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


Adventures in American Bookshops, Antique Stores and Auction Rooms by Guido Bruno

Adventures in American Bookshops, Antique Stores and Auction Rooms by Guido Bruno

Ye Olde Booksellers

Adventures in American Bookshops, Antique Stores and Auction Rooms by Guido Bruno (Detroit: The Douglas Book Shop, 1922) is further excerpted, though now from a new personal copy hand numbered 925 of 1,000 printed.

The Romance of a Chicago Book Dealer

Wells Street, between the river and East Chicago Avenue, is the Bowery of Chicago. Once a residential section, now the old mansions and frame cottages, hastily erected after the fire, are dilapidated and are used as lodging houses and factories of the inferior sort. Here and there a modern structure, a storage house or an industrial plant. Dan Martin’s Mission is here, several rescue halls, a Salvation Army citadel, the famous coffee wagons on the corners of side streets, where unfortunates are given a cup of coffee, a loaf of bread and advice that should lead to salvation. The Moody church is the aristocrat of the quarter. Drunken men and women line the sidewalks day and night; gruesome phonographs are continually heard in rum shops. Policemen patrol in pairs, and this beat is considered the most dangerous in the whole city.

In the midst of one of the worst blocks is a large show window. A pawnbroker would be most appropriate in these surroundings. But it is not a pawnbroker’s display; there are paintings and, if you choose to step nearer to examine them, you will scarcely believe your own eyes: a couple of portraits by Benjamin West, signed; a magnificent etching by Whistler, with the familiar butterfly in the left hand corner; high up near the ceiling, between mischievous gargoyles, a large canvas which one recognizes as a magnificent work of an Italian master. A few Duerers are pinned to the wall, rows of old books, not dusted for a long while, are on shelves in the center.

“If these things are genuine,” I thought, “they are priceless treasures; of course, they cannot be.” I entered the shop. There was just enough space to open the door, to squeeze in: piles of books from the floor to the very high ceiling, drawings, paintings, carvings, leaned against the dusty backgrounds of old tomes. It was the most extraordinary place I had ever entered. There seemed to be some order in this most astonishing disorder. A little bell sounded somewhere in the faraway background. It was a very long room. I heard approaching footsteps, very energetic footsteps. I was astonished that a person could worm his way through an almost invisible passage between the heaped-up stacks of volumes—an old gentleman with hair hanging to his shoulders, a long beard, wonderful eyes which seemed to sparkle in the dim light of the strange place. I liked him at once; his quiet melodious voice, his dreaming faraway look and the decision of his manner. I told him frankly that the strangeness of the place, in such strange surroundings, had attracted me. I came again and again. And I treasure the hours I spent in Mr. Doerner’s “book-shop” as among the most pleasant of my life. I never grew tired of standing up there. There was no space for a chair, and I doubt if there was a chair in the place.

I think it sacrilege to call Julius Doerner a book seller or antique dealer. He is a collector and an antiquarian. He knows his books, and has more than half a million of them. He treasures his works of art, delights in showing them to you, but selling? that is another question. There is not a phase of American history he could not lecture on with more thoroughness than any American University professor. His collection of pamphlets, of the earliest newspapers and periodicals, his gift of finding important contemporary notices relating to American history, in foreign journals, books and chronicles, is remarkable. I thought him an eccentric gentleman of means, who after extensive travel round the world, had decided to lead the life of a hermit among his treasures. He had, in fact, traveled very little; collecting had been his passion from earliest youth; he had denied himself for almost three decades the comforts and good things of this world; and he had found a very efficient way of beating our high cost of living.

“It is not the high cost of living,” he used to say, “it is the cost of high living that troubles the world. For years I have expended seven cents a day for my living expenses, and you can see, yourself, that I am strong and healthy.”

He is an excellent musician. Beneath thousands of pounds of books an old-fashioned piano is buried in his shop. He called the pile of material, that had to be removed before he could open the instrument, his time clock. Every once in a while he would forget his work (which consisted mostly of reading and compiling) and would devote himself with all the fervor of an enthusiast to Beethoven, Bach or Mozart.

