Ye Old Booksellers: Forty Years Among the Old Booksellers of Philadelphia


Ye Olde Booksellers

Here is a small volume with red pebbled boards entitled, Forty Years Among the Old Booksellers of Philadelphia, with Bibliographical Remarks, by W. Brotherhead (Philadelphia, PA: A. P. Brotherhead, 1891). This 122 page gem must be well known to those interested in the early history of our profession in this city. He tells his own story first.

“In 1849 I commenced to sell old books at the northwest corner of Sixth and Market streets. My stock was worth about $60. It did not fill up my shelves, and I added cigars to my stock, and filled the empty shelves with cigar boxes. These in a short time I took down, and in their place I covered the empty shelves with Catlin’s portraits of Indians. These being highly colored, made a good show.”

Toward the rear of this little work are chapters on Men and Books, Prices and Editions of Books (with many details of fantastic Americana collections scattered through sale or auction), Something About Old Books and Their Buyers, Old Book Collectors, etc., followed by an index. We are interested in pp. 21-71, however, where he gives an account of dozens of his contemporary booksellers. Excerpts follow.

-Apley: In one of those stores resided a very dirty man, surrounded on all sides by a collection of old books almost without form, scattered here and there without any classification. He was a man of about fifty years of age or thereabouts; he might have been older, but his dirty and ragged appearance made it difficult to say how old he was. He always looked dark and sallow. His features were not repulsive to look at, but they had that miserly cast which at one glance caused him to be a marked character. The windows of his store were so thick with dirt and rubbish that it was difficult to see the titles of his books. I have many times visited the store for the purpose of purchasing books, and in looking round through the vistas of shelves erected at random, you would see him in some nook or corner lift up his bedizened face, and if early in the morning he would be cooking or eating his breakfast. The smell of the room, with the mustiness of the old books and the smell of his eatables, was anything buy savory or cleanly. The description which Dickens gives in “Old Curiosity Shop,” of the store in which Little Nell’s grandfather lived, is nothing to compare with old Apley’s store in the Arcade. As far as my recollection carries me, he slept and lived in this dirty atmosphere of old books. If he was married, and I think he was not, I never in all my visits saw the appearance of a womanly face, or any signs of womanly care and attention.

-James Dalling: Dalling was a Scotchman, of the old school. He kept a very select collection of old books for sale on South Eighth street, above Chestnut, east side, now Green’s hotel, and was well patronized by book buyers. He was a man of more than ordinary education, and attracted the best class of book buyers. He was not a man who stooped to conquer, but was firm in all his dealings, and with all the canny characteristics of his race. He, like the majority of old booksellers, did not amass a fortune; in fact, the pure and unadulterated old bookseller seldom does more than live comfortably, collect stock, and feast among his books, and love to talk to his literary customers of the great geniuses in the Elizabethan age, and descant on the talents and greatness of the age of Queen Anne.

-John Pennington: Mr. Pennington’s store become the centre of the elite litterateurs of this city, and of men like Charles Sumner and others. When the literary men of the Eastern, Northern and Southern States visited this city, nearly all were attracted to his store to buy from his fine stock, or give orders for European books. The literary chit-chat of those men, for I have heard them, reminded me of what can be found in Boswell’s “Life of Johnson,” where men like the burly, stern moralist Dr. Johnson met the inspired idiot Oliver Goldsmith, Sir Joshua Reynolds, Garrick, and other great men, where their wit and learning kept the table in a roar. Those times are past, but I hope at sometime will be resuscitated. I forget the year when John Pennington removed from Fourth street to Seventh street, near Walnut street. He was there for several years. The war broke out in 1861, and as his principal trade was among Southern men, his business become paralyzed, and his losses great. He felt his loss of the Southern trade very much; and as New York had begun about this time to pay special attention to the importation of books, engravings, and the fine arts, we lost that part of our business in this city, and it has been for many years prosecuted with great energy and tact, and is still pursued with vigor by them. To our disgrace it must be said, that New York has robbed us of that fine literary business we had here from 1800 up to 1860. This city was the great literary emporium of the United States from 1800 up to 1850. The finest edition of the Bible—hot-pressed copies—were issued by the Smalls, and fac simile editions of the English Classics were issued from the press of Wardle. Nearly all that prestige has gone; spasmodic attempts appear now and then, it is true, but the general effect has passed into other hands. John Pennington died some years ago; his business passed into the hands of his son, E. Pennington; until physical infirmities caused him to relinquish it into the hands of his son; but the halo of old John Pennington has passed away, and his fine old store and name, except to a few, is sunk into oblivion.

