Ye Olde Booksellers : Adventures in American Bookshops, Antique Stores and Auction Rooms


Ye Olde Booksellers

Adventures in American Bookshops, Antique Stores and Auction Rooms by Guido Bruno (Detroit: The Douglas Book Shop, 1922) is a swell little thing, the one in hand numbered 898 of 1,000 printed, with bumped corners and cracked hinges, at 125 pp. plus the index. It mostly covers New York City, excerpted in this issue; with brief stops in Chicago, Boston, and other cities that will have to wait until next time. The first passage is from his preface, and then we get good snapshots of many predecessors.

“On reading the proofs, I feel I have not done justice to my bookselling friends. I wandered into their shops, I browsed among their books, I listened to their talk and wrote it down . . . . pictures not studies, impressions not descriptions. Some of my friends have since passed on to a better world and in these pages will be found perhaps the only record of their useful and laborious lives. This, I believe, is an excuse for the existence of my little book.”

The Salvation Army

Books and magazines are turned over at once to the book department, which conducts a book store on Fourteenth Street near Union Square, not in the name of the Salvation Army, but in the name of the Reliance Book Store. Its employees are experienced booksellers who do not wear the Salvation uniform. In fact, every possible indication that this store belongs to the Salvation Army is carefully concealed. Magazines are here sold wholesale to other dealers or retail to you or to me or to anybody. The magazines given to the Salvation Army by charitable people are sold for from five to fifteen cents each. A very well-equipped rare book department attracts collectors from all over the city; “Book Prices Current” is the guide for the sales prices. School books are sold in great quantities. I believe the profit of this shop to be far greater than of any other book shop in the city, as its proprietors do not need to pay for the books they are selling.

There seems to be a good deal of hypocrisy in concealing the fact that the Salvation Army owns the Reliance Book Store. Why not put a sign out that would tell everyone that the books and magazines sold have been received as gifts for the poor and sick by the Salvation Army?

In New York Book Shops

Every city has its book streets. Book shops are gregarious, and they grow like mushrooms in groups. There is little competition in the book business. No matter how large and complete the stock of a second-hand book dealer may be, his neighbor’s collection will be quite different. The clients of second-hand bookshops like to “browse about,” they seldom ask for a certain book and they love to have a large territory in which to hunt.

The location of book streets changes with the growth of a city. Seventy-five years ago the book centre of New York was far downtown on Ann Street; after the Astor Library opened its doors, Fourth Avenue became the city center and soon was lined with picturesque bookshops. The city grew and Twenty-third Street became the Dorado of the book-hunter. Then people began to make immense fortunes and build palaces and mansions on Fifth Avenue, Central Park was opened to the public. . . .and Fifty-ninth Street became the book street of New York. Ever further the city expanded. Harlem grew in population and One Hundred and Twenty-fifth Street is another shopping center for lovers of books and objects of art.

Most of the book dealers kept step with the times. They moved from street to street. The grandfather had been prominent on Ann Street, the son on Fourth Avenue, and the grandson flourishes on One Hundred and Twenty-fifth.

Fourth Avenue has come to honors again during the past four years. Some big book dealers had the idea to move back to old “booksellers row,” new people soon gathered around them and today most of the second-hand book business of the United States is transacted here on this old street, surrounded by a ramshackle neighborhood, invaded by factory buildings and sweatshops.

But some book dealers could never make up their minds to move. They stuck to their shops. They are the landmarks of New York’s book streets.

The Den of a Pessimist

The Nestor of the book dealers who “have remained” and have withstood the trend of the times is E. A. Custer on Fifty-ninth Street. Right near Park Avenue, next to a livery stable in the cellar of an old-fashioned brownstone house, is his picturesque shop. Large bookstalls with hundreds of books invite you to rummage about, quaint paintings and drawings will arrest your attention and make you stop even if you are in a hurry. Firearms of all descriptions, swords and shining armor add a war touch that seems quite appropriate in our time. If you look closer you see a pale face with keen black eyes behind the show window. You have to look very closely in order to detect it. And if you enter the store you will meet the proprietor of face and store, sitting at his look-out, watching his stalls, scrutinizing the passers-by who stop to glance at his wares. He continues in his position while he is talking to you; he never takes his eyes from his treasures, even while waiting on a customer, or delving into the depths of his shop.

