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Books About Bookselling: Books, Friends, and Bibliophilia

Shawn Purcell [click picture for larger image]

Books, Friends, and Bibliophilia: Reminiscences of an Antiquarian Bookseller, by Anton Gerits. New Castle, DE: Oak Knoll Press, 2004. Books, Friends, and Bibliophilia

Anton Gerits’ reminiscences start off on a very personal level. His was a rather awkward childhood, filled with youthful soul searching that blossomed into a permanent state of introspection. From the introduction, “there were painful memories of mistakes, of selfish acts, of all kinds of unhappy incidents that had caused old sorrow and guilt that I had carefully buried in my mind and that now came to the surface once more.” Not what I am used to in booksellers, particularly of the blustery American or British type, but tolerable if there was lots to learn about the profession amid all the self-reflection. But Mr. Gerits also establishes very quickly that he does not have a very good memory for details, bibliographic or otherwise, and that it would be hard for him to do justice to the task at hand. His father was a stern tailor in The Hague, and as The Netherlands went from the Depression to German occupation, and it became obvious that his son would not be joining any religious orders as anticipated, he was allowed to bicycle to a rural region of the country for safety and sustenance. When Gerits the Younger was still stealing his first kisses from farm girls on page 24, I began to have some doubts.

In short order, however, the Germans are pushed out, and young Anton secures a job interview with the prestigious Nijhoff Company back in The Hague. Established in 1853, with roots going back even further, Martinus Nijhoff and his descendants were true bibliophiles. Although they admired fine bindings and exceptional printing, they were mostly interested in the contents of books, and their goal was to preserve and advance learning. It is explained to Anton that he was in for a six year training period filled with reading catalogs, studying bibliographies, and pulling books, and that during this time he would not be contributing much to the company. Not that many years earlier his parents would have paid for this apprenticeship, but as that practice was falling out of favor, they would provide a small salary during this stage. When he was called in by Wouter Nijhoff Pzn after six months and offered a position in the publishing department which he had first applied for, Anton chose to stay with the antiquarian department. “‘I hoped so,’ he said, smiling, and I think that from that moment on we were friends, although we would never have said so.”

If new booksellers ardently interested in the profession could only read one chapter, the second, “From Necktie to Bowtie,” is a wonderful primer on learning about the world of antiquarian books. Although the methodology it chronicles has sadly disappeared, there are still many lessons to learn. Frederick Muller, who trained an earlier generation of booksellers in the 1800s and whose shadow was always in the room at Nijhoff’s, was said by Menno Hertzberger to be, “the one who, at least for Holland, founded the antiquarian book-trade on a bibliographical footing.” And bibliographical it was.

In what they called the “catalogue-room,” the walls were all filled with reference library works, from important bibliographies to obscure pamphlets. The large “pricing table” sat in the middle of this room, and huge piles of books were sorted, described on white sheets of paper with “dip pens,” and priced by the inner circle. Mr. H. E. Kern was the expert who devoted himself to Anton’s apprenticeship, and joining Mr. Nijhoff at this table were Henk J. van Tienhoven and other notable bookmen. Although Anton was not allowed to write catalog descriptions for some time, and then only for modern books, his work space was at this table. “Sitting here gave me the opportunity from the start of my career to follow the discussions about the bibliographical descriptions and the prices.”

In another room in a large fire-proof safe, title archives were kept in 128 wooden drawers. The file cards they contained were divided into “living titles” and “dead titles,” depending on whether they were in stock or sold. Recorded on these “titles” were the purchase price in code and the asking price, many in the hand of founder Martinus Nijhoff, his son Wouter, and Wouter’s nephew of the same name (hence the Pyn, or son of Paul, to distinguish them). A certain bow-tied future head of the antiquarian department (he started wearing them when his regular tie kept ending up in the middle of piles he was pulling from the warehouse) added many more entry points during his tenure. These included the date of acquisition and sale, the name of the buyer, and other customers who were looking for the same title. For important works, details from other bookseller catalogs offering the same title and prices realized at auction were also added to the cards.