-Peterson and Childs: The old book business cabined and confined this young Hercules, and he desired a larger sphere for his talents, and suggested the publication of books. About this time the intrepid traveler, Dr. Kane, had returned from his Arctic voyage—he was the hero of the day. Mr. Childs saw his golden opportunity, and urged Mr. Peterson to make arrangements with Dr. Kane for the publication of his travels. Mr. Childs, with great energy, entered heart and soul into this great enterprise, and, taking the tide at the flood, pushed it on with a resistless vigor—fanned the flame of excitement from every point that an acute observer only can see—and the result was a marvelous success. The book was illustrated with sketches from Dr. Kane’s drawings, by that erratic genius, James Hamilton. Those who are acquainted with art, know well that the genius of James Hamilton, in a collective sense, stands unrivalled as an artist in chiaroscuro, and bold effects. The book will always find a place in Arctic discovery, and stands second to none in artistic illustration. I am not sure, but believe that the masterly management of Mr. Childs in this book caused Mr. Peterson to accept him as his partner.

-W. A. Leary: Mr. Leary was a short, stout man, persevering and industrious in his habits, though by no means an educated man. He dealt in books as a grocer deals in sugar and candles, more by weight than from any intrinsic value; in fact, he did not know anything about the bibliographical qualities of books, he never pretended to know, and for this admission we must accord him due credit.

-Paine: Mr. Paine kept a book store with a book stand on South Second street near Noble street. His stock was not large. He dealt in school books, and sold any old miscellaneous books he could purchase. He was a very kind man, but did not know much about the value of old books.

-John Campbell: Campbell was a pushing man; he soon took the lines of his surroundings, and was one of the heaviest buyers of books at auction. John’s burly figure was always expected there, and soon his sonorous voice was heard above all others. If any one chanced to bid against him, woe to the bidder; John would again raise his sonorous voice to a higher pitch, and advance the price in such a vigorous tone that a laugh or a titter would ring through the room.

-Hugh Hamel: This old bookseller kept his store on South Tenth street, next to the Mercantile Library. He was there for many years, and had a large and good stock of old books for sale. He had risen from a mere peddler of books, and by dint of perseverance, collected them as a junk dealer collects his rubbish. He was probably the most ignorant of all the old booksellers in this city. At one time he could not write his own name. Whether he acquired this accomplishment afterwards I know not.

Peter Doyle: He was a man of much culture, with a refined taste; his personal appearance was somewhat peculiar. He was, in physique, rather small; delicate frame, with a large head and a peculiar cast in his eye. His face bore a studious aspect—pale and full of thought. A cast of melancholy, somewhat Hamlet-like, struck you on first impression. He was the most silent bookseller I ever met; only his most intimate friends could influence him in any prolonged conversation. He had his books carefully arranged, and when rare or valuable he wrote the most beautiful chirography and suitable descriptions I ever read. He was well posted in general literature, and had a fair knowledge of the bibliographical character of his books. So silent and so very soft in his conversation, that the book had really to sell itself. If you asked for a book and he had it, he would silently give it to you and point to the price, which as a rule was higher in price than any other bookseller in the city. No other effort to sell was made. He was always coldly courteous to you, and the reticent gentleman was always to be seen in him. His window was always filled with choice and rare editions, and often some choice work of art.

