Reports from the Bibliographic Bunker
Jed Birmingham on William S. Burroughs Collecting
Signs, signs, everywhere there are signs. On Friday March 7th, I saw a robin on the way to the train. The Orioles had a game against the Red Sox in Fort Lauderdale later that day. I can feel it coming in the air tonight. Yes, spring is on the verge of springing, but the most telling sign was the fact that the Washington Antiquarian Book Fair flew into town for its 33rd installment. For going on 15 years, the Washington DC Book Fair has proven as reliable as the cherry blossoms in signaling the change of the seasons for me. In book collecting terms, this time of year is the middle of the book fair season. Boston and California are behind us, and it is time to spring forward. The New York Fair is less than a month away.
It seemed the perfect time to make Friday a bibliophile’s holiday and to sample some of what DC has to offer for the book lover. Shopping-wise that means two stores in particular: Second Story Books and Bridge Street Books. For me, these two stores are the core of DC’s book culture. Not all the chains, nor the independents like Olsson’s or Kramerbooks. Not the Library of Congress, although I have spent many an hour there researching a finer point of law and have on occasion requested an old lit mag or two while waiting for a yellowed legal article. Not the Folger, although I have attended a few readings there including the recent John Ashbery reading. No, Second Story and Bridge Street, along with the Washington DC book fair, are what I think of when I consider DC as a book town.
My feelings about Second Story Books are completely out of whack. I cannot be unbiased about it. I worked there for two years, and the experience was one of the defining periods of my life. In a sense, working there was like going to graduate school. It revolutionized my views on book collecting, literature, art, and most especially, music. So every time I go to one of the two Second Story locations (Dupont Circle or Rockville), it is a powerful experience. The Bethesda location has since closed down. This closure speaks volumes to just what type of community Bethesda has become. Second Story was a fixture on Bethesda Avenue for years, but the lease came up and so did the rent. The landlords wanted a Pier One Imports or a Starbucks or a Crate and Barrel on the block. Second Story did not jive with the Bethesda image. It was too shabby, too unwashed, and too rough around the edges. In short, it had character, and characters shopped there. I assume that the Second Story clientele have been encouraged to move on as well, to make room for the nice coiffed and nicely cultured. Bethesda must be content with the Barnes and Noble at the end of the block to provide all its book needs. The newly located Second Story never caught on. I am sure shoppers will find what they need at the superstores. Everything in the right place and everything attractively packaged saying all the right things.
The fact that the Dupont Circle store still hangs on tells you something about Dupont as a community in DC. Years ago, Dupont and nearby Georgetown were book central for used and rare books. This has been changing for years. Kultura on Connecticut closed years ago and headed west ending in (I believe) Santa Monica. Larry McMurtry locked up Booked Up in Georgetown many moons ago as well. As I remember there were a handful of other rare bookstores in the area that have closed as well. I am sure others carry on the good fight, but Booked Up, Kultura and Second Story were the stores I always browsed on the weekends. They were part of my rounds. Only Second Story remain. From what I hear Bartleby’s Books in Georgetown still thrives and has really stepped forward as a great destination for Americana collectors. I would love to hear from readers in the DC area about their favorite book places.
Ordered and organized, Second Story is not. Compared to the Rockville location, the Bethesda store was as orderly as the Dewey Decimal System. The Dupont Circle store is somewhere in between. In an effort to impose some structure on the store, I have a routine I always follow when browsing. I go straight to the S section in fiction and look for Iain Sinclair books. Then I thoroughly go through the Poetry section casting a wide net for anything related to modern poetics, be it a book of Walt Whitman to a slim volume of George Oppen. Anything is possible. I still remember walking in the Dupont location just after somebody dumped a small Olson collection and picking up the first four issues of Olson, the journal dedicated to mining his archives. On my most recent trip, I found a collection packaging 3 long Michael McClure poems including Dark Brown ($7). Dark Brown was initially published by Auerhahn Press in 1961, and I have always wanted to read it after hearing Kerouac rave about it. Right next to the Penguin reissue was a copy of Kerouac’s Buddhist musings Some of the Dharma for $10. I bought them both.
