I am still cobbling together a complete set of this legendary little magazine. If only… This year presented another little magazine, one even more iconic than Black Mountain Review if that is possible. Joe Maynard had a full run of transition, Eugene Jolas’ testament to the glory of Modernism. The price was $4500 (a bit high) with some tasty ephemera thrown in. Maynard was ready to haggle a bit. The magazine would have provided a nice sense of tradition to my collection, but I passed. I am sure I will regret it.
I must admit I went to this year’s show not so much to buy something as to find proof that the personal touch was returning to the rare book trade. I have made much of the changes ongoing in the rare book world due to the Internet, and the Baltimore show seemed like a good case study to test my theories. Due to the placement of the show, I initially thought the number of booksellers had greatly expanded. This was not the case. In fact, the fair was smaller than in previous years, and the presence of big name sellers, like Lame Duck Books or Ken Lopez, who attended in the past, were sorely missed. I wondered if the size of the show was indicative of a softening of the market.
Were gas prices too high? Hotels too expensive over Labor Day in the Inner Harbor? There is a fine line on the balance sheet between having a successful book fair and an expensive working vacation. Have collectors tightened the purse strings in this uncertain market? To me this is a buyer’s market. Given the volatility of the economy, the next year has the potential to be an exciting time for the book trade. Those with money to spend and to invest will be looking for alternative assets besides the more traditional stock market and real estate in which to diversify their holdings. Due to unfortunate circumstances, there should also be a lot of good material coming to market in the upcoming year. The book trade is ruled by death, divorce and debt. Debt seems like a runaway train right now so those who bought recklessly in the real estate boom may have to unload books in the bust. I would think that the auction, catalog, and bookshow market will be full of enticing, unusual items this year for those in a position to buy.
So I wondered if the recent reports, including my own, of the triumphant return of the bookshow and the personal touch were exaggerated. I expressed my concern to a dealer at the show, and she did not think so. After looking over the show in full, I agree with this dealer; the personal touch is back with a vengeance in all aspects of the book trade. Three dealers, Royal Books, Lux Mentis and Between the Covers, hammered this point home in various ways.
To me, Royal Books is the king of the Baltimore Area book world. Taking a page from Joe Brainard, I remember Kevin Johnson, the owner of Royal Books, scouting for stock on Sunday evenings as I worked the register at a used bookstore in Bethesda. Kevin always seemed to capitalize on our mistakes in the hardcover fiction section. He is far beyond that now. Royal Books has evolved into a major player with a strong presence in every aspect of the book trade. Royal Books is at all the major book fairs. The store has well-placed and well-designed ads in several magazines. Kevin teaches courses and gives talks on rare books and the culture of the trade across the country. The Royal Books website is similarly well designed, constantly updated, and closely monitored by Kevin and his staff. Send Kevin an email and see how quickly he responds.
For the past couple of years, I noticed that Royal Books possessed a strong focus on books relating to film. Books that were adapted into films, particularly in the noir era. Books on film written by directors, usually signed. Autobiographies or biographies of screen legends again with signatures. This focus has culminated in two of Royal Books’ recent publications. At the show, Royal Books distributed their latest catalog which relates to film. I received a copy in the mail, but it had gotten wet, so I hoped to get another copy at the show. This catalog was worth the price of admission. It is beautifully produced with crisp, clear images and informative descriptions. Part collector’s item, information resource, pleasure reading, the catalog functions on many levels. The items inside are incredible. Take item one: a reel of Stan Brakhage’s Lovemaking distributed by Grove Press in 1968. What an interesting piece! Besides being a Brakhage film in reel-to-reel format (available for $30 at the time), the item highlights Grove Press’ attempt to become a full-fledged multimedia empire in the 1960s. Rosset was nothing if not ambitious with dreams of offering the full range of print (hardcover, paperback, magazines) as well as running a record label and a film distribution company. Barney Rosset as the Rupert Murdoch of the Underground. It is a fascinating story captured by a very rare collectible. Royal Books’ catalog is full of such stories.
