Reports from the Bibliographic Bunker
Jed Birmingham on William S. Burroughs Collecting
The network re-broadcast of Forrest Gump coincided with the arrival of the latest BeatBooks catalog. Gump hit the nail on the head when he said, “Rare book catalogues are like a box of chocolates; you never know what you’re gonna get.” Or something like that. I guess Gump was more of a doer than a reader, but you get the idea.
That said, I am like a kid in a candy store when a new catalog comes it. I rapidly flip through the pages looking for items on my want list. It’s like rushing through the gates of Wonka’s Chocolate Factory and all of a sudden my inner Veruca Salt comes out and “I don’t care how; I want it now.” Next thing you know I have gorged myself like Augustus Gloop and the Oompa Lumpas come stage left singing a song about impulse buying and credit card debt. It is said that a great collector needs money and time. I seem to have a short supply of both lately, and the check from George Bush’s stimulus package can’t come soon enough. Somehow I think that spending all my check on rare books was not what economists had in mind when they drafted the plan.
So I open a new catalog with anticipation and trepidation. I secretly hope that there will be nothing of interest for my collection. My ambivalence stems from the fact that I don’t want to scurry around my sofa cushions gathering up money for a mimeo mag that once sold for fifty cents or in the case of Semina was free. No such luck with the latest offering from master bookseller Andrew Sclanders. This is his 48th catalogue, and he gets better as the years go by. BeatBooks along with James Musser’s Skyline Books are the Kings of the Hill in Beat and Counterculture collectibles.
It excited yet pained me to see a copy of Semina 4 featured in the latest catalog. Shirley Berman stares at you from the cover of the hard copy catalog seducing you to reach for your wallet. Oh god, how much is this going to cost me? A lot. $2500. Sclanders assures you that Semina 4 is one of the scarcer issues. Isn’t it funny how all the issues with the Burroughs appearances are always the scarcest issues? Floating Bear 24 or Insect Trust 2 comes to mind. I seriously considered buying the Semina 4. It is crazy but single issues of Semina are four-figures approaching five figures for the very scarce issues like Issue One. To think they were once given away. Then I re-read the item description online. It is missing the Peder Carr insert. Sclanders mentions that the Semina Culture exhibit copy was also missing this insert. As a consolation, the BeatBooks copy possessed an extra copy of Stuart Perkoff’s contribution. But the real added bonus was the Berman photograph inserted in the BeatBooks copy that is unlisted in Duncan and McKenna’s Semina Circle. Peder Carr was not a major player in the Semina Circle although he also appears in Issue two contributing a poem. Carr is described in Semina Circle as a poet and a literature student. He doesn’t show up on a Google search but if I am going to pay $2500 for a copy of Semina it has to be in great shape and it has to be complete. With Semina, complete is a relative term and maybe not truly in keeping with the spirit of Semina. As I was reminded when I commented on the incomplete nature of Semina 4, it is possible that not every issue of Semina was uniform throughout the print run. My mind flashed to the differentation between issues of My Own Mag or The Outsider, two other mags that aspired to be works of art. This lack of a stable contents, a lack of completeness, if you will, gets to the core of what makes Semina a form of personal and artistic expression by Berman, an art object and not a traditional magazine. In a sense, the BeatBooks Semina 4 is an ideal copy, because of the fact that it differs from other copies. It has missing pieces, but it also has extras.
Yet rightly or wrongly the missing insert was a deal breaker for me. It reminded me of the copy of Semina 2 that was recently on Abebooks that was missing the “City of Degenerate Angels” label. In some ways that is the most important part of that entire issue, although not every issue was affixed with the sticker. This adds weight to the theory that Berman varied the contents of his issues slightly particularly with tip-ins like labels or photographs. Clearly, the missing piece in Semina 4 is not on that level (and the added material makes up for it) but it is still important to me. I passed. Yet thinking of the added Berman photograph and my appreciation of the recent book on Berman’s photography, I think I may have made a mistake here. Somebody else did not. I checked the catalog online the day it went live, and the Semina 4 sold in a matter of hours.