Anton proved himself useful more speedily than his employers first anticipated, and he quickly rose through the ranks. Even such soundly established firms need to modernize, and his claims to fame include recognizing the importance of and gaining access to Eastern European antiquarian works languishing behind the Iron Curtain; as well as the primacy of periodicals and ephemera. His command of many languages was a major asset in this pursuit. The confines of this review do not permit much mention of the treasures that passed through his hands throughout a long career, but they are truly breathtaking, and will of course never be seen again in such profusion.

Collections were another specialty, and he handled large numbers of them on such subjects as the emancipation of Jews in France; Protestant history; the revolutions of 1848; early newspapers and satirical journals; works on and by Saint-Simon and Charles Fourier; the Austro-Hungarian monarchy; Central Africa; Dutch and other plays (one numbered over 2,300 dating from the late 1600s to 1830); and Mazarinades, or writings for and against the famous Cardinal Mazarin during the 1830-1841 revolt known as the Fronde (one of which contained 2,440 pamphlets). Collections of French political trial material were very important and instructive, as they contained reports, transcriptions of confiscated documents, witness examinations, and speeches of the prosecution and defense that were mostly stenographic copies only available to the judges. In 1968 he laid out $3,300 as a favor to another bookseller who needed to unload 9,000 laxly counted pieces of early printed music, most with engraved covers. It turned out to be more like 20,000 pieces, and was flipped for $34,000 the following year to the National Library of Canada.

There are many funny and interesting anecdotes throughout. Breaking Mr. Nijhoff’s antique globe as a new employee; how the young women of the order department pulled more than old slips in the archival cellar; taking inventory in the huge warehouse for the first time in over a century; buying trips to Europe and the U.S.; failing castles and manor houses in France that allowed his colleagues to reduce formerly overcrowded library bookshelves in such a way that their owners did not appear to be going broke; and one colleague deceiving another into flying to Malta for a collection of fifteenth century books that did not exist.

Gerits provides many thumbnail sketches of the famous and infamous booksellers of the day, and recounts great friendships with the likes of Michel Bernstein. There is lots of local color from his travels and adventures, and much on the trials and rewards of the profession. Most illuminating were the sections on the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association of The Netherlands (NVvA) founded in 1935, and the International League of Antiquarian Booksellers (ILAB) founded in 1947. Our fledgling Independent Online Booksellers Association is facing many of the same challenges they have overcome or are still struggling with. Gerits was president of both these organizations for fairly long terms, and he cites our individualistic natures, management by improvisation rather than strong planning, the difficulty of getting members to help with projects and committee work, limited financial means, and an unwillingness to discipline colleagues who are established and powerful. An example of this last occurred when one business caused others to be audited by recording fictitious transactions for tax purposes, and they reached an agreement that would not have been extended to a novice. In what comes close to qualifying as an international bookseller crisis, a dealer at an ILAB book fair in connection with an ILAB congress in Tokyo touched a raw nerve when he was overheard defending his high prices by saying something close to, “That does not matter. The Japanese will pay them.”

Nijhoff Company was a rather formal but happy family when Anton Gerits joined the firm in 1950. His observations on creeping corporatism and merger mania in the decades to come as they apply to this great book palace are very trenchant. His career took several interesting twists and turns before (and after) finally leaving in disgust, culminating in the formation of A. Gerits & Son run by Arnoud Gerits as we know it today. (I just took the virtual panoramic tour from the website and fear it would blow old Martinus Nijhoff’s socks off!)

Two things nagged me as I proceeded through the book. The first was the large amount of unique Dutch material that was being sold outside of the country, often to libraries in places like the American Midwest and Japan. Over 1,000 rare Dutch historical pamphlets, for example, were purchased by the National Library of Australia in 1966 for a mere $8,850. There are many such examples where the material was more important and the price was much lower. The low prices themselves were also puzzling, even accounting for inflation. In many instances, a single piece today would sell for more than the entire collection it came from sold for as recently as the mid to late 1900s. Obviously values have escalated due to a variety of factors such as collector interest, but it is still jaw-dropping to see how low they were at the time. Remarking on Nijhoff’s 800th catalog, entitled The Freedom of the Press in the Dutch Republic (1581-1795), and consisting of 230 rarities set aside by Gerits for that occasion, he admits, “These 1968 prices seem ridiculous in the light of the market-value of such books now.”