“I have to watch my property,” he offers as explanation while excusing himself. “I am listening to what you say,” he adds, “don’t mind if I don’t look at you while we talk. All people who stop out there to look at my books are thieves, and if I give them a chance to get away with my books they prefer to acquire them that way rather than to buy. They steal from earliest childhood and never cease until they are dead. I have been forty years in this very place and I know what I am talking about. And though I am as watchful as a dog, I lose about twenty per cent of the stock that I put in my stalls through thieving. All book collectors are thieves; people who never would think of taking anything else without paying for it must think a bookshop is different from all other stores. Their consciences are not sin-stricken if they incidentally slip a book they like into their pocket and walk out with it. I have long ceased to read books. I read human nature for my pastime.

“There is not a day that I do not lose books by theft. Take for instance last week. I had a set of Dickens on my stands. A cheap edition on the table where I keep my books for boys. I saw a little freckled, red-haired, bare-footed lad inspecting the Dickens books for longer than half an hour. Some time later he came back and looked at them again. This time he had a few books under his arm. He laid his books on the table and managed very cleverly to pick them up after a while together with one of my Dickens books. The boy really wanted to read the book and I let him get away with it. I knew that he was passing my shop every day, and I thought of speaking to him another time.

“The next day he came again, inspected the remaining volumes of my Dickens set for a few minutes, repeated his trick of the day before and stole another volume. He came every day and acquired six of the seven volumes. It was only on Saturday that he stole the sixth volume; this time I went after him, told him sternly to come back with me, handed him the seventh volume and said to him:

“’Here, my boy, I don’t keep open on Sunday, and somebody might buy this one and spoil your set. Better take it along. You have the right spirit. Continue and one of these days you will find yourself a millionaire. Perhaps then you will endow libraries.’”

“But,” I interjected, “mustn’t it be dreadful to sit in your shop day after day as a sort of watchman?”

“I’m accustomed to it,” he answered, “and that’s the only way I can make my business pay. It was not always so. There was a time when people really loved books and bought them in order to read. Then they had time to read. The successful man of today has an automobile, has to go out joy-riding after business hours, has to spend his time in cabarets and road-houses. He needs books only as decorations when he buys a home or furnishes an apartment. And then he leaves it usually to his decorator to choose the most attractive and expensive bindings in keeping with the color scheme of his library.

“I tell you, New Yorkers don’t know books, don’t want to know them. The men read newspapers, the women magazines, and the young people trashy novels. Of course there are our modern book collectors. They know as much about the commercial values of books as I do. They buy books as an investment, just like pictures. They follow the auction sales and gamble in books. You can hardly call such people booklovers. Thirty years ago I used to have comfortable chairs in my shop and in the evening big business men, lawyers, and physicians would drop in and examine at leisure some tomes that I had laid before them because I knew they were interested in this or that subject. Today most of the men who are interested in books are so poor that they can hardly pay their room rent.”

And then he proceeded to show me some of his treasures. “Who do you think buys this sort of books in our day? Dealers, nobody but dealers. And they sell them again to dealers. Finally they find their way into the auction rooms and are bought again by a dealer.”

A Whitman Enthusiast

He loves Twenty-third Street and intends to stick there till the last house is transformed into a factory. You almost fall into his shop from the street, so steep are the stairs and tread-worn. He has the instinct of the born second-hand book dealer to find out-of-the-way books on out-of-the-way subjects. There is always something unusual in his shop, and his prizes are within the reach of the poor man’s purse. He likes his books and he likes to sell them to good homes. And therefore he often fits his price to the purchaser’s purse. His hobby is Walt Whitman. He has the most famous collection of Whitman items in this country, even larger and more extensive than the one Horace Traubel has guarded. He has original manuscripts of Whitman, proof sheets of his books, everything that was ever written in any language about Walt Whitman, more than four hundred pictures of the “good, gray poet,” and you couldn’t buy one of those precious things for any money in the world.

An Optimist

“If one keeps a bookshop something unusual happens almost every day. It is the uncertainty of the book business that always attracts me. Of course every book dealer who wants to make a decent living must have a specialty of his own. Mine is architectural books. I have a large clientele of architects and decorators; I know these books well, and they were the backbone of my business. Chance and good luck are the great factors in the book dealer’s life. Let me tell you a few instances:

“A few months after I opened my shop at the time of the big auction sales, I felt very gloomy. Of course I needed cash in order to buy books, and I did not have it. One morning one of my best customers walked into my shop and asked for a copy of Canina’s Ancient Rome. I told him that the book was so scarce that there was no use to ask for it. ‘Well,’ he said, ‘I am willing to give you two hundred and fifty dollars for it any time you bring me a copy.’ The very same afternoon I noticed a copy of the book in an auction catalog to be sold the next day. I went to the auction and sat there shaking like a leaf, waiting for the first bid after the book was put up. Nobody seemed to be interested to buy it. Somebody bid five dollars, and I got it finally for six dollars and seventy-five cents. I had it wrapped up, took it around the corner to my customer and collected two hundred and fifty dollars. That was the first real money I made, and it gave me a chance to acquire better books.”

