Reports from the Bibliographic Bunker
Jed Birmingham on William S. Burroughs Collecting
A library is a living organism. I consider my book collection a beneficial and benevolent version of the Burroughsian virus. The books on my shelves are fluid, mutating, multiplying. After close to twenty years of intense collecting, it has become obvious as I scan the bookshelves that I am no longer strictly a William Burroughs collector. Five, ten years ago the centerpiece of my collection was the purple and white poppy that bloomed in the bottom of the dropper: the Olympia Naked Lunch. Now I have bouquet of Fuck Yous. In collecting a single author, you tend to focus on the A titles, but as time passes, the real gold turns up in magazines, ephemera, and letters. Anybody with financial resources can right this minute get a hold of pristine copies of the Grove Press cut-up trilogy, but it takes additional patience and persistence to get and locate a copy of the Olympia Press Soft Machine inscribed by Burroughs and Girodias, an Insect Trust Gazette #2, an Olympia Press catalog, or a Burroughs letter of import. One way to build a valuable and important collection is finding new veins in what threatens to be an exhausted mine. Truly hard-to-find material remains un-possessed and unprocessed by the academic mill and the reading public at large.
Or you can dig out less hard to locate raw material, which remains un-assessed, and make a case for its value. Through my interest in Burroughs, I have become a collector of the underappreciated publications of the Mimeo Revolution. Increasingly my need for Burroughs material has offset into an addiction for mimeos and little mags. It is not surprising that my possibly deluded belief that Burroughs is the epicenter of post-WWII American literature has transformed into a belief that the publications of the Mimeo Revolution provide the secret history to unlocking the mysteries of that same period. As with my fascination with Burroughs, I have lost all objectivity when considering the importance of the Mimeo Revolution. The fringe has taken over the center. Things fall apart. All is in Fluxus.
So forgive me if you were one of the many people I frantically phoned or emailed about Between the Covers‘ latest catalog No. 164: The Great Mimeograph Revolution. In my anticipation I did not know if the sky was falling or if I had gone to heaven. One thing is certain; I sincerely thought this catalog was going to be one of the most important rare book catalogs of all time. Pathetic but true. Shades of Chicken Little Mag to be sure. Tom Congalton, owner of BTC, provided a voice of reason, suggesting to me that this catalog, while up to the standards that one would expect from a premier dealer like BTC, was not as revolutionary as its subject. Little magazines are C items, not A list. For collectors and dealers in modern firsts, the world still revolves around hardcover first editions printed by the corporate press. Matt Histand, who put the catalog together, writes
A few years ago we purchased a collection that contained a sizable number of mimeograph and literary magazines. We naturally did what any good bookseller would do. We pulled out the books and ignored the rest.
There is a general air of self-deprecation about the catalog:
I showed some interest and was promoted to “Head of the Mimeos.” (Don”t be too impressed, in the last week alone I”ve been promoted to “Head of Wrestling Photos,” “Head of Reference Guides,” and, my favorite, “Head of Children’s Books about Ducks.”).
This is, of course, in part, the Between the Cover trademark style, but as far as the general book collecting community is concerned, collecting the publications of the Mimeo Revolution is still a fake sport, a bibliographic curiosity, and child’s play. But I was having none of it. To my mind this catalog was going to be a game-changer forever altering how the publications of the Mimeograph Revolution were marketed and collected.
When the catalog arrived and I took a deep breath and cleared my mind of all the hopes and hype I had created, I realized that I had overreacted. But can you blame me? I am one of those obsessives who searches Abebooks and Via Libri five, ten times a day for certain key terms and titles relating to the Mimeo Revolution monitoring trends and new arrivals. I call dealers and fellow collectors every day looking for scores and exchanging gossip. I edit a little magazine about little magazines for god’s sake. I am in so deep that it is understandable that I would make a Black Mountain out of an Ant’s Fore Foot. In fact, can you blame me for predicting the apocalypse or the ascension (depending on how you look at it) given that, the day before the catalog arrived, BTC posted to Abebooks a copy of Floating Bear for $750, a copy of My Own Mag for $200, and a copy of Tish for $125? Naturally it followed that Catalog No. 164 was going to usher in a true mimeo revolution.
