The Comstock Collection

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Reports from the Bibliographic Bunker

Jed Birmingham on William S. Burroughs Collecting

Call it a lost weekend (with a few great finds). For the past four years, Max’s of Broadway’s three day Belgian Beer festival has been held on President’s Day Weekend. This is must-see TV for beer lovers, and they come from all over the country to sample the Trippels, the Grand Crus, and the chocolate stouts. Get there early. I was there on Saturday around 1pm and it was packed. A few beers had run out already and that is tough to do given that there were about 75 Belgians on tap and another 150 in bottles. Seemingly they had everything but it was only the tip of the iceberg for a country that is more than Germany the Mecca for beer. With all the beer, you had to have something to eat as well, and the French Fries sprinkled with rosemary and served with a garlic mayo provided a perfect base for a day of drinking. After spending a few hours with a bevy or browns, blondes and reds, I decided to indulge in my other passion. You can call it an addiction if you are feeling less romantic about it. I stopped at a small used bookstore on Light Street just to nose around. After poking around for about 15 minutes, I noticed a sign for another section of the store next door that was a new addition full of books on art, film, music and poetry. Now we are talking. I dug in the small poetry section and pulled out used paperbacks of Apollinaire’s Calligrammes, the complete Rimbaud, the complete Edwin Denby, Lorca’s Poet in New York, and the complete Marianne Moore. Given the ties to New American Poetry, Burroughs, the Beats, and the little magazine, I might actually read all these books in the next year.

Comstock's LibraryThe Book Escape was just the appetizer for Sunday’s main course. On Friday I received an email from a friend alerting me to a special event at Second Story Books in Rockville Maryland. If you follow book news you may have caught a snippet of this story. In July 2007, noted book collector Rolland L. Comstock was murdered in his home in Springfield MO that housed over 50,000 books. Nicholas Basbanes wrote about Comstock in the Madness Redux section of Patience and Fortitude. If you are even remotely interested in the Bibliographic Bunker pick up everything Basbanes has written. I admire his columns and books greatly, as Basbanes is the best reporter on anything relating to book culture that I know of. The Comstock family had to deal not only with the shock of Rolland’s untimely passing, but also with the shock of 50,000 books. They contacted the only bookman they knew: Nicholas Basbanes. Turns out Basbanes is a good friend of Allan Stypeck, owner of Second Story Books. Stypeck and Allen Ahearn of Quill and Brush are dealing with all book matters for the Comstock estate. From what I understand no stone is unturned and even film and book rights have been tied up. No surprise really. Stypeck runs a huge operation in Maryland and DC that covers every aspect of bookselling, including a radio show. Ahearn is a giant in the book game. He and his wife Patricia wrote a price guide that was a book-collecting bible before the internet took over pricing for the majority of modern first titles.

About 1500 books, I suppose the crème of the Comstock collection, found their way into a catalog under the direction of Quill and Brush. Certain favorites of Comstock, like Ian McEwan, Don DeLillo, Penelope Fitzgerald, John Banville and Edna O’Brien, were offered by Quill and Brush before the catalog was assembled. Tens of thousands of books went to Comstock’s alma mater, Drury College. That left 25,000 titles, and they are now housed at Second Story Books’ warehouse at 12160 Parklawn Drive in Rockville. The warehouse, along with the now defunct Bethesda location on Bethesda Avenue, was my old stomping grounds when I was in the bookselling game. A book could be written about all the comedy, tragedy, and drama behind the scenes of running a used and rare book business in the digital age.  