Even more ambitious is the limited edition bibliography currently available for order from Royal Books. In a labor of love, Johnson compiled The Dark Page: Books that Inspired American Film Noir (1940-1949). At 400+ pages, the book provides color images and critical text on the first edition sources of noir films as well as commentary on the films themselves. Director and screenwriter Paul Schrader writes the foreword. A limited edition of 100 ($450) are in a slipcase and signed by Schrader and Johnson. The trade edition sells for $95. This is sure to become a collector’s item.
The tradition of the bookseller as publisher and literary historian is strong. Johnson, The Dark Page, and Royal Books are firmly within this noble lineage. Whether it was Sylvia Beach or the Wilentz Brothers, independent booksellers have historically played a crucial role in the publication of what was new and exciting in fiction and poetry. I have written elsewhere on the importance of the catalog as a resource and a collectible. The Dark Page reminds me of a non-fiction publication by Greg Gibson and Ten Pound Island Books in Gloucester. Gibson saw through a collection of letters and poems written by Charles Olson to the editor of the Gloucester Times throughout the 1960s. Garritt Lansing, the editor of Set magazine, a notable poet, and friend of Olson, wrote the foreword. Look on abebooks for the prices of the work published by Gibson, Beach, or the Wilentz Brothers, and you will see that $450/$95 is not out of the ballpark for The Dark Page.
Royal Books’ ambitious bibliography, catalog and website prove that being at the top of your profession as a bookseller is about more than just selling books. Heartfelt passion and hard-earned knowledge are crucial. Hopefully, Johnson’s intellectual sweat equity will be rewarded with lots of sales. Given the high quality of his operation, I suspect that will not be a problem.
In 2006, I went to the Baltimore show and was struck by Ian Kahn and Lux Mentis Books operating out of Portland Maine. At the time, Kahn offered a beautiful copy of Rick Griffin’s Joint Show poster along with the rarer Zig Zag pouch used to distribute the handbills. Having only seen the poster in catalogs, it was a treat to see one up close. I got into a nice conversation with Kahn on a full range of book collecting topics. Talking to him was one of the highlights of last year’s show. I made a mental note to check on him again if he returned.
Well, Lux Mentis was back with a vengeance this year with a selection of books that were dear to my heart. Once again he played to the locals with a nice John Waters display revolving around Pink Flamingos, but the real eye-catcher this year was his recent decision to jump in with both feet into the artist’s book market. A quarter of Kahn’s space was taken up with the letterpress work of artists David Wolfe of Wolfe Editions and his partner Crystal Cawley. Both artists call Portland their home base and according to Kahn, Portland is the ground zero for some of the finest of letterpress work currently available. Based on what I saw in Baltimore I have no doubt. The work was exquisite to say the least. Talking with Kahn it was clear that like the noir genre with Johnson, the letterpress technique and the artist’s book are acts and objects that stir great emotions within him. Kahn spoke with much insight and energy on the topic. Apparently his enthusiasm is contagious, because the collectible market for letterpress and the artist’s book is really taking off. In no small part, Kahn is one of the reasons why. Kahn and others like him are yearning for the personal touch in printing. The human and sensual nature of letterpress is more desirable than ever in a world of offset and digital publishing. In the near future, Kahn will be issuing a catalog of letterpress work of the past and present. Hopefully, Burroughs will be represented as Wallace Berman’s Semina and Jon Edgar and Gypsy Lou Webb’s Loujon Press titles remain to this day towering achievements in the letterpress tradition.