Very few customers come to his place of business. If some curiosity seeker, like myself, attempts to break into his sanctum, they find in him a courteous but not inviting or solicitous shop keeper. “What do you want?” is his curt question. If a book is asked for, he will fish it out from among his five hundred thousand books with an almost miraculous quickness, name the price, and then it is up to the customer to say “Yes” or “No,” and the interview is ended. His treasures are all “finds.” He discovered them in junk shops, in garrets of old mansions, in unpromising trunks of storage houses. There is, for instance, a most magnificent soft-shell cameo, a biblical scene, marvelous workmanship of some exquisite artist of the early Italian renaissance. He bought it from a pawnbroker for five dollars. He refused a staggering sum from Tiffany’s and resisted the very tempting price which Mrs. Potter-Palmer was willing to pay for it, not because he did not need the money or was holding out for a larger profit (the sum offered him was two thousand dollars, I believe), but because he preferred to have the cameo himself.

Someone who has known Mr. Doerner since his first arrival in Chicago told me his story. He was a civil engineer, and lost his wife and child in the same year. Grief and disappointment turned him against his profession. He inherited at this time something like twenty acres of land in Chicago, which were in those days outside the city limits, but are now the most valuable property in the city. He was waiting for a final settlement of the estate, and used his idle hours looking about the book-shops in Chicago. Soon he was well known and well liked by all the book dealers. He purchased books and his knowledge of books was astonishing. About twenty years ago Chicago was a great center for book auctions. Shiploads of books from England were sold here, and Mr. Doerner soon became a frequenter of the auction rooms. Early printed books were his hobby. Once he could not resist and put in his bid of several hundred dollars for a rare collection. The books went to him. He could not pay, but gave as security a mortgage on his legacy. In subsequent auctions he bought large lots, increasing the mortgage upon his real estate. Then came the day when the auctioneers demanded payment. They foreclosed the mortgage, bought Mr. Doerner’s property at auction for a ridiculously small amount of money, at once quit the book auction business, parceled out Mr. Doerner’s twenty acres of land into building lots, and became—millionaires.

Mr. Doerner bore his misfortune with equanimity. He continued his regular trips to the book dealers and one day a proposition was put before him. A bookseller on Wells Street, one of the oldest in the city, died suddenly, and his stock of books had to be catalogued in order to be sold at public auction for the benefit of his estate:

“Would Mr. Doerner undertake to catalogue the stock and appraise it; the estate would pay him three dollars per day for his service?” Mr. Doerner accepted, and, to make the story short, at the end of six months, the cataloguing and appraising were not yet finished, the book-seller’s heirs were unwilling to pay Mr. Doerner’s fees, which amounted to several hundred dollars, upon the dubious chance of reimbursement by public auction:

“Would Mr. Doerner accept the books, themselves, in payment of his claim?” He would.

And so he found himself the proprietor of a book shop.

Mr. Doerner has made discoveries during his career which were of the utmost importance to American history. His collection of paintings, especially of American paintings, would fill a private museum. He hates commercialism, he loves weak humanity, and, strange to say, the disreputable men and women of Wells Street love him, and he and his possessions are safe in the most dangerous part of the city.

Or is it true, as he once answered in a rather pessimistic mood: “If they suspected that I had only one thirty-second carat of a diamond in my place, they would murder me and loot my shop in order to find it. But books or paintings, who cares for them in America?”

Powner’s Book Shop

No, there is no accident, no riot on the corner of Clark Street, opposite the City Hall. The scrambling mass of people are simply book lovers and book collectors, and Powner’s has got in a new consignment of books. Such scenes occur every Saturday. The big stalls in front of the shop are filled with all sorts of books, old Roman antiquities, books on sports, old poetry, collected by someone who had disposed of his books, or who had left his treasures behind him. Mr. Powner used to be a school teacher in Greensburg, Indiana, and he started his book business about twelve years ago with the thoroughness of a school master. Rare and valuable books are his own special department, and he leaves modern books entirely to his clerks.

His shop today is the center for the Chicago collectors. The human interest he takes in his customers is that of a real antiquarian. Everybody is at home in his shop. He doesn’t begrudge anyone finding a gem on his “quarter counter.” Last week, for instance, some lucky chap found a first edition of Rousseau’s “Emile” with Rousseau’s autograph presentation inscription to the King and the royal coat of arms on the binding, and bought the book for seventy-five cents. “Such things may happen,” was Mr. Powner’s remark when he heard of the transaction. “I am glad he got it.”

Saturday is the great book day. In the back room upon empty book boxes men of all walks of life sit around, prosperous business men, millionaires, who are just enjoying living, students, newspaper men from the nearby newspaper offices, but they all are linked by a common love. They are all ardent book collectors.

