Reports from the Bibliographic Bunker
Jed Birmingham on William S. Burroughs Collecting
#22: Am Here Books Catalogue 5: In the Beginning Was the Word (1981-1982). An Installment in Jed Birmingham’s series of the The Top 23 Most Interesting Burroughs Collectibles.
In 1922 when James Joyce’s Ulysses sailed the ocean blue through U.S. customs, independent bookshops did not try to make ends meet by shilling fair trade coffee and hipster letterpress stationery. Instead they flirted with bankruptcy by publishing books — and, in the case of Ulysses, defending them in court. The bookseller as publisher is an area of fascination for me. For two years I worked at a rare and used bookstore and it was a turning point in my life. Not only did I receive a graduate-level course in recorded music from rock to jazz to classical to county, it was while working as a bookseller that I suspected that my true calling was in building my own collection. It was a fateful decision because it occurs to me now, over a decade later, that building the collections of institutions, as an archivist or curator, might have been my dream job. In any case, working at Second Story Books sparked an interest in bookstores and booksellers — especially in those visionaries who aspired to transform the selling of books into less of a business transaction than an an artistic and creative process. Jon Beacham’s experiment in Beacon, N.Y. was one recent example of bookselling as a merging of art and life. The bookseller as publisher is yet another. By and large this is bad business but can result in great literature.
I have often wondered what a bibliography devoted solely to booksellers as publishers would look like. I suspect Sylvia Beach’s Mediterranean sapphire would be the crown jewel. City Lights’ Howl shines just as bright. A diamond in the rough of such a collection would be the incredible chapbooks of Corinth Books (8th Street Bookshop). The string of hits issued by the Wilentz Bros. in just 1960, chapbooks by Frank O’Hara (Second Avenue), Philip Whalen (Like I Say), Jack Kerouac (The Scripture of the Golden Eternity), and Gary Snyder (Myths & Texts), as well as Charles Olson’s Maximus Poems (in conjunction with Jargon), remains one of the great spurts of publishing during the entire Mimeo Revolution.
A few items by William Burroughs would also find their way onto the shelves of a collector so inclined. Burroughs being published by a bookstore seems appropriate. He hung out there enough. During his years of exile, Burroughs cased out his ever changing neighborhoods for good places to score. Not just for junk, but his other addiction: books. From Paris to New York to London, Burroughs lived in close proximity to a local, independent bookstore at which he was a regular patron. He had to get his literary fix. During the Beat Hotel years, Gait Frogé of the English Bookshop was the goddess doling out her papers of shit in a tiny, cramped space at 42 Rue de Seine. Just across the street at 43 Rue de Seine is the legendary café from the early 1900s, La Palette, where Burroughs scored his H. Food celebrity Andrew Zimmern stopped there for an episode of Delicious Destinations. In 2009, I took a walking tour of the area with my wife and Barry Miles. As Miles pointed out, these spots were in walking distance of the Beat Hotel (9 Rue Git-le-Coeur) as was Le Mistral (37 Rue de la Bûcherie), George Whitman’s bookshop, which was later renamed Shakespeare & Company after Sylvia Beach’s literary landmark. It all comes full circle. Like Ulysses, all exiles are searching for a home. For the nomadic Burroughs, home was wherever his books and papers happened to be. Without them he was lost.
Any collection of books published by booksellers would have to include Minutes to Go, a collection of cut-up experiments performed by Burroughs, Brion Gysin, Gregory Corso and Sinclair Beiles seemingly seconds after the technique was discovered by Gysin in the fall of 1959. The book’s cover announces the slim paperback as a publication by Two Cities, an imprint connected to Jean Fanchette’s magazine of the same name. Yet Gait Frogé put up the money for the book so in a sense it is a publication of the English Bookshop.
On the surface Minutes looks to have been rushed off in a matter of seconds and printed for pennies, but one of the laws of collecting is that great things come from such meager expenditures and time constraints. The paper approaches newsprint but that is appropriate given that Burroughs, Gysin and crew were taking Stanley blades to magazines and newspapers to create these cut-ups. Slim and insubstantial in size — but are not all manifestos similarly ephemeral? — Minutes to Go suggests its Dada roots. Yet there is a touch of extravagance. A wraparound band reading “Un règlement de comptes avec la littérature” (A settling of scores with literature). And we are back on the Rue de Seine between the English Bookshop and La Palette. The band should remind more savvy Burroughs connoisseurs of a similar band for the Grove Naked Lunch, another largely forgotten piece of Burroughian ephemera. (Thanks to Dan Lauffer for reminding me of it.) The Naked Lunch band seductively recommends to audiences that the book is for adults only. A bra to be quickly unclasped by the eager John who paid the $6.00 retail price. Most in their haste to get at the goods cost themselves even more money in the long run. These wraparound bands are scarce and highly prized by collectors.
Minutes to Go would fit in nicely on my list of top collectibles, but so would any of the first five or six of Burroughs’ books. Each of them hits the mark in their content and design. Things start to shift toward the mainstream with the publication of the Grove Naked Lunch, which cemented Burroughs’ reputation and marked the beginning of a more standardized and corporate approach to marketing and distributing his work. Minutes to Go does not make the cut merely because I worry that my list already repeats the opening pages of Maynard & Miles too faithfully.