A Gambler

On Thirty-fourth, near Lexington Avenue, Jerome Duke has opened a bookshop of a peculiar sort. It is not exactly a book shop because there are antiques and curiosities all over the place. The books are thrown together topsy-turvy, Latin authors, modern novelists, theological books, old French tomes and German philosophers. I asked the proprietor about his books and his answer was:

“I don’t know anything about them. I never read books and would not be bothered with them. I buy them at a certain price and I try to sell them at a profit. In fact, I intend to buy anything I can get cheap enough, no matter what it is. I went into the book game in order to gamble and I am going to gamble on anything that people bring in here.

“There is one thing I have just refused to buy because the man wanted too much for it. He said that he had recently returned from Europe, had been a soldier, and wanted to sell me the embalmed finger of a German general. I forget the name of the general, but the man said that it was authentic and that he would sign a document before a notary public, swearing that he had been present at the time the finger was cut off of the general’s hand. Now, if he had asked fifty cents or a dollar, I would have been willing to take a chance, because it would make a good window display in this time of war; but he wanted five dollars, and I couldn’t see my way clear. That’s too much of a chance, to stake a five-spot on an embalmed finger of a German general. So I bought a slipper instead. It belonged to a Madame Jumel, and she is supposed to have worn it on the day that she got her divorce from Aaron Burr. I paid a dollar for it and I consider it a pretty sound gamble.”

“How so?” I asked.

“Well,” he answered, ”because Aaron Burr was the second Vice-President of the United States.” Of course that argument was final, and I wished him luck with his purchase.

The Oxford Book Shop

If you wish to know what authors Mr. Goldsmith does not like, look at his ten-cent stand in front of the shop. Extraordinary values can be had there for one dime, because Mr. Goldsmith does not like the books.

Casement’s Book Emporium

All his books are alphabetically arranged and I don’t wonder that many a scarce book can be found amongst his stock. Mr. Casement is a solitary figure among the book dealers of New York. Very silent, always kindly, smiling, obliging and unassuming. Often in the twilight, when he drinks his cup of coffee, and eats his herring with rye bread, I love to drop in and watch his self-content and real satisfaction with his life and with his lot. He is the only happy man among all the book dealers in New York—from hope and fear set free—content among his books.

The Man Who Knows His Books

A spotlessly clean little store on Thirty-eighth Street near Sixth Avenue, book shelves all around the walls, friendly pictures right beneath the ceiling. In the middle of the room a little desk, and in a chair before it Mr. Corbett, who prides himself on having read every book that he ever sold. Jack London used to spend hours here whenever he was in New York, and Edwin Markham received a good deal of inspiration from Mr. Corbett’s suggestions. Literary hack writers are his daily visitors; to call them customers would be too optimistic. He dreams of magazine articles, he invents titles for them and he sells you for a few pennies all the material to write them if you happen to be a journalist on the lookout for suggestions.

He had his own peculiar ideas of what people should read and what they shouldn’t read, and it is not an unusual occurrence that, for instance, a young girl should enter his shop and ask for a certain book, and he would answer: “Yes, I have it, but you shouldn’t read it, and I won’t sell it to you.” And then he will tell her about some other book, and picture it in such desirable colors that she will change her mind and buy it instead.

“You know,” he told me once, “the bookseller has a very important mission in life. The writer writes his books, but he doesn’t know into whose hands they will fall, the publisher sells them as merchandise to dealers all over the country, but we little shop-keepers come in contact with the real readers. It’s up to us to place something in their hands that might be decisive for their future career, that might inspire them to great and noble thoughts, and that might make criminals out of them. A few pennies that we might gain might mean the perdition of lives and souls.”

Mr. Stammer, Their Great Patron

Do you ask “How do all these people manage to darn a livelihood?” Mr. Stammer, the great book dealer from Fourth Avenue, whose specialty is hunting up every book that anybody in the United States might desire, no matter when and where printed, and who knows the most obscure book dealer in the most obscure part of New York, answered this question: “Because two-thirds of the book dealers in New York are selling exclusively almost to the remaining third. The big book dealers very rarely buy books from private sources. These little book shops are our vanguards, that collect the honey for us and we come and take whatever we can use, or they bring it to us, and we are glad to have them come regularly.” Mr. Stammer makes his round to these small book dealers almost constantly every day. He is their educator and patron. He tells them what books are worth money, and he pays a good price whenever he can use them. He is a welcome figure on rent day, and most of the treasures of these cobwebbed corners wander to the comfortable shelves of his palace on Fourth Avenue.