Kahn talks the talk, but he also walks the walk. His appreciation of the personal touch extends in other directions. I have already shown Kahn’s wonderful way with customers. He shares his knowledge and passion freely. Lux Mentis’ business cards are fine examples of letterpress. Rue Cottage Books provides a similar touch. You can feel the bite of the type with your finger. The paper was no doubt chosen with great care and attention. The design is impeccable. Wired magazine noticed and featured it in its pages. Most exciting to me is Lux Mentis’ website. Like many booksellers, Kahn is getting interactive. His recent forays into the blogosphere are detailed, informative and fun to read. Check out his entries on the Baltimore Fair. His pieces on the marketing of the fair are great stuff. Commentary, behind the scenes tidbits, local color, photographs. You even get a restaurant review. What more could you ask for? Kahn really gets that the rare bookstore is about more than just selling books and that book collecting is more than just buying books. Kahn understands the value of capturing the entire experience…
… As well as getting people excited about the experience at an early age. Kahn is one of the sponsors for the Fine Books and Collections Magazine collegiate book collecting contest. The book trade can only benefit from such contests. The result is not only more buyers but more sellers. Given the age of much of the booksellers in the various established organizations, like ABAA, and the age of most collectors, a shot in the arm is needed. It is no coincidence that William Reese, one of the superstars of the rare book trade and a wunderkind when he first opened for business, won a prestigious book collecting award sponsored by Yale University as an undergraduate. Not surprisingly, Kahn sees the big picture and realizes the importance of getting young people hooked as bibliomaniacs early.
Speaking of forward thinking, Tom Congalton and Between the Covers attended the fair as usual. As I have touched on in other columns, Congalton is other bookseller who gets the power of the web as well as the multi-dimensional nature of the rare book dealer. In addition to his site, Congalton writes a column for Rare Book Review. I highly recommend it. He may downplay the column, but such efforts really put a face and a personality to the bookstore. Reading his column made him approachable for me in what can be an intimidating setting. The more a collector feels comfortable with a bookseller the more likely he is going to trust him with his business.
As I expressed to him my appreciation for his column, the subject of Burroughs came up. Turns out Congalton appraised the Burroughs collection that went to the New York Public Library. Ken Lopez handled the sale for collector Robert Jackson. Although I was full of questions about the financial details, I held back, not wanting to violate the appraiser’s code of ethics. Yet the appraisal was a special one. Congalton was particularly struck by the meticulous organization of the collection. As Ken Lopez noted, much of the contents were still in the packaging of the original sale to Roberto Altman in 1973. The pieces were in great condition and well catalogued. Hopefully this will mean that the New York Public Library has a head start on the processing end of things. In addition Congalton noted the incredible number of cut-ups in the collection. This would explain why cut-up manuscripts so rarely come up for sale on the open market. The placement of the papers at NYPL will make it possible for the first time to study the cut-up in manuscript. This coupled with the large quantity of unstudied letters from the 1960s to the likes of Jeff Nuttall, Brion Gysin, Ian Sommerville and others should completely revolutionize the perception of this misunderstood and understudied phase of Burroughs’ literary career.
So even in a city mostly known to collectors for Poe and Mencken from days of yore and Anne Tyler and John Waters from the now, Burroughs can become a topic of conversation. I wish he was more represented at the show. All I saw were a couple of paperback copies of Naked Lunch. The Olympia Press Naked Lunch ($4000) at Royal Books was not the kind of copy I would hope for given the superb condition of most of Kevin Johnson’s stock. A copy of Kerouac’s Dharma Bums ($1100) looked like it had seen the inside of a rucksack or two. But really the Beats and Burroughs are not the strengths of Royal Books. Check out their upcoming publications to see the bookstore in all its glory. There was also a Black Cat edition of Naked Lunch ($40) from 1966. Unfortunately, this is one of the least inspired book designs of Naked Lunch, and given the recent efforts from Grove Press surrounding that title that is saying something. As I said before I was looking at the bookshow as a whole rather than for any individual book, so I was not that disappointed. Instead I saw three booksellers that made me excited about the future of the rare book trade. Based on Kahn’s blog from Baltimore (the show was one of his best ever), things are going well for him and others like him in the present as well.
Written by Jed Birmingham and published by RealityStudio on 12 September 2007.