That said, I feel compelled to include a few examples from the lost practice of bookshop publishing. Another aspect of this practice that is threatening to die out is the lavish bookseller’s catalogue, which aspires higher than merely listing collectibles but seeks to become one. I wrote about this phenomenon in the early days of RealityStudio, and, like bookshop publishing, the rare book catalog with literary and artistic airs remains an object of fascination. As with booksellers as publishers, literary book catalogues would make an interesting collection. For my money a complete run of Ed Sanders’ Peace Eye book catalogues would be the ideal mix of business and pleasure. Just as I have toyed with the idea of starting such a collection, various booksellers I know have expressed an interest in issuing a catalog of collectible catalogs.
Am Here Books Catalogue No. 5 (1981-1982) would most definitely be in the mix. I admire this catalog so highly that a couple of years ago I drove three hours to Richard Aaron’s house/bookstore, not so much to browse his stock, as to get him to sign my copy of his catalog. He graciously did so, mentioning, with something of an incredulous laugh, that this was not the first copy he had signed for a collector. I was excited to learn there were other book dorks out there who recognize just how special Catalogue No. 5 is and Aaron for having produced it. But I am over the top. I seriously considered listing the Pacific Book Auction Catalog for the Nelson Lyon Sale in my top 23. For true book geeks, bookseller and auction catalogs matter. In some cases they are referred to more than the collectibles themselves.
Yet unlike the Lyon Catalog, the Am Here catalog stands out as a physical object. You just do not see booksellers expending the effort that Aaron did here: both in terms of bibliographical research and financial expense. The cover features a Gysin drawing and flipping through its pages the prospective collector comes face to face with a huge and mind-blowing bazaar of rarities. Over 2,000 entries, many of the descriptions written by the likes of Robert Creeley, Tom Clark, and Dennis Cooper. This is a catalogue that demands to be read and savored not merely skimmed for potential purchases. Here is Tom Clark on Nova Express: “Franz Kafka makes a U-turn on the café screen of St. Louis 1911 . . . (this film is brought to you by the hot crab people). Is Burroughs the Dr. Swift of Outer Space?” This is the catalog entry as literature. Robert Creeley’s entry on Louis Zukofsky’s Some Time published by Jonathan Williams’s Jargon Society in 1956, is catalog entry as literary essay. In the age of Internet bookselling, the catalogue entry is an art as lost as mimeography. The loss is ours as bibliophiles and all good collectors should attempt to archive and preserve the catalogues from days of yore.
Burroughs is featured prominently: a manuscript copy (100 pages of holograph manuscript, plus pages of art work and typescript) of The Book of Hours for $7500 (I believe this scrapbook is now in the NYPL), a British Journal of Addiction offprint for $125 (now over $2000), or one of 26 lettered copies of the Descriptive Bibliography of the Burroughs Archive (which also sold to NYPL) with a page of corrected typescript by Burroughs tipped in and signed by Burroughs as well as the 12-page corrected typescript of his “Literary Autobiography” plus 50 holograph corrections to the text by Burroughs and Gysin for $850.
Reading about these items with their creative and meticulous descriptions would be worth the price of admission alone but Aaron goes even further. Across the header of each page is a ticker tape scroll of Burroughs’s “The Last Words of Hassan-I-Sabbah.” A nice bonus, which is purely unnecessary for the task at hand. But wait there is more — attached to the back of the catalogue is a 7″ EP of Burroughs reading that text. It would seem as if Aaron would have to sell every last item in the catalog just to break even. Like the ornate homes of Newport, Rhode Island, Aaron’s catalog is an edifice from a bygone Gilded Age of bookdealing.
The catalogue came out in 1981-1982, which marks a turning point in Burroughs’ career, which I wrote about in the early days of RealityStudio. Along with the Atticus Books catalog of the same year, Burroughs collecting began to come of age in this period. I would not say that it matured, in fact I would argue that Burroughs collecting has yet to mature into a glorious decadence that seeks out the eccentric and quirky. But at the very least Burroughs collecting experienced a growth spurt and in response a flood of incredible material at incredible prices entered the market. If you happened to get into the game at its early stages, buying Burroughs could even be considered something of an investment.
In today’s market, Am Here Books Catalogue 5 remains a bargain, in my opinion, at around $75. It is important as Burroughs bibliography; it is a historical document; it is a piece of literary criticism, all in a great package. And then there is the EP, a touch which throws the whole production into the realm of over-the-top excess. By all means, indulge.
Hey, thanks to BigCrux and Richard Aaron for the feedback. As a result, I started digging through my collection and, lo and behold, I found that I had a special edition with all the inserts that I completely forgot that I had. Copy Number 3. For the life of me, I cannot remember where or how I got it. If I was a collector worth his salt, I would have gotten Richard to sign this copy. Might be time to lay off the Natty Bohs. In any case, it is time to get in a comfortable chair and read this catalog again from cover to cover. Believe me, it is not just a great catalog but a great read. I highly recommend going out and getting a copy. If that is not possible, go over to Mimeo Mimeo in the next couple weeks, I will post some of the entries that catch my attention. In the meantime, enjoy the inserts. I seem to be missing the Exploding Money Button, but who knows one of those might turn up somewhere.
Again huge thanks to BigCrux and Richard. It makes all these posts worthwhile.