There are a good many other book shops in Chicago. There is Hill’s, who caters to the extravagant wishes of Western millionaires. Then there is McClurge’s, the Model Book Store, conducted like a modern department store.

But then there is the unique product of the Chicago book market, the peripatetic book-seller. Half collector, half merchant, these men are constantly nosing about shops, picking up books in Powner’s, for instance, for twenty-five cents and selling them at once for two dollars and a half to Mr. Hill, who they know has an inquiry for that particular copy. They love the uncertainty of their daily bread. Setting out in the morning upon their rounds, they look forward to their finds of the day. In a junk shop they, perhaps, will run across one of those scarce items which are found once in a lifetime, and again they may find nothing but worry about the needs of the day.

In Boston

Book stores are the intellectual barometers of our cities. Show me where people buy their books and I will tell you what sort of life they lead. Book stores always were and are mirrors of the habits and intellectual preferences of men and women.

The private library has ceased to be the pride of the home. Homes have given way to apartments and flats with only little space to spare for book shelves. The garage has taken the place of the library. We see our friends in hotels and clubs, we spend our evenings only rarely at home. Our Age of Electricity and rapid transportation facilities does not permit us to acquire the placid habits of book collectors and of book lovers. Sure enough we read books, because we want to know what their authors have to say. But the author remains a stranger to us, the book once read is done with forever. We speak about automobiles, we look forward to owning a machine, we are building garages with the same enthusiasm that our fathers used to expend on their libraries and their books.

New York is different. But New York is not an American city. It’s so near to Europe and its population so distinctly foreign that the change of the last 50 years is hardly noticeable yet in its book shops. Detroit, the old French settlement, which only ten years ago was a tenth of its present size, has no second-hand book shops at all. The Detroit book dealers mete out light summer fiction which fits into people’s lunch baskets in the summer and sentimental Christmas carols in the winter. Technical books, automobile literature are their specialties. This is only natural. Ninety per cent of the people are building motor cars in order to make a living; they are the buyers of the technical books. The minority live in order to buy cars and make motor trips, and therefore they need light fiction.

The character of Albany is most truthfully portrayed in its book stores. Our legislators have so much time on their hands that they actually read historical books, books about Dutch New York, about the Wars of the Revolution, law books, old state records. It is considered good form to collect a historical library after being elected to office and residing in Albany. But curiously enough in these same serious book stores loads of that sort of fiction can be found which smuthounds of the Vice Society are eternally trying to banish from earth. Philadelphia, of course, specializes in Quaker literature; Buffalo, infected by the spirit of near East Aurora, is swamped with the things Elbert Hubbard used to love. Chicago discloses the peculiar love for art, literature and philosophy that its great percentage of German workmen brought over from their fatherland and left as inheritance to the second and third generation. It is almost incredible, yet true, that laborers, coming home from work in the stock yards, stop at the book stalls and buy an add volume of Kant, or Heines’ “Badlands and Poems.” Chicago always had the finest German books in the country, most likely brought over by the immigrants.

San Francisco has a touch of the East. Books on mysticism have the honor place. Curious books of all kinds are bought eagerly. Indeed, the book stores here tell you the story of California’s strange cults, of its mystics, its prophets and its thousands and one seekers after the hidden truths of the universe.

The last ten years have wrought an astonishing change in the book stores all over the country, but nowhere a sadder and more lamentable one than in Boston, Mass.

Old Cornhill

This oldest street of Boston, the Cheapside of New England, once an important center of city trade, gave Boston its literary charm. In the dilapidated old-time queer buildings, half a dozen book stores invited the lovers of literature. Here was the favorite haunt of the men who gave Boston a literary reputation. It was here in Cornhill that Thomas Burnham founded the first second-hand book shop in the United States in 1825. Young Burnham went from here day after day, with a basket of books on his arm, to the wharves to trade with sea-faring people. Almost one hundred years have elapsed and the shop is still there. Oliver Wendell Holmes had his chair and desk in “The Old Corner Book Shop”, and inColesworthy’s was a hidden nook where Whittier used to hide for an hour or two, reading newly arrived books, buy only rarely buying.“Littlefield’s” was next door, where Lowell, Longfellow and Emerson used to congregate, talk and occasionally buy additions to their libraries.