As I walked in the warehouse on Sunday, I have to say it was good to be back. It had been quite awhile since I set foot in Rockville, but a collection like Comstock’s brought me, like a groundhog, out of my hole. The books occupied roughly 7 rooms at Parklawn that previously held Nelson Freck’s science fiction and mystery books, as well as a catch-all “stuff” section that awaited distribution or didn’t fit in anywhere. Back in the day, I spent many an hour in that holding tank looking over a host of little magazines that sat and collected dust. Those books have been cleared out, and Comstock’s mother lode has been moved in. Every title with the exception of a single small room was $30. This is a variation of a Dutch Auction and it made for some high comedy. Literally, copies of Cliff’s Notes were listed at $30. I assume this can be negotiated down. To be fair, the average price of all the titles was probably around $30. Yet I saw tons of items that seemed like quite a deal at $30. I viewed it as a buyer’s market. Many seemed to agree. On Saturday, the first day of the sale, Second Story did a brisk business. You know that several experts had been through the collection before you, but the sheer size of the collection was so daunting that gems slipped through. And as I can attest they did. Quite frankly, the powers that be could not catch everything. 

Comstock catalogSo what did I see at Second Story? The scene at was quite overwhelming. About 25,000 first editions by British and American writers almost solely of the post-WWII era. In the 1990s Comstock realized that signatures enhanced a book’s value and desirability so he largely abandoned dead writers (at Springfield, the living writers were separated from the dead ones) and concentrated on those still writing, and key to Comstock, those still on tour. Comstock spent one third of every year attending readings, signings, lectures and other book events for the authors he collected. He would bring boxes of books, early titles to several copies of new releases, for signatures and inscriptions. In addition, Comstock nurtured a correspondence with many of his key writers and solicited signatures over the mail. Comstock was meticulous, even if his collecting focus was scattershot. Most of the books are covered with acetate and have color coded labels for British or American editions, signed or unsigned copies. “[R]ed for signed or inscribed books, blue for unsigned American editions, green for unsigned English editions.” Comstock strove for shelves of red and by the look of the shelves at Rockville; he did a very thorough job.  

As the above attests, Comstock had quite a few quirks as a collector. There are two that I find especially interesting. First he was not averse to acquiring more than one copy of the same title. Famously, he bought over 1000 copies of Jim Crace’s first novel, Continent, (all the remaindered copies he could get his hands on) and had them shipped to Springfield. So looking over the catalog and going through the stacks, the same books turn up again and again. This is totally foreign to me. I hate buying more than one copy of a title. In fact, I probably am too strict on this. I hesitate to upgrade copies I already own for better copies. I am always looking for what I don’t have and not improving my current holdings. I feel I can come back and tidy up my collection at a later date. This is not the smartest tactic as certain items in my collection are only going to get harder to find and more expensive as time goes on. If I see a good opportunity to upgrade an existing title at a good price, I should do so. The replaced title can always be used for sale or trade, another aspect of collecting that I have yet to fully explore. Comstock goes too far in my opinion. How many copies of Martin Amis’ The Rachel Papers can you have? Seemingly, Comstock had an endless supply. Surely this only floods an already flooded market for this common stuff. The Crace market must be absolutely saturated with the release of Comstock’s collection.

Crews inscriptionSecondly, Comstock affixed a custom-made bookplate to his collectibles. Generally they were placed on the left side of the front pastedown under the dust jacket flap. Bookplates are very polarizing for a collector. In the catalog to the collection, Quill and Brush assures collectors that the plates are easy and inexpensive to remove, but the booksellers stop short of encouraging collectors to remove the labels. Let’s take the bright side on Comstock’s bookplate. It could be argued that as a “famous” collector the bookplate serves as an association. In that way, they are similar to signed or inscribed association copies. Comstock had tons of those as well from a variety of authors. For me, the link to Comstock adds no associative value to the book. I don’t get excited over his bookplate or ownership inscription in the same way I did Timothy Leary’s. Having Leary’s copy of Naked Lunch means something to me on many levels, and to my mind, the association justified the $7500 price tag Skyline had for it years back, even if I could not afford it. Yet I do agree that the Comstock bookplates are useful to establish provenance and to help legitimate many of the signatures in the collection since in many cases Comstock got the signatures himself and not through dealers.  