I went through the entire catalog online on February 21 about a week after the catalog went live. Roughly 50% of the items had already sold. Fifty-Eight of the 128 items in the Beat Art section sold. Forty-two of the 116 Burroughs and Gysin items sold and ninety-two of the 168 Beatnik items did not last more than a week. From what I am told this is a remarkable statistic in such a short time frame, especially when you consider that Sclanders does not list on Abebooks. Of course, this has added financial benefits for Sclanders if he can pull it off. He cuts out the middleman. In my opinion, Sclanders is one of the few dealers who has developed considerable name-brand recognition through his own website and catalogues. Collectors eagerly await a new BeatBooks catalog and save their money to spend on its contents. I know of a few collectors who have passed on purchasing items recently available on eBay in order to concentrate on the BeatBooks catalog. Between the Covers, Ken Lopez and Skyline Books are a few leaders in modern firsts that I have mentioned in the Bunker, but even these stalwarts in the field maintain a presence on the major bookselling databases. Sclanders chooses not to and does not have to.
I have heard that there is a trend among the elite dealers in this direction. For example, William Reese is not on Abebooks. Dissatisfaction with Abebooks appears to be growing and in my opinion the quality of the dealers on the site has dropped considerably. Quite literally there are a whole new group of dealers on Abebooks who have no idea what they are doing. The prices are ridiculous. The descriptions are inaccurate and border on fraud in some cases. Read Joe McCann’s column (Honest Joe) entitled “Don’t Believe the Hype” in the February / March 2008 issue of Rare Book Review for an example. Check out what scholarly Beat titles are going for on Abebooks. It is common for books of this type to be over $100. There are several copies of Oliver Harris’ The Secret of Fascination for over $75. It is still available in print on Amazon for $45.
As a result the trend might be back to catalogues. Sclanders’ new catalogues usually deliver the goods. Number 48 did. I have been harping on the fact that catalogues are great resources. There are some wonderful nuggets in Number 48. Naturally, there is a wealth of bibliographic information. You can find out that Evergreen 32 is a scarce issue that was seized by police in Hicksville, Long Island (as Burroughs wrote, “Boy, are we ever in Hicksville”) for obscenity. The problem was not Burroughs (“They Just Fade Away”) but an article by Wayland Young (a history of the word fuck) and a portfolio of nudes by Emil J. Cadoo. The issue was banned from distribution to England so copies are rare there. They are tough to find State-side as well. Not a single copy is currently available online. Hence the $110 price tag. My copy has a revised price sticker that raised the cost of the issue to $1.50. This testifies to the issue’s rarity and desirability in 1964 to say nothing of the present. The catalogue also reminds you that the Crestview Lord Buckley album along with an issue of Ira Cohen’s Gnaoua (in which Burroughs appears) is prominently displayed on the mantelpiece on the cover of Dylan’s “Bringing It All Back Home.” Sclanders’ description for Lot 302, the LP “How to Speak Hip,” is a mini-history lesson in Beatnik and psychedelic culture.
This extra attention is greatly appreciated. Like sex (on display in the Beatnik section of the catalogue), information sells. In fact, the really desirable items sell themselves and seemingly minutes after the catalog becomes available. This is true for one item that really caught my eye. A signed copy of Icarus 46 edited by Iain Sinclair. I like the link to Sinclair, an author I have been dabbling in but not diving into head first. What I have read I have really enjoyed: namely Downriver and Kodak Mantra Diaries. Maybe now is the time. He has a new book out I hear. His foray into the little mag was published in May 1965 and was associated with Trinity in Dublin. Burroughs contributes “A Short Piece.” Icarus gets special mention in the Maynard and Miles Bibliography. Icarus morphed out of the abandoned Albatross. Daniel Lauffer, editor of Brown Paper and a collector, mentioned Icarus to me in an email, and I have been looking hard for a copy ever since. It is in a long list of University publications, starting with Chicago Review that flirted with Burroughs, often sparking the creation of a new magazine. This is the first issue of Icarus I have seen, and it was signed by Burroughs, so $190 seemed fine with me. But it was gone in sixty seconds, and my hopes for acquisition plummeted earthward.