Mr. Madigan’s Interesting Shop

A complete change of scene. The most fashionable shopping district of New York, just around the corner of Fifth Avenue in Forty-fifth Street.

A window filled with expensively framed autographs marks the sanctum of Mr. Francis P. Madigan. He is a jovial man who has all the qualities which make for the success of our Fifth Avenue art shops. He knows when to stop talking, he knows when to say “the word” which closes the deal: he sells to his customers, they do not buy from him. The high walls are hung with innumerable autographs in appropriate frames, signed portraits of great celebrities; some little drawings and sketches by lesser know artists—Mr. Madigan also dabbles in art. His specialty is selling books signed by their authors. He is one of the few men who realized Oscar Wilde’s importance at a time when no one paid much attention to this unfortunate poet. In the course of years he collected a mass of Oscar Wilde material, and he is now reaping the harvest.

I spent an afternoon in his shop. Quite a study for the observer of human souls was the procession of visitors who came and went continuously. They pay for autographs of men who never could even sell their work during their lives. Mr. Madigan has sold more Poe material during the last ten years than anybody else.

Poor Poe! During his entire literary career he hardly got in direct returns as much money as this dealer in dead men’s letters receives for one single epistle.

Schulte’s Book Store

Scattered about the throbbing city are a few quiet nooks and corners that seem especially made for the lover of antiques. They are not numerous, but full of a certain charm. Book stores, with big boxes in front of the doors, where you can choose for your pennies, tomes in old-fashioned binding and printing. Inside are shelves laden with books in delightful disorder left by the book-hunter who looked through them before you. The narrow passageway becomes narrower on each visit you pay to the shop because of newly-arrived books and pamphlets.

A long vista of boxes and cases well filled with a delightful miscellany of books marks the front of Mr. Schulte’s book store on the southwest corner of 23rd Street and Lexington Avenue. Don’t cast suspicious looks at the nice girls in immaculate white blouses who loiter about the aisles. They won’t interfere with you. They won’t ask you any questions. You will soon feel at home after you have glanced at the titles of the books on any shelf, and if you meet Mr. Schulte he won’t be a stranger to you. There is such a deep-founded relationship between the man and his books and customers. He is the appreciative, sympathetic co-collector and, after you have gained his confidence, if the friendship is mutual, he will spread out his gems before you: a first edition with a rare imprint, or some unknown etching by Whistler or Haden or Zorn.

George D. Smith, Speculator in Literary Property

A new type of bookseller has developed since books and literary property have become commercial and subject to corners created by shrewd buyers and holders, and to fluctuations caused by selling en masse. Mr. George D. Smith, the king of rare books and great dealer in literary property, operates on the largest scale.

Mr. Smith buys carloads of books for millions of dollars and sells again by the carload to millionaires who build palaces in California and who order their libraries complete. Mr. Smith is the leading figure in our auction houses where he buys, excluding all competition, by paying an exorbitant price for anything he desires to possess. He is a millionaire and the chief counselor of our nouveaux riches when they furnish their homes with rare autographs and valuable books.

Mr. Cadigan of Brentano’s

After you have passed the stairway in Brentano’s leading to the basement and properly admired the framed autographs and signed portraits which cover the walls, you will pass the gate that leads into the kingdom of Mr. Cadigan, another dealer in literary property but of quite a different type. Mr. Cadigan is the head of Brentano’s periodical department. He knows the development of the American magazine better than anybody else living. For a score of years he has watched successes and failures, but nearest to his heart are the magazines of those men who have had the courage to stand up for their own ideas and their own conception of the world.

Some of the most pathetic figures in American letters have founded magazines of their own; they would not follow the example of their contemporaries or submit to the wishes of their publishers and to the presumed desires of the reading public. Mr. Cadigan knows them all. He recommends them if he thinks them commendable. While the gigantic trusts of our American news companies afford them very little or no chances for circulation, Mr. Cadigan adopts them and presents them for sale on his table next to the full-fledged product of the capitalistic press.

I get more satisfaction and pleasure out of Brentano’s basement devoted to periodicals than out of all the periodical reading rooms of all our public libraries combined, with the Carnegie institutions thrown in. To be able to look over the current issues of magazines and to take home just the interesting ones carries with it an intimate satisfaction.

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