That said the bookplates are an eyesore and decrease the value and desirability of the book. Why would any book collector, a breed that is so sensitive to the importance of condition, mark a book? Comstock clearly valued condition. He did not buy indiscriminately. His books are generally fine or nearly so. He clearly understood that markings in books affected value. He sought signatures with a passion bordering on madness. So what is up? What Comstock’s bookplate tells me is that Comstock had a high opinion of himself as a collector and felt that his ownership increased the books’ value and desirability. This is rarely the case for any book collector. Another possibility is that he had an overwhelming desire to mark his territory like a possessive dog does a fire hydrant in front of his house. This is somewhat more understandable to me. The desire to collect, particularly on the level that Comstock did, reveals an extremely possessive character. These impulses are unfortunate. I have never felt the need to use bookplates (or ownership inscriptions for that matter), although I appreciate them for a writer like William Burroughs for his own library. In fact, I hope that writers, artists, and the like do mark their books, be it annotations or ownership inscriptions, since such markings are of immense importance to scholarship. For years, Michael Stevens has been working on an in-depth listing and analysis of William Burroughs’ reading and library. The Road to Interzone is available online, and I encourage anyone interested in Burroughs to check it out. (Note: it currently works only with the Internet Explorer browser.) Studies of this kind are incredibly useful, interesting, and insightful. Ralph Maud’s analysis of Charles Olson’s reading is one of the best critical studies I have ever read. This study is especially pertinent to Olson since he performed the same task on Herman Melville. Yet ownership inscriptions and bookplates are a fine line. Who is worthy? I guess what I am saying is that collectors are just not important as individuals, as personalities. It is the act of collecting that is important, and in fact, it is that act that reveals the individuality and personality of the collector. The totality of the collection is really the book collector’s signature, his fingerprint. These imprints are all over the books and do not need to be drilled home with a bookplate or ownership signature.

Comstock catalogSo with that in mind what does the Comstock collection say? For a man with such a large collection, he had a narrow conception of what comprised Literature. The collection could not be further removed from my own and in fact, Comstock might be my bizarro double in this regard. Walking through the stacks at Second Story Books answered one of the burning questions that always haunted me as I leafed through countless catalogs and roamed through endless book fairs: Who buys all these boring modern firsts? There are seemingly millions of copies of Martin Amis, Madison Smartt Bell, Julian Barnes, Kate Braverman, Maya Angelou, T.C. Boyle, John Banville, Rick Bass, Larry Brown, and Charles Baxter — the authors for whom Comstock criss-crossed the country. Comstock collected what passes for “Literature with a Capital L” in the post-WWII era according to the critical and publishing mainstream. Comstock prided himself on finding and speculating on new authors. In Patience and Fortitude, Comstock states, “I buy Publisher’s Weekly to read the forecasts, and I pay attention to what the important critics have to say. What I am emphasizing now is young writers nobody ever even heard of.” This is precisely the problem with the Comstock collection. Nothing of value comes from a starred review in any of the mainstream publishing rags. Important critics are slaves to the mainstream media machine that pays them through advertising budgets. They champion what they are told to. The truly new and innovative does not come (and has never come) Athena-like out of the mainstream publishing houses. The big houses may co-opt it later, but by then such books are already old news and are often watered down and neatly packaged. Take 2007 literary sensation Roberto Belano as an example, although I strongly feel that Belano rises above the hype. The Savage Detective was the best work of fiction I read in 2007.

Generally, Comstock did not collect literary magazines, but those he did seek out tell an interesting story. He acquired them because they had stories or poems by his key authors. Stories by John Hersey or Robert Stone for example. Comstock gathered together individual issues of Story, Paris Review, Encounter, Partisan Review, Esquire and Poetry. These publications define the 20th Century literary establishment. Story dictated the form and content of the short story. Poetry did the same for the poem. Paris Review was the establishment of the little magazine. Partisan Review cornered the critical market, and Esquire was the literary glossy. Comstock collected Evergreen Review, but this proves my point. Evergreen was the establishment in avant / experimental circles. All these magazines are traditional in format (Evergreen is one of the most boring little mags in this regard) and content. They do not push the envelope. They strive for a broad audience and mainstream acceptance.  