Okay, so I got all hot and bothered over nothing, but let’s take another Olsonian breath and look at this Between the Cover catalog closely for what it tells us about the State of the Union on the current perception and marketing of the publications of the Mimeo Revolution. I am only going to focus on true mimeos in what follows. As in Clay and Phillips’ A Secret Location on the Lower East Side, BTC takes a broad view of the Mimeo Revolution. As such, true mimeos, like the early Floating Bears and My Own Mags, mingle with offset and letterpress publications, like those of Auerhahn Press and White Rabbit. This broad view of the Mimeo Revolution has become standard operating procedure. But remember not even half of the publications of the so-called Mimeo Revolution were actually mimeos and even canonical mimeos, like Floating Bear and Lines, have offset elements. All that said, let’s face it. What really matters about Catalog No. 164 is the marketing of a mimeo icon: Diane Di Prima and Leroi Jones’s Floating Bear.
It is here that Congalton and Histand make a play to completely change the game. If you happen to collect modern first book catalogs from the past 30+ years like I do (again sad but true, obsession has no bounds), you have a firm base for what the historical values of various magazines are. Actually, Floating Bear is an interesting case. Early on, Floating Bear was highly sought by collectors. By the early 1970s, certain issues, like Number 24, had gained a reputation as being impossible to find, and the demand for complete runs was enough to reprint the magazine in 1973 in a complete edition with a Di Prima introduction. Compared to other mags, single issues of Floating Bear were expensive, $20-$25 per issue. But by and large, the value stagnated at that price point for decades. As a Burroughs collector, Issues 5 and 9 were maybe a bit more, call it $50. The first two issues were always tough to find and 24 was a holy grail — in my experience, the first two issues are far tougher to get than the legendary 24 — so they were somewhere in the three figures. But as a general rule, the going rate for the core issues of Floating Bear was around $30. As Congalton and Histand rightly sensed, the time is ripe for a reassessment of the value (monetary and otherwise) of Floating Bear.
Catalog No. 164 boldly resets the paradigm. Issues 5 and 9 are now $400 and $500, respectively. Other issues are around $200 and higher. BTC has 29 issues available and the average price is $225 per issue (making it $8300 for the partial run), a nine fold increase per issue on average. How is this possible? Is this justified? Recently on Mimeo Mimeo and RealityStudio, I have been arguing for just such a revision in how we look at mimeos, particularly Floating Bear. This provides some ammunition for BTC’s shoot-the-moon prices. It is at this point that my passion as a scholar of the Mimeo Revolution conflicts with my goals as a collector. I run the risk of pricing myself clear out of my area of greatest interest. I’ll take that risk because the potential gains in intellectual capital outweigh the financial hardships.
As I have argued, mailing labels, stamps, envelopes and other metadata are crucial to an appreciation and study of the publications of the Mimeo Revolution. In collecting mimeos, you do not want a clean, pristine copy. I would argue that you want a mimeo that has been in circulation because it is at that point that it comes alive. It is in these individual life stories that the value, financial and academic, lies. Histand tries to have it both ways. In his descriptions of certain issues of Floating Bear he stresses the pristine nature of certain copies as a selling point: “This copy is remarkably pristine with no writing, stamp or label.” Yet he also writes:
The so-called “newsletter” was unique among the flood of mimeographs because it was distributed via mailing list that consisted of a closed group of poets, artists, bookshop owners, reviewers, and critics. Most copies were hand addressed or affixed with a mailing label and stamp as well as folded for mailing, which while detrimental to its already delicate condition, provides an interesting record of its reader base.
The schizophrenia results from the fact that Histand is addressing two different audiences for mimeo material. This fetish of condition appeals to traditional first edition, high-spot collectors. These are the guys (the sexism here is intended, as the boy’s club nature of all facets of the rare book industry is yet another crisis that needs to be addressed) who collect an author and want magazine appearances in order to gather first appearances of a poem or story, or to accumulate a complete archive of a writer’s bibliography. Looking over Catalog No. 164, this is really the audience that BTC is addressing. “[Little mags] contain little-known first published appearances, overlooked poems and stories, and covers both achingly beautiful and wonderfully wretched.” We will get to the second (and more important) half of the above sentence later, but, generally, the collecting of single issues of little mags, which contain a prized author, is how little mag collections have been built.
This is what Nelson Lyon did with his Burroughs collection, which went under the hammer in 1999. He got hold of canonical little mags, like Floating Bear 5 and 9 and Black Mountain Review 7 — are certain little mags iconic before Burroughs’ appearance or did Burroughs make them so? — solely because they were listed in Maynard & Miles. Lyon’s savvy spin was that he got the all the magazines signed. As a general rule, first editions are more likely to be signed than obscure magazines. Condition is crucial here as in effect each little mag is treated as an A item type high spot.
