Reports from the Bibliographic Bunker
Jed Birmingham on William S. Burroughs Collecting
Beat Books out of London just issued its latest rare book catalog. The catalogue has a rock and roll feel and features items by and relating to the MC5, Iggy Pop and the Stooges, the Velvet Underground and Andy Warhol, Ed Sanders and the Fugs. It is a real fun read and is available in hard copy or on the internet. Included in the Ed Sanders section are three issues of the Peace Eye Bookstore rare book catalogues printed on the Fuck You Press mimeograph. These documents are a hysterical satire of the business of the counterculture and the passion of the rare book collector. Some of my favorite little magazines and chapbooks are offered for sale as are manuscript and holograph material from the counterculture’s leading lights. In previous columns, I may have suggested that the little magazines I have been chronicling were distributed merely to fellow poets and artists. In fact, there was an active collector and patron culture in place to support the artists and their publications. People such as Panna Grady and Roger Richards acted as patrons of the poets of the scene providing love and loans to the needs of the creative. Numerous writers and editors sold their archives to eager collectors or forward thinking institutions to fund their artistic activities. This is particularly true of the Second Generation New York School poets and editors like Lewis Warsh, Ted Berrigan, and Ron Padgett. The catalogue parodied these activities by offering a collection of pubic hair of leading poets collected at a literary party and guaranteed to be authentic. In addition, Sanders placed ads for Allen Ginsberg cold cream. The rock art for sale at Beat Books were heavily sought after in the 1960s as avid collectors hunted the telephone poles of San Francisco for new posters and handbills. The Peace Eye catalogues highlight this collector culture and document the beginnings of the rare book market for post World War II American writing.
The Beat Books and Peace Eye catalogue got me thinking about the present state of the catalogue in the rare book market. I have previously discussed some rare book catalogues that crossed the line into collector’s items and bibliographic reference materials. I would have to say that the days of the truly special catalogue are setting if not entirely over. Internet search engines, like Abebooks, make bibliographically detailed catalogues an unneeded expense. This is especially true of the hard copy catalog. Truly original catalogs, like those published by Ed Sanders, Am Here Books, or Atticus Books, rarely if ever get printed and distributed. catalogues as they exist today if they are issued in hard copy at all are simple affairs usually with no extras like LPs, original text or research, introductions by notable figures, photographs and the like. Presently, the catalogue is a dreary affair.
The same could be said of the book fair. Now, I am hardly a book collecting old timer, but it used to be that book fairs were much anticipated and well attended events. They provided a unique opportunity to get a hold of catalogues and get on want lists from many dealers at once. In addition, the book show allowed the collector to meet potential booksellers and most importantly see examples of rarities that one only heard about. With search engines, electronic images, email and all the benefits of the electronic age, collectors and dealers have a decreasing need for the book show. For some, like myself, the book show remains special as a way to physically handle objects that are forever out of reach as well as to shake hands and place a face to the name of the bookseller. I would assume that the book fair still exists as a social event like a convention instead of a money making venture. On returning from the recent New York book fair, one of the special dates on the rare book calendar, one dealer told me that the fairs have really fallen off in sales and attendance and he wondered if the Internet would not kill it off completely. It will be a shame if it happens.
The decline of the catalogue is a shame as well. I still eagerly await catalogues coming through the mail and I keep every catalogue I have obtained in over 10 years of collecting. I also print catalogues off the Internet. The hard copy catalogue is still an essential resource for the collector. catalogues with prices over time allow the long tem tracking of prices and availability of items. In some cases, catalogues serve as annotated bibliographies of a single author, school or movement. The detailed catalogue entry is becoming rare indeed. On the internet and in hard copy, most entries provide barebones information concerning condition and publication history and precious little on the literary history of the book. There are exceptions at auction houses and with high-end, specialized dealers, like Ars Libri, Lame Duck, Beat Books, Skyline Books, Ken Lopez, and Bauman Books.