Let’s look at what for the most part was not in Comstock’s collection. He did not collect any experimental magazines on either side of WWII. No modernist mags, like Broom or Blast, and nothing from the mimeo revolution. This is in line with the fact that Comstock did not collect experimental / alternative literature, particularly poetry. J.G. Ballard is a case in point. Clearly Ballard would be on Comstock’s radar screen: British, post-WWII, critically celebrated, active and touring. Yet I did not see a single Ballard title. Don’t get me wrong, they may be there, but Ballard was clearly not a major writer for Comstock. Ballard was too edgy, too transgressive, and ultimately, too important, a writer.  

Granted Comstock did not collect dead authors, but there was no Stein, Pound, Williams or Zukofsky from before the War. You were more likely to see Stevens, Eliot and Frost. Or their children: Lowell, Plath, Sexton, Galway Kinnell, Seamus Heaney. Post-WWII, do not expect much from anybody in the New American Poetry or the New American Story anthologies. Very little San Francisco Renaissance (where is Everson, Duncan, or Spicer?), Black Mountain (no Creeley or Olson), Beat (no Kerouac — he was safe in heaven dead — smatterings of Corso, Di Prima or Ferlinghetti), or New York School (no O’Hara or Koch, a smidge of Ashbery). If you are looking for anything avant or experimental after the Allen anthologies forget it. According to Comstock, literary innovation ended right where according to the catalog his collection began: 1960.

Take a close look at Burroughs and the Beats in the collection. It is a testament to the achievement of the Beats that Comstock had to acknowledge them. They are too important to ignore. That did not prevent him from completely bypassing Kerouac, but you get the sense that he had to grudgingly include Ferlinghetti, Burroughs, Corso, and Di Prima. After all these writer were alive, active, and could sign. By and large the Burroughs titles in the collection are consistent with Comstock’s M.O. The Burroughs titles were almost all late titles from the major publishing houses. Interzone, The Adding Machine, Literary Outlaw, Place of the Dead Roads, Western Lands etc. The Holt and Viking titles. Quill and Brush pulled out the Grove titles (a Naked Lunch, Ticket That Exploded and Soft Machine, both signed) for the catalog. Yet there were next to nothing of the small press or little mag titles. The copy of Corso’s American Express from Olympia Press stood out for me since there were no other titles from that press. No Lolita, no Pinktoes, no Ginger Man, no Watt, no Candy. Later printing of some of these titles were present but not the true first editions. Comstock disrespected the alternative press. There was a copy of The Exterminator by Auerhahn Press but the condition was abominable: water damaged, missing pages, probably a bookplate. The small, fine, or alternative press did not command his attention. Comstock collected Ginsberg, but Ginsberg was the most mainstream of the Beats and the most accepted by the “important critics” that Comstock looked to as a guide. An author only appeared on his radar screen if they made it to a mainstream publisher. Comstock might then work his way backward through their bibliography.  

Yage Letters coverThis disrespect was seconded by the booksellers selling the collection. Given the $30 price on titles, there were some deals to be made if you kept your eyes out for alternative titles. I found a fine first edition of The Yage Letters by City Lights signed by Ginsberg for $30. That is a deal anywhere. Some of Comstock rubbed off on me in this case. I already own a fine, unsigned copy of The Yage Letters, but this signed copy was an upgrade. What is a common book unsigned now with the Ginsberg signature becomes something special. In fact there were signed Ginsbergs all over the place. I found a copy of Seymour Krim’s The Beats signed by Ginsberg and Hubert Selby for — you guessed it — $30. You would be hard pressed to find a better price than that. Surely a Ginsberg signature is worth $40-50. Pair that up with an unusual title, like the Coyote Journal printing of Wichita Vortex Sutra, and you have a nice find. There were also signed Anne Waldmans, Diane Di Primas and Ferlinghettis around. A fine first of Di Prima’s Dinners and Nightmares, published by Corinth Press in 1961 was a nice find for $30.  