The sale of his fine stock of books was a very unfortunate affair to Peter Doyle, and there can be but little doubt that it hastened the close of his eccentric but high moral life. He was a man easily duped, and many cases are known where designing knaves took advantage of his generosity. One morning he was found dead in his store, unattended and uncared for. Peace to his ashes.

-Brown Brothers: Kept for several years an old book store, I think at the northwest corner of Fourth and Arch streets. One of the brothers was employed in the book department of Thomas & Sons, auctioneers, and had the best chances of purchasing old books of any booksellers in the city. This advantage was well used, and enabled the brothers to have a fine collection of books in their store. The brother with Thomas & Sons acquired bad habits—too fond of stimulants—and he died in a few years after the store was opened. The other brother, who was a kind and genial man, after the death of his brother, removed the stock somewhere out in Iowa, and whether he is dead or not I have not heard.

-Joseph Sabin: He entered into his new store with vigor and energy, and soon became the chief buyer at Thomas and Son’s auction store. For a few years he and John Campbell were the principal buyers, and few buyers could purchase books except Sabin and Campbell. Jennings the auctioneer seemed to favor them when opportunity offered. The consequence was that as credit was freely given, Sabin soon had a fine stock of books, the finest in the city at that time. Sabin was the connoisseur among old book buyers, and a fine business was the result. Had his rectitude been equal to his ability, none could have surpassed him in his business. One fine morning his store was closed and his whereabouts was not known. Jennings, of Thomas & Son’s, who had credited him with several thousand dollars, was soon on the alert, and found all the books had been shipped to New York. He at once went there, replevined them, and had them sent to their auction store and sold on their account. This ended Sabin’s career in this city. [More on Sabin’s New York adventures and bibliographic efforts follows.]

-Moses Polock: The library of Professor Reed, who was lost in the steamer Arctic over thirty years ago, he bought of the family, and in it were many fine books. The Roxborough Club books, a rare collection of early English reprints, were in this library. I presume Moses Polock was and is in a fair comfortable condition, because he made little exertion as a business man to sell his books, and because his prices are and were always fanciful. At any time after 10 o’clock in the morning you can ascend to his store; there you will find him bachelor-like all alone in his glory, breathing the atmosphere of his old books. He will meet you in the most genial manner, and will talk to you about his gems in the most intelligent spirit. There is but one exception I know of to this. He once sold for $16 “The Laws of New York,” printed by W. Bradford, a good price at that time; but the same copy was sold in the Brindley’s Collection of Americana at auction for $1600. The mention of this fact operated on Polock’s mind as if he had taken bitter gall for his breakfast. He has a rare early knowledge of men in the book business for the last forty years; but being a very reticent and diffident man, I am afraid those of the city will lose a charming lot of history about book-sellers, publishers and books. He is still in his old place, ever ready to do business with you, but is seldom visited except some old book-worm wants some very scarce book or pamphlet.

-John Hunt: Some twenty-five years ago, this brusque Englishman kept a book stand at the southeast corner of Sixth and Arch streets, and was very energetic and pushing in business. He also peddled books through the country in a wagon. He seemed to do a thriving business for several years; but all is not gold that glitters. His stock was seized and sold for the benefit of his creditors. He still lives in Camden, N.J.

-H. McKean: This old book-seller, who had a book stand against the burial ground was in Fifth street, near Spruce; and also a book store at the northwest corner of Fifth and Adelphi streets—added but little to the credit of the profession of old booksellers. He was literally of the character of an old junk dealer; and as a man his conduct was anything but exemplary—nay, censurable in every sense. I regret to write thus, but truth is the best, after all cavil may say. He was an Irishman by birth, but is now dead.