But mimeo is a different animal from a first edition by a major publisher. Histand and Congalton realize this since they price Floating Bear 17 and 18, which have mailing labels to John Wieners, at $550 apiece. As a mimeo collector, you do not want pristine copies. As I have been arguing, mailing labels on mimeos are the equivalent of association copies. Keep in mind Ken Lopez’s essay on the value of such copies. Even in hardcovers, association copies tell a story and thus are more valuable than clean copies, or even flat-signed copies. This is doubly so in mimeo, which is all about community and communication. (See this related discussion on bookstores and community.)
Histand’s description makes the link between Floating Bear and Measure, Wiener’s short-lived little mag out of Boston. The mailing label highlights the existence of a mimeo network between Boston and New York. Issues 17 and 18 were sent to Wieners in 1962. This was around the time of the publication of the third and last issue of Measure. Soon after, Wiener would move to the Lower East Side and live with Herbert Huncke. Quite possibly these issues of Floating Bear encouraged Wieners to move to New York City to be a part of the burgeoning scene there.
Mailing labels, stamps, and envelopes also establish connections and timelines, which are crucial for academic research. Take the copies of Floating Bear mailed to Jack Kerouac, which were unfortunately pulled prior to sale at a major auction house earlier this year, thus denying a valuable price point in considering mailing labels as association copies. The connection between Floating Bear and Kerouac provides much material for academic study. In the early 1960s, Kerouac attempted to make his escape from the New York scene, but as these issues of Floating Bear show, he was still considered enough of an insider and a literary player to be included on Floating Bear‘s mailing list. (Kerouac also received a copy of Wallace Berman’s Semina thanks to Michael McClure).
Interestingly Kerouac is on the mailing list but he did not contribute to the early issues of the magazine. This highlights the fact that Kerouac shunned the little magazine community as an outlet for his work and distrusted its motives. For example, the Paris Review interview with Kerouac records that he felt Ron Padgett used Kerouac’s notoriety to promote the first issue of The White Dove Review. According to Kerouac, once the Review was established Padgett had no use for Kerouac. This reveals much about Kerouac’s attitude towards his literary peers and how he viewed himself in the literary community. It also opens up discussion about Kerouac’s stance on collaboration, experimentation, and the marketplace. Kerouac was too paranoid to buy into the communal aspects of the Mimeo Revolution. He preferred to keep relationships with publishers professional and to write for cash. To my mind his work suffered for it. Kerouac could have freely experimented as a soldier in the Mimeo Revolution instead of fighting tooth and nail with the major publishers over contracts and edits, and eventually compromising. Kerouac had a position of power in the little mag scene but he could not get over his feelings of being manipulated. Additionally it could be argued that if Kerouac had maintained his links to the Lower East Side scene he would have remained not only much more relevant creatively but also less isolated physically and mentally. The mailing labels of Floating Bear tell this story.
And that brings us to the most controversial item in the entire catalog. Issue 26 of Floating Bear, edited by Billy Name (then Linich) and mailed to Gerard Malanga priced at $750. On one level this is a masterstroke. Never has Issue 26 been considered as a Warhol piece. Unfortunately, the item description says nothing of the issue’s links to Wallace Berman and his Circle and Ray Johnson and correspondence art. (The examination of where mailed mimeos and mailing labels stand in relation to the mail art movement remains to be explored fully). Yet the contents of the issue and the mailing label make all these connections obvious. Here we see the monetary benefits of considering mailing labels as association copies. But there is an academic value as well that is not featured in the catalog description. Academic capital generates monetary capital. For the publications of the Mimeo Revolution to go up in price, you have to establish their academic value. Why would an institution want this copy? You cannot list this item for $750 without mentioning Reva Wolf’s pioneering work on Warhol and gossip, which firmly established the importance of Floating Bear, as well as C and Fuck You, in terms of the Warhol Circle. Wolf focuses on Issue 27 by comparing “Billy Linich’s Party” with the film Haircut, but Issue 26 with the mailing label to Malanga becomes academically significant for Warhol studies as well. The contents also suggest cross-pollination between Wallace Berman, Ray Johnson, and Warhol.
