Member Blogs > ten pound island book companyAustin Squatty

  • Mon, 17 Sep 2012 04:17:13    Permalink
    Hand colored chart of Vineyard Sound, 1882. (See below)

    I was treated to a relatively lively Boxborough Ephemera show this past Saturday, promoted by the ever present Flamingoz. Someone told me that the New York Pier Show, scheduled for this same weekend, had been canceled, and that this led to a minor influx of new dealers, swelling the ranks of exhibitors. So this show, which seemed to be slipping into oblivion, was given a years respite, at least.

    Lamentably, the crowds of attendees continue to dwindle. Where once the line awaiting the opening bell stretched through the lobby and down the hall, this year it barely filled the lobby. A few dozen of the same old faces - a little rounder, a little grayer. Unfortunately, I forgot my camera, so I cant document any of this.

    But perhaps thats just as well

    Colleagues Matthew Needle and Jim Arsenault pronounced the buying mediocre but, thanks to the complete randomness that governs such things, I had a good buying fair, raking in perhaps $4K in future catalog items on a $2K expenditure. Plus a cheese steak with extra hots at my favorite Pizza joint in Acton.

    But my most resonant buy was a $20 pamphlet. Though it was only seventeen pages long, it brought back a rush of associations. I almost wrote a book about its author.

    The pamphlet, entitled The Eberstadt Caper,was written and published by John Jenkins, a fascinating, talented, troubled character.

    Jenkins was a serious bibliographer who wrote the primary reference book on Texas history, an excellent tournament poker player (known to his cohorts as Austin Squatty), a man of letters, a publisher, a world class raconteur, and one of the premier antiquarian book dealers of his era. He purchased the best single collection of Americana in existence, helped foil Audubon thieves, and presided over the ABAA as its president.

    He was also implicated in arson and insurance fraud, admitted to selling forged rare Texas letters and broadsides (though he claimed to be unaware of their origins when he sold them) and, most recently, was shown to be more deeply involved in the Audubon thefts than hed claimed. (See Phil Wajda's article in the March 2011 Union College bulletin.)

    Physically, Austin Squatty was indeed squat he might have stood five and a half feet in his cowboy boots. I never met him, but I occasionally glimpsed the top of his ten gallon hat above rows of book cases at bookfairs.

    By that time he was legend. Everyone in the biz had stories about him late night poker games, outrageous costumes, spectacular horse trades involving such things as mummies and Rolls Royces, as well as rare books. In our trade he stood a lot taller than his nominal height. If there was ever a man larger than life, it was Johnny Jenkins.

    I used to devour the computer printed catalogs issued by the Jenkins Company. Theyd seem clunky now, but they were marvels of technology then. And lord, what rarities they contained! Those catalogs expanded my imagination, gave me something to aspire to. I remember one number devoted solely to Evans items (books published in America before 1801, compiled by bibliographer Charles Evans). I hadnt even known there were such things as Evans items. After reading the catalog, I bought a reprint of Evans multi volume bibliography, and still use it to this day.

    The Eberstadt Caper dealt with Jenkins's 1975 purchase of over 40,000 volumes of rare Americana. The library had been accumulated by rare book dealer Edward Eberstadt, and was being sold off by his son for something around $3 million. In many ways it was the high point of John Jenkins's career, and his pamphlet was an engaging, braggy, typically Jekinsonian retelling of how the Eberstadt purchase came to pass.

    However, it is likely that the cost of the collection put Jenkins under a financial stain from which he never recovered.

    In the mid-eighties oil money started running dry and Eberstadt financing costs continued in their relentless fashion. Texas banks began to fail and books were no longer seen as collateral on loans. It was a difficult situation for Jenkins. He became more involved in gambling and probably ran up gambling debts - possibly financed by his book dealings.

    But the problem, to my mind at least, ran deeper than that.

    Austin Squatty's real problem was that he had bought up more rare Americana, in the Eberstadt collection, than the market could absorb. This will never be a problem any of us are likely to face, but it's still worth bearing in mind. You put too much of one kind of thing in an auction, for example, and the per-unit price tends to go down

    At any rate, these difficulties were followed by the infamous warehouse fires of 1985, and 1987, with the latter event declared to be arson. Then the forgery scandal erupted. Loans piled up. There was an FDIC lawsuit over oil dealings, and bank foreclosure on what remained of his book warehouse.

    In 1988 he was found dead in the Colorado River east of Austin, shot in the back of the head, money, Rolex, and credit cards gone.

    The obvious conclusion was that Jenkins had been robbed and killed, but even this was controversial. The local sheriff ruled his death a suicide, said the whole thing seemed too pat, even though a murder weapon was never found.

    So, the legend of Johnny Jenkins continues in the book trade, now larded with theories of guns attached to helium balloons, plastic coke bottles, or bars of Ivory Soap. If you'd like to know more about it, look up Calvin Trillin's wonderful post-mortem profile of Jenkins in the New Yorker of October 30, 1989.

    But Trillin's article wasn't the reason I never wrote the book.

    I never wrote the book because the people who really know where the bodies are buried still refuse to talk.

    CHART OF THE VINEYARD SOUND AND NANTUCKET SHOALS, SURVEYED BY GEORGE ELDRIDGE, HYDROGRAPHER. Bos. 1882. A wonderful Eldridge chart, measuring 63 x 41 inches. It pictures Nantucket, the Vineyard and the Massachusetts coast. With soundings and shoals. See Guthorn, p. 12. This chart, lacking the letter designation in its title, was done by Eldridge senior. It contains finer lines and more coastal detail than, say, Eldridge juniors Chart A. Vineyard Sound and Nantucket Shoals. Hand colored in outline. A clean, strong image,with a few surface wrinkles and some tanning on the right edge. $2000

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