Gerits does not address aiding and abetting the loss of national heritage until late into the work. He basically explains that the Dutch government was simply not interested in paying what the material was worth. In his experience, librarians have a certain disdain for booksellers, and it is worse between national libraries and local booksellers. Why? “Maybe it hides some jealousy. Never having the courage themselves to accept the risks of being a dealer, and having chosen a safer existence in their profession, academics probably envy the freedom, independence, and adventurous life of the antiquarian bookseller.” On top of this, Nijhoff’s had a reputation for being pricey, perhaps because, “It sometimes happens that such myths come into existence through some trivial incident and then acquire a life of their own.” The important thing is that somebody wanted this material, and that large collections of related items tend to be taken care of and cataloged rather than neglected and dispersed. Still . . .

As for my initial reservations about all that introspection and sensitivity, it makes Gerits’ narrative that much more understandable and enjoyable. His stated need for respect and recognition, for example, clearly bore rich fruit. And when he raised an alarm by admitting a fuzzy memory for titles, dates, and amounts, that was not the mere false modesty so conventional in introductions to older writings. Luckily the Nijhoff title cards were safely transferred to the Royal Library in The Hague before the firm was fully ravaged, and he toiled there for hundreds of hours, in addition to many other researches and verifications. As a matter of fact, one of the best aspects of the work is the extraordinary number of sales that are reported. The bookselling industry is far too tight-lipped about pricing, and Books, Friends, and Bibliophilia should serve as a model for such retrospective disclosures. In closing, this is a highly entertaining and informative contribution to the field by a learned man who bestrode the ancient and modern eras of bookselling, and it comes highly recommended. Some excerpts follow.

“I worked on the first floor of the splendid building at the Lange Voorhout. On that first floor was the so-called room 13 [across from the catalogue-room], with a view onto the Voorhout. In this room Wouter Nijhoff Pzn and H. E. Kern had their work tables opposite each other. The walls were covered with books from floor to ceiling, except for one wall, where a beautiful old-style bookcase with glass doors stood. This bookcase contained only very expensive items. The door of room 13 was always open, unless strictly confidential staff matters were being discussed. And the room was always filled with a thick haze from cigars and cigarettes, for both Nijhoff and Kern were heavy smokers. When in the first week of my presence in the antiquarian department I opened a window, Mr. Kern shouted: ‘Gerits, close that window! Mr. Nijhoff and I do not like fresh air!’”

“Once Kern even yanked an expensive book from a client’s hands because the man appeared not to understand its importance, and he was not allowed to buy it.”

“As soon as the mail had been sorted, the five groups were carried to room 13 and placed on a table where Mr. Nijhoff looked through each stack while the heads of the various departments stood around the table. He commented on various letters, gave instructions, and asked questions. A department-head would have to explain or justify his decisions, especially when a complaint appeared among the letters. In these sessions the impressive memory of Wouter Nijhoff Pzn played an important role. Nobody could lie because Nijhoff never failed to remember what staff members or other employees had said weeks before; and when he asked someone to check something and report to him, nobody could hope that Nijhoff would forget this request. These time-consuming sessions around the mail were detested by quite a few of the staff members, but Mr. Nijhoff achieved two important goals by them: he remained very well informed about everything that went on in the company, and the various heads of the department were daily confronted with each other’s problems and with everyone’s successes and failures. These sessions thus served a unifying function, the significance of which can hardly be overestimated.”

“I am lucky enough to have known the period when complete runs of scholarly journals and periodicals were collected, collated, and, if necessary, bound or rebound.”

“A large number of atlases were in stock in those days. I remember at least two Ortelius atlases, a beauty of a Janssonius atlas, and a complete Theatrum urbium with its many topographical plans and views of European cities, which we sold in 1962 to Belgium. At least three Blaeu atlases were on the shelves when I entered Nijhoff’s, a Spanish, a French, and a Dutch set. The most beautiful Dutch copy of all was the property of Wouter Nijhoff Pzn himself and was kept in his reception room. The nine folio volumes, printed between 1648 and 1665 and containing some 600 contemporary hand-colored maps and plans, were bound in red morocco at the office of Blaeu.”