The Ars Libri catalogues (available on the internet) are perfect examples of just how interesting and detailed a catalogue can be. I recently attended the Dada Exhibition at the National Gallery. The collection of Dada magazines and other ephemera was fascinating. I raced to the museum store to buy several books chronicling the exhibition. Then I downloaded all the Ars Libri catalogues I could get. The catalogues complete with detailed research and clear images read like a companion piece to the exhibition. All the bibliographic and historical information you could want about Dada and Surrealist periodicals were available in the catalog. Lame Duck Books, Bauman Books, and auction catalogues provide similarly comprehensive accounts of items for sale. You generally do not see this type of documentation on the Internet search engines like Abebooks. Now these examples are extreme and few booksellers issue catalogues of this type, but as a whole the rare book catalogue is dying and the detailed catalogue entry seems to be disappearing.
I do not know how I could have managed to amass my collection in such a short period of time without the Internet. The Internet has revolutionized book collecting and rare book selling in ways that are not fully completed or understood. My present collection would not exist without it, but I wonder about what has been lost in the Internet age. One of the biggest losses is the personal touch in collecting and selling. This is strange since so much of book collecting derives from the joy of the book as a physical object. The handling of the book. The leafing through the pages of a work of classic literature. The signed page demonstrating that the book was touched by the author. Or even more personal, the manuscript itself or a holograph correction that are the raw materials of artistic creation. The rare book dealer and the collector thrive on personal touches yet the sale of the collectible has gotten increasingly divorced from the personal relationship as well as more reliant on the electronic.
I have been guilty of this trend myself. Several years ago, I worked as a salesperson and researcher at a used and rare bookstore. I made catalogue entries for Internet databases (we did not have a hard copy catalog) and purchased rare books from walk in customers. I could not have done the job without the Internet. In fact, I was completely dependent on it. If I did not know a price, identification point, or any other information, I merely logged on to Abebooks and found what I needed. I never had to develop or stretch my own talents as a bibliophile and book seller. All the information was at your fingertips and not in your memory. I did not have to constantly research old catalogs, develop friendship with other experts, or haunt other rare bookstores to increase my knowledge. I merely had to log on and find what I needed. The personal touch and hard work of the truly valuable bookman was lost.
I think the Internet has made booksellers and book collectors lazy. I can be guilty of this, unless I actively combat it. As a collector, I do not have to go to book fairs, send correspondence to booksellers, search rare bookstores, and develop friendships with other collectors and dealers. In addition, I no longer have to develop my own skills in identifying first editions or knowing the finer points of bibliography. Instead, I can just log on to Ebay or Abebooks that will tell me all the information (and maybe even provide a picture) I need to know. All I need is the cash. Of course this is less fun and you miss out on a host of unique opportunities this way, but a collector can build a nice collection just relying on the Internet.
As for booksellers, the temptation is there to let the collector come to them. Booksellers might be less diligent in following up on collectors’ want lists or placing books with prospective collectors. In addition, the research work done on accurate pricing and cataloging has declined. Dealers rely on existing internet entries for pricing information as well as cut and paste the scarce publication or literary history information available. This can lead to drastic inaccuracies in pricing or description. An artificially high price on a book or magazine can throw off the pricing for several other entries.
The state of affairs relating to the Black Mountain Review is a case in point. At auction and to a knowledgeable book dealer, single issues of Black Mountain Review sell for $75-100 dollars an issue (possibly more for the highly sought after 7th issue or the 1st issue) and around $800-1000 for a complete run at the absolute high end with lower prices depending on condition. Recently, single issues of Black Mountain Review are selling on Abebooks for $800-1000 with a complete run for $2500. Similar price issues recently surrounded Fuck You Magazine. As a result, all prices of the magazine are out of whack and it is downright irresponsible for a collector to buy the magazine as it is now priced.
The solution to this state of affairs in relation to Black Mountain Review is to return to the personal touch and actively pursue the magazine instead of wanting for it to come to you. In order to get this magazine at a fair price, I had to develop personal relationships with dealers and work outside the traditional search engines. I returned and made phone calls, created want lists, and attended book fairs. After a few years, I was rewarded for my efforts and had a lot of fun doing it. The truly successful book collectors and book dealers have never abandoned the personal touches, but with the rise of the internet in the book trade, the sale of paper becomes increasingly impersonal and electronic. While there are considerable benefits to this trend, there are some unfortunate losses as well.