Next, I go to the literary criticism and biography section. There is always something of interest here including without fail a Burroughs book or two. On this trip, they had the Miles and Morgan biographies in hard cover, Last Words (hardcover), The Job and The Adding Machine (both in paperback). Usually there is a good selection of Kerouac and Ginsberg material. I found a copy of Faas’ Young Robert Duncan and a copy of Daniel Kane’s All Poets Welcome with the CD. My copy of Kane’s book came from Amazon without it, and I have wanted to replace it. And so it goes through the Art Section, Film and Music, and then ending up in the America History section. Next thing you know a couple of hours have gone by and a good amount of money has changed hands. It is time and money well spent.
Bridge Street Books is about a 15 minute walk from Second Story Books in the direction of Georgetown. The store is right next to the Four Seasons Hotel where M Street splits by the gas station. Usually there is a small table of discounted books outside for browsing. Usually something interesting comes to hand there, but not on this day since it was raining steadily. Without a doubt, Bridge Street is the best independent bookstore in the DC area, and from what I gather talking to those with literary and artistic interests, one of the best in the country. I must be honest; I have not shown this store the love that I should. I always stop in when I am in the area, but I should set aside more time and money than I do. I need to become a regular. Quite simply, the poetry and theory sections at Bridge Street are without parallel. If it relates to the poetic tradition of Stein / Williams / Pound in any way (predecessors / peers / heirs), it is at Bridge Street. This should come as no surprise since the store is managed by Rod Smith. Some consider Smith DC’s poet laureate. Clearly, he is a fixture in the city’s literary scene, and Bridge Street is ground zero for that community’s reading needs.
The store has all the in-print Burroughs you could want, including the RE/Search book on Burroughs and Gysin. I went to the store to buy Philip Whalen’s recently issued Collected Poems. Instead, I came out with a lavishly illustrated book on Document, a surrealist magazine edited by Georges Bataille. I also bought a copy of Aerial, a magazine edited by Smith. The issue I bought centered on Douglas Messerli. Messerli himself edited La Bas, a “newsletter” out of College Park, Maryland. He also ran Sun and Moon Press. La Bas was in the spirit of Floating Bear, a rapid form of communication for a dedicated and tuned-in audience. Finally, I picked up a copy of Talisman 23-26 edited by Edward Foster, which was dedicated to essays dealing with the direction of poetry and poetics after 1970. I could have spent thousands of dollars at Bridge Street. The Collected Joanne Kyger, Walter Benjamin’s Arcade Project and a companion book providing images of the Archive, the Selected John Wieners, the Angel Hair Anthology, the complete reprint of 0-9. If you are in the area and if you are interested in the cutting edge of DC’s (and the larger) creative community and in how it got that way, go to Bridge Street Books.
I include this personal tour of DC bookstores because used and independent bookstores and the experience of browsing their brick-and-mortar locations are essential to a thriving literary community. In an earlier post, I wrote about the importance of bookshops to Burroughs’ creative life. As The Road to Interzone demonstrates, Burroughs was always surrounded by books. The independent bookseller serviced Burroughs’ book jones. Be it Indica, Better Books, the Unicorn Bookstore, the Mistral, the English Bookshop, Eighth Street Books or the local paperback store in Lawrence. Such places were a lifeline for Burroughs. This lifeline is in danger of being cut. If this occurs the results will be catastrophic. The future of literature and a healthy society is at stake. Robert Bank, our European correspondent, emailed me recently lamenting the possible closure of his local library. Brick and mortar structures, like bookstores and libraries, are essential to living a fulfilling and rewarding existence. I am sure that readers of RealityStudio have as intimate an experience with bookstores and libraries in their hometowns as I do. If so, please provide a comment about your favorite store or library in your area and what you find there. I would love to hear about it.
The Washington DC Antiquarian Book Fair has been at the Holiday Inn in Rosslyn for what seems to be at least a decade. There is something familiar about the DC show that I always enjoy. Stepping off the elevator onto the second floor you know for certain that Bookworm & Silverfish is going to be in the far corner of the Rosslyn Room. You know that Allan Stypeck of Second Story Books is going to be there. JoAnne Reisler is going to be there with her children’s and illustrated books. Tucked in the back corner of the Shenandoah Suite (you really can’t get further from the action) will be Charles Agvent and Colebrook Book Barn. I have fond memories of most of these dealers. I bought my set of Big Table from Bookworm years ago. I overpaid, but he threw in a later printing of John Rechy’s City of Night, because I did not haggle about the price. Charles Agvent sold me a signed copy of Exterminator! at a Washington DC Book Fair years ago. I had no idea what I was doing at that time, and this particular book really stands out in my collection since it doesn’t quite fit in. As I found out later, I was more interested in the earlier Burroughs material. Every time I visited my father in Connecticut we would stop at Colebrook Book Barn. Years ago they were bursting at the seams in terms of books. They built sheds to house the overflow. Quite literally, books were housed in any and every available space. The Book Barn’s stall at the fair captures that sense of ordered chaos.