-W. S. Rentuol: An odd-looking character, a Scotchman by birth, and a good type of the old curiosity monger. He is lean and lanky in personal appearance, and always very frowsy-looking about the head. He has a fine collection of old Presbyterian books, and is located in the second story on Sixth street above Market. I understand he came here from Pittsburgh. He has over thirty years, but is known only by that class of book-buyers. He is of the old blue-stocking type, which is now becoming rare. I presume that from his long experience he knows every book of note in the literature he sells, from John Knox to the Old Covenanters of to-day. He is known to few collectors of books, as he deals only in those mentioned.

-Henry Holloway: For some years he was very successful; his stock so increased that he rented the next store, and had both of them well filled with books. He is a man of general culture, and has translated books from the German. In physique he is weak and puny; he has been suffering for over twenty years from a spinal complaint, but he still lives and sells old books; he is kind and genial in his manners, and a very interesting conversationalist. I have sold him many books in the course of twenty years, and always found him pleasant. After he had taken the additional store in Tenth street, he flourished for some time; but some ill luck or misfortune overtook him, and he had to remove to S. Ninth street, near Cherry street. There he opened with a poor stock of books; he lingered there for a short time, and then he removed to Eighth and Wood streets, with very few books, and opened a newspaper stand, where he remained a few years doling out a mere existence. About a year ago he removed to S. Tenth street, above Walnut, and there he has a few books, and I hope is improving his financial condition. Old age is creeping on him and with it poor health: it is not to be wondered at that he should be somewhat eccentric in his habits.

-Leary & Co.: Old booksellers everywhere consider old school books as trash, and place them away in some remote corner of the store. I am aware that the plea is, there is money in them; I am also aware that this firm has made some money out of them; hence it is continued. But does not this show that the prevailing active spirit of this firm is not influenced by such high types as James Lackington, Henry Bohn or a Quaritch, or the first-class old booksellers in Europe and in this country? All persons who know this well-known store know that it contains many first-class books; and why the lowest class should be their specialty can only be accounted for on the plea of making money. Primarily speaking, money is the chief factor, the great lever in business; but there were old booksellers, and there are still a few left, who look on money produced as secondary as a means to a brighter and nobler end. That end is the intrinsic love of the subject-matter of the books—the large amount of knowledge derived from the reading of them—the association and communion with the great minds of the past and the present—all of which tend to elevate the mind, the development of a higher moral tone, and the pleasures of intellectual growth. I know of old booksellers who have on their shelves the finest and recherché editions of the best authors. I have been in their stores when some of those fine books have been sold, and when the buyer had gone the expression was made, “I am sorry I have sold that book—such a fine edition of so great a writer.” Such men are rare, I know, and show that the money value of the book was merely secondary.

-Holloway: He has a book stand and basement in Third street, near Walnut, and has been there for several years, and has a stock of old books and magazines jumbled up in a very chaotic mass.

-Walter B. Saunders: A few months ago he removed his fine stock of books into a large store in Walnut street, above Ninth street, and I learn he is selling off his fine books and has commenced the publication of medical books. For this I am sorry, and I fear it shows that the patronage of our book buyers has not been liberal enough to induce him to continue to have for sale such a fine class of books.

-David McKay: This young man, whom I am not personally acquainted with, I have learned is a Scotchman, and was a salesman in Lippincott’s book store. He started the old and new book business a few years ago, and seems full of energy. His stock of new and old books is large and of good quality. His experience in old books is necessarily limited, and as several of our old booksellers have become venders and jobbers of new books, it can scarcely be expected that this young man, who is a large jobber of new books, can be of much authority among bibliomaniacs. He also publishes a few books, and judging from their character, no great fortune can be expected from their sales [guess again]. His store is on Ninth street above Chestnut street, rear of the Girard House.

-W. H. Brotherhead: His place of business is at 288 Girard avenue. He has been selling old books for a year, and seems as if success was with him. He has a full stock, and I trust all will be successful. He is one of my sons, and I trust and believe that the old book business will prosper.

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