The Burroughs and Gysin section is selling a bit slower than the rest of the catalog but the little magazines in that section are almost sold out. Many of these little mags had an added twist that set them over the top. An inscription or a signature. Sometimes several. The My Own Mags sold well, including an inscribed copy (with references to Szabo and Burroughs’ former teacher A.J. Connell) of the Special Tangier Issue with the incredible drawing of Burroughs in a fez on the cover ($220). That is a great price when you start shopping around and see signed My Own Mags (usually the later issues) are over $300. I really should have bought that copy but I have this problem about buying books and magazines that I already own even if they are, as in this case, a wise and considerable upgrade. I probably made a mistake passing on this item. Somebody else did not repeat my folly or Martin’s for that matter. A signed Bulletin for Nothing 2 sold for $200. C Journal 9 and 10 sold for $150 and $130, respectively. Issue 10 had the added bonus of being signed by Ron Padgett. A complete run of San Francisco Earthquake sold with signatures by Carl Weissner and Jan Herman for $400. The first issue was signed by Burroughs. A signed Dead Star, another publication edited by Herman, awaits an owner for $200, as does a signed Insect Trust Gazette 1 also for $200. This might seem a bit high but Burroughs signed the Gazette to John Montgomery, a friend of Kerouac who appeared in The Dharma Bums (“Henry Morley”). The Insect Trust Gazette has yet to sell. It has considerable condition problems. This issue gets to the heart of the debate between association / signatures versus condition. What is more important to a collector, to future value (many ways to define that obviously)? Based on this item, it appears that condition is king. Yet it is the added touches that Sclanders always seems to get his hands on that make his catalogue special. In my mind for such unique items the price is not an issue. These items will appreciate. Signed little mags don’t grow on trees. The sale of Bulletin for Nothing 2 establishes a nice precedent and, I think, one that collectors will look back on over time as a deal. Even the Insect Trust has potential for growth. Two hundred dollars is for the most part something of a glass ceiling right now for a Burroughs signature on most of little mag appearances. Yet they are inching in that direction.
Generally the “A” titles are not fairing as well. The Grove and Olympia titles that are available remain largely unsold. Besides the Semina, the one item that caught my eye (and the eye of many other Burroughs collectors I know) was an “A” title listed as Lot 208: a beautiful copy of Minutes to Go signed by Gysin, Burroughs, Sinclair Beiles as well as the publisher, Jean Fanchette ($1700). Last time I checked it was still available. This really surprises me. Most of the collectors that I have talked to singled out this item as one of the special ones in the catalogue. See my piece on Burroughs and Bookstores for the literary history on this title. I have a comparable copy signed by Gysin, Burroughs and Corso. Sclanders’ copy is the better one as it has the wraparound band as well as lacking the customary fading. From experience, the band is tough to find intact, if at all. I find that the wraparound bands are more common on the Two Cities magazines than the Minutes to Go title. This is a true find. In addition, it has the added bonus of being signed by the publisher in the year of publication. I have never seen his signature on any copy of this book. I have searched and searched and cannot place Silvi Natacha. Any help out there? The only advantage of my copy is the Corso signature. He was notoriously reluctant to sign copies of this book that he repudiated as contrary to his poetic soul. Burroughs as the devil and agent of temptation: a fitting image. $1700 is a fair price on this book. Check Abebooks if you don’t believe me and remember back to the $30,000 plus copy on offer from Nudel Books. That copy is no longer on Abebooks. Maybe it sold. What a coup if so!!
Another great thing about Sclanders’ catalogues is that they are timely. His Summer of Love catalogue celebrated the 40th Anniversary of that miraculous year in a level of detail that rivaled the Whitney Show. Catalog 48 capitalizes on the increased interest in Semina artists as well as the 50th Anniversary of the Beatnik phenomenon. The Beat Art section performed very well, particularly the critical books on the topic. Interest in this area is clearly growing and has been ever since the landmark 1995 Whitney Show on the Beats: Beat Culture and the New America 1950-1965. I would guess that the market for this material will only increase as time goes on.