Such single issues with their associations are great but the real academic and financial value of little mags lies in complete runs. Yet clearly, BTC addresses first edition book collectors, not magazine collectors, as “any good bookseller would do.” Histand writes, “What’s more, many of these mimeos are next to impossible to find, with print runs that exist in the low hundreds, making complete runs impossible to assemble.” Small print runs certainly play into the “impossible” nature of assembling complete runs, but so does the manner in which booksellers, like BTC, market little mags. Unfortunately most dealers choose to sell them individually. I liken this to those booksellers who detach maps, prints and plates from a book and sell them piecemeal to maximize profit. This is one of the major differences between the BTC and the monumental William Reese periodical catalogs. The Reese catalogs packaged magazines together even if the run was incomplete, so collectors could get a jump on a complete run and potentially speculate on a future score that depended on the collector’s persistence and patience.
The Reese method of selling (and collecting) has fallen out of favor unless a dealer has already assembled a complete run. The motivation is a quick turnaround. It seems that dealers and collectors are less likely to spend the time to build a complete run, concentrating instead on single issues. This is a by-product of the internet marketplace. Buyers want a book right away and complete runs take too much time and effort to build. Similarly sellers rush to post books to the internet and spend less time building a cohesive and coherent catalog of material. The fine art of waiting has disappeared. As with the real estate market, there is a flip-this-book mentality, instead of developing markets, cultivating collectors, and slowly growing inventory.
But even if you collect a single author, complete runs of magazines are, to my mind, an essential part such a collection. For example with a complete run, you can study when an author appeared in the history of the magazine. Take Burroughs and Kulchur. His non-presence in the later issues speaks as much as his early appearances in Issue 1 and 3 by highlighting the editorial shift in the magazine from Marc Schliefer to Lita Hornick. The same holds true for Floating Bear as that magazine became more Left Coast than Lower East Side. In addition, with a complete run you can see the company an author keeps. Yes, Burroughs appears in Black Mountain No. 7, along with other Beats. But what is crucial is that people like Charles Olson, Franz Kline, and Robert Duncan appeared in earlier issues. Thus Burroughs is not just grouped with the Beats of Issue 7; he is a peer of the New York School painters and Black Mountain writers.
Back in 1999, as I looked over the Nelson Lyon catalog, it hit me that the most interesting and valuable items were the complete runs of magazines that he happened to compile. His runs of Cleft, Bulletin from Nothing, and The Marijuana Newsletter were easy to accumulate, given the fact that each run was only two issues. But for those magazines with longer runs, like Floating Bear and Black Mountain Review, Lyon only collected the issues that contained Burroughs. It is a shame and short-sighted. Proof of this is the fact that the crown jewel of the entire catalog was the complete run of My Own Mag with each issue signed by Burroughs. In this case, Lyon acquired and created not only a unique item desired by collectors but also a difficult to assemble item of extreme importance to scholars.
“[Mimeos] contain little-known first published appearances, overlooked poems and stories, and covers both achingly beautiful and wonderfully wretched.” There are two ways of looking as mimeo. One is in line with the traditional first edition market. The other is the wave of the future: mimeo as a work of art. BTC sees mimeo through the lens of the former not the latter. It just so happens that the same day I received the BTC catalog, I received Kyle Schlesinger’s Poems and Pictures catalog for an exhibition opening at the Center for the Book Arts in New York City. This is the future (or present) of the reception of the publications of the Mimeo Revolution. Schlesinger looks at the publications of the Mimeo Revolution in terms of collaboration between writers and artists, juxtaposition of image and text, and experimentation in both poetics and printing. The publications of the Mimeo Revolution
explore fundamental relationships between: form and content; seeing and reading; writing and drawing; and the extraordinary occasions when these things and activities fuse, introducing a third element.
Burroughs’ interest in participating in the Mimeo Revolution becomes clear. Philip Aarons makes the same argument throughout In Numbers: Serial Publications by Artists. Currently in the world of alternative art and printing, the publications of the Mimeo Revolution are not being viewed as ugly step-daughters but as belles of the ball. Mimeo as art object is the future of mimeo marketing. Interestingly BTC is uniquely positioned to capitalize on this development. As Catalog No. 164, which mimics the look and feel of a mimeo, makes clear, they realize the fetish associated with the medium. House illustrator Tom Bloom also brings a strong vision of design and branding to BTC’s catalog, further highlighting their unique position to understand mimeo as art and design.