In one sense, the books at the Washington DC Book Fair are as familiar as the dealers. You are going to see signed copies of Katherine Graham’s Personal History. There will be several copies of Best Addresses. When I worked at Second Story, having a copy of these books was like having an ATM machine. As soon as you had a copy, you sold it. At a hefty profit. Reprints and proposed reprints have made this less the case, but these books are still popular.
Washington is above all else a zoo for political animals so books related to politics and Americana are all over the place. Probably a stereotype, but I have always felt that DC was a town that collected signatures, especially Presidential ones. This proclivity comes honestly to the city inside the beltway (or dishonestly depending on your view of the political game), and as a result there are a good number of signature-related ephemera at the DC show. Again, this is only my sense, but maps are big in the nation’s capital. DC residents generally are very driven, and they know where they want to go, so you would think maps would be unnecessary. Yet DC is a place of transients and maybe maps help ground its inhabitants in a single location or remind them of where they came from.
What the Washington Book Fair does not have in large numbers are little magazines and mimeo, counterculture material, or Beat collectibles. You have to go to California or New York for that. I would expect that browsing the San Francisco book fair shows you just how far away that city is from DC on several different levels. Yet you never know who is going to bring what and that is the beauty of the book fair circuit. You are always surprised. In fact DC’s 2008 show seemed to have more items that caught my eye than any I can remember. Take mimeo. Alexander Rare Books of Vermont had a beautiful copy of The Fugs Songbook (4th printing) mimeoed by John Sinclair’s Artists’ Workshop in Detroit. The associations here are endless. Yippies and White Panther. MC5 and the Fugs. Lower East Side and Detroit. What ties it all together is mimeo culture. The item really fit into present-day Washington given the political climate. Agree or disagree with the current war on terror, you have to wonder where the energy of the Sixties is today. I could not help but think of the Fugs performing at the Pentagon in 1967 to protest the Vietnam War. Is anybody trying to levitate the Pentagon in 2008?
It was a wonderful piece, but at $395 I got the sense that it was overpriced. This might be a case of a dealer having an item that he normally does not come in contact with. This usually goes one of two ways. Grossly underpriced (dealer doesn’t know what he has or its selling history) or grossly overpriced (dealer doesn’t know what he has or its selling history). I felt compelled to go through the archives since the Songbook can tell us a lot about the mimeo market. Ten years ago, Ken Lopez had two copies: one from the Fuck You mimeo ($375) and a second printing from Detroit ($125). Back then a fourth printing would have been under $100. I doubt if this item has quadrupled over that period. If Skyline Books or BeatBooks had the fourth printing right now, I think you would see a lower price on it than at Alexander. I could be wrong as The Fugs Songbooks, no matter what the printing, are unusual. A BeatBooks catalog in recent memory had a Fugs section, and there was nary a Songbook in sight. The condition of Alexander’s copy was extraordinary. Nobody else currently has a copy online, but they turn up on eBay from time to time and online. One (I don’t know the printing) sold on eBay in January 2007. This upcoming eBay auction will tell us a lot about the value of later printing Fugs Songbooks. The fourth printing was estimated at auction in 2004 at $150. Clearly the Fuck You printing is the one to have and the scarcest. If the $395 price holds up, it proves that mimeo rarities from 1945-1970 are only going to get tougher to find in any type of condition. No matter the price, it was fun to see it. And more important, it was relevant in more ways than one.