If Comstock hoped to speculate with his collection, the lack of interest in the alternative press was a major error. This is where the new talent comes from today and historically. In addition the books that possess value on multiple levels are not the large print-run hardcovers published in London or New York, but the small and fine press gems that come out in small print runs in distinctive softcover formats. As I mentioned above, I looked high and low for such material in the collection and it was few and far between. There was nothing after 1970 in this area. There were a couple Auerhahn titles, a few Olympia Press titles, and a Coyote Press title by Ginsberg. If it was in Secret Location on the Lower East Side, it wasn’t at 12160 Parklawn. Why didn’t Comstock collect the small press efforts of his stable of authors and get these rare items signed? Because these authors never published there, even starting out. His authors were / are the darlings of the media conglomerates and their academic / critical counterparts. Writing programs with their journals are the farm system for these writers. The New Yorker is the big leagues. The books in his collection are basically generic hard covers. The books themselves have limited value as literary history and none as an art object. Libraries and institutions do not want this material. There is no research or historical value here. I would suspect that Drury College took the non-fiction of the Comstock collection. I saw very little literary criticism or biography at Rockville. The text has value to interested readers, but the books themselves are mostly widget-like in their design, phone book-like in their content, and rabbit-like in their print runs. This is the type of stuff that will do well on Kindle and other e-Book platforms. The vessel just does not matter. In my opinion, Comstock’s collection will not age gracefully. The print runs are too large; the books were the subject of book tours and signings, so copies and signatures abound; the design is pedestrian, and the content just is not there.

While looking through the Comstock collection, my mind flashed to the David Oakey collection of Gary Snyder placed on auction by PBA Galleries. Oakey’s collection was far smaller in size and seemingly less valuable on a financial level, but his collection was the more significant and important one. To my mind, Gary Snyder is far more important as a writer and as a cultural figure than a gaggle of T.C. Boyles, William Boyds, and Jim Craces. Comstock placed his bets with the Craces of the literary world, and literary history, if not financial trends, will show that such faith is bankrupt. Scroll down to July 27th to see one assessment of Crace’s value. The future of literature as a living breathing entity is with the writers Comstock excluded from his attentions. But collecting takes all kinds and without a doubt the literary world, not just the small realm of book collecting, suffered a major loss with Comstock’s passing. He was a passionate, dedicated collector, and as such, a true patron of the arts.

Written by Jed Birmingham and published by RealityStudio on 26 February 2008. Quill and Brush’s Comstock catalog can be downloaded (45 MB) from their site.

3 thoughts on “The Comstock Collection

  1. He is My granfather, I spent so many Weekends with him, I really miss him, When i would go to his house he spent many times traveling. But when he ws home he would spend alot of time with me.
    I loved him, and i really miss him…. :(

  2. Jed Birmingham’s dismissal and depreciation of books with markings, bookplates, and by implication scribblings, marginalia, added comments, corrections, underlinings etc might be appropriate for certain types of collectors seeking pristine volumes presumably never even read. But that’s only one kind of audience. For me, it adds considerable value and human interest to have all the aforementioned types of additions if they are done thoughtfully and impart information, especially by knowledgeable and identifiable individuals. To me a Rolland Comstock bookplate is a bonus, its removal a ridiculous sacrilege.

  3. There is an archived hour-long interview with the fascinating Mr. Comstock on the C-Span web site that is worth watching from a collector perspective.

    He was a rare breed, a well-organized accumulator. Typically in collecting circles those are mutually exclusive terms.

    The type of collection that approach breeds is inevitable; impressive in scale but perhaps not so important in impact.

    This may sound odd, but I think there is a case to be made for the fact that some financial limitations help build stronger overall personal collections. They force (albeit in some cases unwillingly) a level of discipline and focus. I’ll take a tight collection of 25 fascinating association copies (such as the Leary mentioned above) over 25,000 relatively undifferentiated pristine first editions any day.

    One man’s opinion ….

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