“As a matter of fact it was the Nijhoff policy to pay smaller dealers very quickly. ‘It is the best form of publicity,’ Mr. Nijhoff used to say.”

“Why is it considered self-evident that antiquarian booksellers make their expertise available free of charge?”

“The price Mr. Kern paid to his brother’s heirs seemed to me quite low. When I mentioned this matter to Mr. Kern he answered laconically, ‘It is sufficient. They do not need more.’ At that very moment I made up my mind never to allow myself to use such an argument when buying, and I believe I have succeeded. However, when dealers asked too low a price for a book I accepted the offer without scruple because in my opinion you may take advantage of an expert’s lack of knowledge. In the case of heirs of a collector, who often have little or no idea of the value of that part of the inheritance, you should, in my opinion, act differently. That is not always easy, for if you offer too much you run the risk that the reaction will be, ‘Ah, if it is worth that much, we will think it over a bit longer,’ and they will use your offer to try to get more elsewhere. To protect oneself in such situations is not easy; but it is not impossible. Once, when an old lady entered Nijhoff’s with a small but extremely rare pamphlet of only forty-eight pages that she had discovered among the papers of her deceased husband, I found a good solution. The pamphlet was the famous Breedan-raedt aende Vereende Nederlandsche provintien (Broad advice to the United Dutch Provinces), Antwerp: F. van Duynen, 1649. It is one of the most important documents concerning New Netherland. It deals with the deception of the directors of the West Indian Company by the general director of New Netherland, Willem Kieft. Peter Stuyvesant succeeded him. Stuyvesant had much to put right and executed this task with great vehemence, which in its turn, is criticized in this pamphlet. It also deals with Brazil and criticizes the Portuguese as well as the Dutch. Historians still disagree about the identity of the author. I was afraid that if I offered some hundreds of Dutch guilders the lady would walk away with her pamphlet, so I said that I believed that I could guarantee her at least one hundred Dutch guilders, but that I had a client who would probably be prepared to pay more. If she would allow me to keep the pamphlet for one day, I would try my best for her. She agreed, and I gave her a down-payment of f100 ($45). When she returned the next day I told her with enthusiasm that the client had made a generous offer and that I could hand over to her another f500 ($226), at that time a very good price. She was extremely grateful, and the pamphlet lay on my desk; the real buyer remained unknown to her.”

“During one of my wanderings in Braunschweig I arrived at a beautiful cemetery, where light blue crocuses were moving gently in a soft wind and spreading their scent under a pale February sun. Suddenly I found myself before the grave of Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, which was adorned with a lovely little bed of winter violets. After such an experience, holding the first edition of Lessing’s Nathan der Weise (1779) or a copy of his at the time sensational so-called ‘Reimarus-Fragmente’ entitled Von Duldung der Deisten (1774) is no longer only a commercial event.”

“When during the last years of my career when I was confronted with modern automation, which enables the antiquarian bookseller to save long descriptions with just one key and where an efficient search-engine makes it possible to retrieve a title without being obliged to look through long files, I sometimes asked myself whether an excellent way of training the memory of younger assistants had not been lost.”

“Fortunately, even in modern times the fear of work still exists and often offers the ardent collector and the industrious antiquarian bookseller splendid opportunities.” Anton Gerits

“I stuck to my bow-tie for the rest of my life. In Japan it would earn me the nickname of Mr. Butterfly, a not unwelcome distinction. Soon it proved to be an effective promotional device. At large gatherings, receptions, and the like, I never needed to introduce myself. The man with the bow-tie was Mr. Gerits.”

“It is often said that the greatest enemies of books are water and fire. There is, however, one greater and more frequent threat to large concentrations of books, be it a modern bookshop, an antiquarian bookstore, or a library. That bigger danger is an indifferent or inexpert management. Usually the two go together.”

“That the future will offer sufficient potential for the antiquarian book business seems certain (I will speak about some encouraging aspects later), but only hardworking and inventive individuals will succeed.”

Shawn Purcell operates Balopticon Books & Ephemera and can be contacted at http://www.balopticon.com.