Generally, book fairs are all about the Gump factor: You never know what you are gonna get, although on a Burroughs level, you can safely bet that a Naked Lunch will be front and center. Royal Books had an absolutely beautiful copy of the Grove Naked Lunch for $1500. For a Burroughs collector, this is probably the key book at the fair. Is a Grove Naked Lunch no matter the condition a four figure book? Check the Bookride blog on this issue. He thinks paying such prices is foolish. This is the front line of Burroughs collecting. In my opinion if you can find a find a truly fine copy of the Grove Naked Lunch on eBay throw in a bid at $300-500. You might get it if there is no reserve. Dealers are asking astronomical prices for this book. The question is: are they selling at those prices? The Grove Naked Lunch will not get any cheaper. The same goes for signed copies of the later Groves. These are becoming truly rare books in fine condition despite the print run. If the condition is right and the signatures look legit (big ifs, especially the signature), avoid the dealers and get these titles on eBay. I hate to harp on this topic, but the Grove titles are where most Burroughs collectors start, and you don’t want to get off on the wrong foot.
At a book fair, one dealer can make or break the whole experience. For a Burroughs collector, Joe Maynard out of Brooklyn was that dealer. Do not confuse Maynard with the bibliographer. I did when I first came into contact with him years back. He hears it all the time from Burroughs collectors, but for the beginning Burroughs collector Joe was the man at this show. He had a nice selection of titles to choose from. The Ace Junkie always catches your eye when you see it. Maynard had a very nice copy at $950. Like the Grove Naked Lunch at Royal Books, this is a key book for a Burroughs collector. Let’s face it: the Ace Junkie is not an unusual title. One hundred thousand were printed. They show up on eBay everyday and sell for $350 or so consistently. Like many Burroughs titles, this is a case where condition is paramount. Truly fine copies of the Ace Junkie are really rare. No creasing on the spine or covers. A bright cover. No browning or yellowing to the pages. If you have the money, hold out for the stellar copy. It will stand out. I did not, and I made a mistake. If I had to do it over again I would have paid more money for a crisper unsigned copy or gone whole hog and bought a signed copy. This is a key part of a Burroughs collection, one that will be sought after by more than Burroughs collectors. Do it right. Do not skimp on condition. Was Maynard’s copy a $950 copy? I don’t know but I do know it was better than the one I have and I paid a pretty penny.
Maynard also had an Olympia Soft Machine for $450. This is the rarest of the Olympia Press titles in fine condition. This copy wasn’t bad for the price. For the beginning Burroughs collector, this would have been a nice copy to buy. The real star of Maynard’s books was an inscribed copy of the first edition Dead Fingers Talk. The copy was signed by Burroughs to his British agent Michael Hershaw. It was $400. This book was in great condition and the association was good. Another book that caught my eyes was a paperback edition of the British Ticket That Exploded inscribed to Allen De Loach. De Loach died recently, and his estate has been appearing on eBay for awhile now. Be warned this was the paperback edition, not the hardcover. Both versions were issued at the same time. They are identical. I have never seen this particular Ticket That Exploded in softcover so it caught my eye. I checked Maynard and Miles and this copy was not a review copy but a simultaneous paperback printing. In collecting the hardcover is generally the more valuable book. If that holds true here, the softcover was grossly overpriced at $400. In fact that price is too high for the hardcover even though the association is a nice one. Go with the Dead Fingers Talk if you have a choice. It is one of the coolest hardcovers in the entire Burroughs bibliography.
For me personally, the most interesting title Maynard possessed was an inscribed copy of the Calder Naked Lunch (1964) ($1000). I need this book, but with the A items condition is key. If the Calder Naked Lunch was in the same condition as the Grove Naked Lunch, I would have bought it. In addition the signature was from 1992. Call me prejudiced but the later loose signatures turn me off. Jeff Hirsch had a copy of The Retreat Diaries ($175) with a beautiful tight signature. Maynard’s Dead Fingers Talk also had a great signature. The Calder Naked Lunch was the perfect book. The Grove Naked Lunch was the perfect condition. The Dead Fingers Talk was the perfect signature. Sadly the stars did not align matching all three (does it ever??), but for other Burroughs collectors, particularly beginners, there were some very nice titles available at the DC show, although there were few, if any, deals to be had. Washington DC is one of the most expensive places to live in the United States, particularly in the real estate market. Everybody wants to live inside the beltway. Location, location, location. Every book collector wants the fine book with the impeccable signature. Condition, condition, condition. Be it a dream house or a dream book, perfection comes with a price. The key to happiness in any transaction is that your passion for the purchase greatly exceeds the price you paid.