So why the focus on Clay and Phillips’ A Secret Location on the Lower East Side from the very first entry of the catalog? Schlesinger’s catalog and Aarons’ book will become the Roth 101 for publications of the Mimeo Revolution just as Secret Location has. Nowhere in the entire BTC catalog is In Numbers mentioned nor is there reference to artist’s books as historicized and theorized by Johanna Drucker and others. Such cross-references with the world of art are crucial to establishing the importance and value of Mimeo Revolution publications. Two mimeos have separated themselves from the rest of the pack: C: A Journal of Poetry and Fuck You, a magazine of the arts. It is no coincidence that both magazines have a link to Andy Warhol (and in the case of C with Joe Brainard), which sets them off as art objects. The Ed Sanders Glyph show at The Arm in Brooklyn took the radical and refreshing view of Sanders as a visual artist. Thus Fuck You takes Berman’s Semina as a peer. Aarons did not pull the trigger on featuring Fuck You in his canon of serial publications, but he seriously thought about it. For Aarons and Schlesinger, C Comics serves as the case study of mimeo as art. This is a bit problematic since C Comics #2 is offset, but it is the thought that counts. The time is coming when the mimeo collaborations involving artists like Brainard, Guston, and Schneeman will be considered as artist multiples.
My Own Mag should be at the front of the pack in this regard, and it deserved a spot in Aarons’ and Schlesinger’s surveys. With the possible exception of da levy (whose The Box Lunch is included in the BTC catalog and not marketed as a work of art), no other mimeographer challenged the medium as much as Jeff Nuttall. For years, My Own Mag has been a $75 magazine but BTC makes the play for $300 for early issues. They are preaching to the converted as far as I am concerned but they will never justify those prices within the standard Maynard & Miles marketing to Burroughs collectors and completists. Not only is My Own Mag the laboratory for the most experimental and radical writing of Burroughs’ career, it is also the apex of mimeo as art. In order to justify the increased value attributed to My Own Mag, you have to get away from bibliographic details, like the numbering of the issues, and focus on My Own Mag as a work of art in a multiple series, a collaboration between writer and artist, and a challenge to the form of the magazine and the technological limits of the mimeograph.
Histand writes, “[O]ur website description for each item includes a complete list of all contributors no matter how obscure or how numerous, with only a few exceptions.” I have visions of this becoming a valuable resource, the germ of a substantial digital bibliography of the publications of the Mimeo Revolution. The electronic equivalent of Christopher Harter’s Author Index to Little Magazines of the Mimeograph Revolution. Yet once again BTC reveals the rare book industry’s prevailing conservatism in viewing the Mimeo Revolution. There is too much focus on “writers” and “poem[s}.” For me the stars and value of the Mimeo Revolution lie elsewhere: artists, editors, and printers. I have developed a small Jack Spicer collection, but what drew me to those books was the printing and design of Graham Mackintosh. It is time that such “behind the scenes” work came to the forefront. I like to see the hand of the editor or printer as much as that of a poet or writer. I find myself increasingly collecting in this way. I enjoy Carl Weissner, Charley Plymell and Jan Herman as writers but what makes me really excited is their work as editors, publishers, and printers. I will never collect Robert Creeley or John Ashbery, but I eagerly seek out all the publications of Divers Press and magazines like Locus Solus and Art and Literature. I find it valuable and fascinating to read a Divers Press title or an issue of Art and Literature as a means to gain further appreciation and insight into Creeley’s and Ashbery’s poems. Schlesinger’s essay on Creeley’s typography shows how valuable such an approach can be. As far as personal taste, I do not appreciate the crystal goblet filled with fine wine; I’ll take a shot out of a Dixie cup. Sanders and Nuttall above all. Collecting the publications of the Mimeo Revolution is as much about presses, printers / designers, and artists as it is about poets, poems, stories, and writers.
The modern first book trade is in a time of transition in terms of dealers and collectors. For one thing both are getting older, and, as I suggest above, some rigor mortis has set in, particularly in terms of how periodicals are sold, considered, collected, and appreciated. All this aside, I find myself returning again and again to the BTC site and this catalog, in particular. Why? Because increasingly BTC has the publications I desire. I might disagree with how the publications of the Mimeo Revolution are being collected and marketed, but there is no disagreeing with some of the selection. Where else are you going to get a City Lights broadside announcing a William Burroughs appearance that may or may not be hoax? What is clear is that BTC catalog No. 164 is no joke and that the collecting and selling of the publications of the Mimeo Revolution are on the threshold of becoming serious business.
Also see the reply by Tom Congalton of Between the Covers books.