I was surprised to see that a few Burroughs paintings sold ($2500 and $1700, respectively). This is not my cup of tea, and in fact, the manila folders that get passed off as paintings I find funny (to put a nice spin on it). Sclanders has one of those available for $800 and it remains unsold. I get the sense that the price on Burroughs’ late art is leveling off a bit and may be dropping. I remember seeing works for $12,500 years ago but this was probably a major work as opposed to the minor material on view in Catalogue 48.
I do enjoy and appreciate the art of the Berman circle and I consider this important Beat art. The book on Berman’s photography blew me away and his influence stretches to photographers of the Larry Clark School (if such a grouping exists). I am a huge fan of the verifax collages as well. The offset lithographs (photographed from an original Verifax) of the iconic radio (Radio/Aether Series 1966/1974) was out of my league at $10,000 but it would be on my shopping list if I won the lottery. Berman signed this set (Number 10 of 50) and they were printed by the publishing workshop Gemini G.E.L. that “pioneered new printmaking techniques and collaborated closely with many contemporary artists, among them Robert Rauschenberg (with William Burroughs), Roy Lichtenstein, Jasper Johns, Claes Oldenburg and Andy Warhol.” It is good to see William Burroughs among this group of artists as it highlights Burroughs position in the post-WWII art scene.
I was surprised to see that Brion Gysin sold well as artist and author. This catalogue featured Gysin as a collaborator with Burroughs but previous catalogues showcased Gysin as a solo performer. As I remember they sold briskly as well. The forum shows that there is a dedicated group of Gysin supporters out there. I always envision them gathering with their scissors and tape recorders at a café in Paris sitting in the back with their backs against the wall. Gysin seems a European taste to me like mayo on French fries.
I guess I am prejudiced about the Beats as visual artists: Ferlinghetti the painter, Corso the painter, Kerouac the painter. I have no time for this stuff which is somewhat strange since I am a great supporter of Burroughs as a visual artist in the scrapbook and three-column period. I believe that the scroll manuscript of On the Road is a work of performance and conceptual art. Furthermore, I consider Allen Ginsberg an important photographer, not as a stylist, but as an archivist. It is all a matter of taste.
What really caught my attention was how well the Beat exploitation material performed. The interest in Beat exploitation films and vinyl I have always been aware of. From MGM’s The Beat Generation memorabilia ($90 for a press book related to the film) to Lord Buckley LPs ($150 for the 10″ Euphoria on Vaya Records) to Rod McKuen Beatnik LPs ($120 for Beatsville with a great cover shot of McKuen), they all sold in catalogue 48. Seemingly all the Beat-related sleaze paperbacks sold as well. I know of a few collectors who specialize in this area and they are extremely active and passionate about it. Waikiki Beachnik ($20), North Beach Nympho ($16), Bohemian Stud Bums ($36) Sin Hipster ($40), and Black Stockings for Chelsea ($20). The titles are hysterical and the cover art is priceless. Their popularity should come as no surprise but my dislike of what the Beatnik label in the popular culture and scholarly sense meant to the Beats’ reputation blinded me to the importance and camp qualities of this material. This aspect of the Beat story is represented by numerous articles on the Beats in glossy mags (Life — 9-21-59 and 11-30-59 both for $40) and critical journals (Norman Podhoretz’s notorious “The Know-Nothing Bohemians” in the Spring 1958 Partisan Review for $20). But I should get a sense of humor. Of course, I have some of this stuff in my collection, and they are key items at that: the Ace and the Digit Junkie or Wildcat Adventures. Burroughs’ debt and link to the world of sleaze and pulps cannot be underestimated. The history of the pulps and men’s magazines are key aspects of the Beat story and legacy. Yet my interest in Beat vinyl, magazines and paperbacks does not extend to the Beatnik novelty material. As Catalogue 48 shows, plenty of other collectors’ interests lie right in this area.
So BeatBooks Catalog 48 had a little bit of everything for all manner of Beat collectors. I’ll give Andrew a few weeks to rest up and then I’ll send him an email asking about that next box of chocolates. I am sure it will prove once again that Andrew Sclanders is at the top of his profession. And as Forrest Gump said, “That’s all I have to say about that.”