But alas! Boston is no more the Athens of America. The book stores on Cornhill have shrunk to the number of four. New buildings have invited modern business to invade the neighborhood. The remaining book dealers, still following the traditions of half a century, are very old men. Their days are counted and soon Cornhill will be remembered as one of the landmarks that have been swept away by the modern spirit and are gone forever.

Burnham’s Antique Book Store

Richard C. Lichtenstein, fifty-five years ago an apprentice to old Mr. Burnham, is now the proprietor of the shop. He has many memories of great book days in Boston.

“The most important of all my ‘finds’ since I entered the second-hand book trade in the late sixties,” he said (he’s a good and entertaining talker), “was the copy of Poe’s ‘Tamerlaine,’ which created a great sensation among collectors. This small pamphlet of forty pages, published by Collin F. Thomas in Boston in 1827, had escaped the searches of the keenest of book collectors. I usually spent my noon hour in other second-hand stores, and one day I found this small pamphlet which I purchased for 25 cents. I had a good many opportunities to dispose of it, but didn’t sell it before 1892, in auction. It was knocked down to Dodd, Meade & Co. for $1,850. ‘Tamerlaine’ has remained unique among all the books, being today the most costly American book known. I understand a New York bookseller is holding a copy at $15,000.

“One day, I was offered a small volume which lacked the title and two leaves. There was nothing specially attractive about the book, but the same intuition for which I never could account and that guided me through my whole life as a bookseller, urged me to offer the owner $2.00, which was readily accepted. Later, I found out that the book was a copy of the Bay Psalm Book, the first book printed in New England, Cambridge, 1640. Bishop Hurst bought the book for $1,000, and after his death, it fetched $2,500 in the auction of his library. But I have also met with great disappointments. The greatest one was on a visit to an old Boston family residing on Beacon Hill. An elderly lady, the only surviving member of the family, wished to dispose of her library, and I found her seated between two piles of books busily engaged in tearing out the fly leaves wherever they contained any inscriptions. Nothing could induce her to stop this barbaric atrocity. I begged of her to let me examine the fly leaves and titles before she threw them in the open grate. I saw to my grief, John Hancock’s inscriptions, and George Washington’s presentation to some lady contemporary, revolutionary persons of the first importance. Another opportunity I missed was years ago when Mr. James J. Blaine happened to drop in our shop, selecting a copy of Count Grammont’s “Memoirs,” asking to have the volume laid aside for him. He wrote his name on the title page and was to call and pay for it on his return to the hotel. The incident must have slipped his memory, for he never returned for the book, and I was foolish enough to erase his signature from the fly leaf. Especially in our days, where ‘Association Books’ were so very much in demand, Blaine’s name in the ‘Memoirs’ would have been a sought after curiosity.”

A New and Evil Spirit

Boylston street faces the big park, is a lively promenade, a good deal of shopping is done in its neighborhood, a street always densely populated. The Garden Side Book Shop hung out its shingle here, which consists of a huge garden gate.

Women have a good deal to do in public life in Boston, and women are determined to be the intellectual guides of Boston book buyers, at least of such as wish to be “modern” and “up-to-date.” The Garden Side Book Shop is conducted by women exclusively. I dare say women must also be the chief buyers. The most marvelous and costly bindings on rows and rows of shelves. Books of poetry, novels, anthologies that were never heard of and what is still worse, will never be heard of, are beautifully dressed like brainless women, who wear gowns of Worth or Lady Duff-Gordon. Mrs. Bertha Beckford, one of the proprietors, approached me with the charm of the reception lady in a fashionable hair-dressing establishment, and invited me to inspect “some darling little books, the sweetest ever, just arrived, from Paris.” I followed her to a little salon done in pink and canary and viewed little miniature books, bound in French crepe, a wallpaper effect. There were French anthologies of bits of poetry and of war sentiment. Dowagers, with grown-up granddaughters, and studded lorgnettes went into fits of ecstasy over the “darling books,” and I shouldn’t be surprised if they bought some and took them “as much appreciated gifts” to some home for convalescent soldiers and sailors.

Book Shops for Boys and Girls

“Splendid,” I thought, seeing the sign next door. The shop where boys and girls can come and choose their reading. It’s located on the fourth floor of the Women’s Educational and Industrial Union. It looks like a pharmacy. There wasn’t a boy or girl in sight. A few old ladies, who must have left the sewing circle on the third floor, were sitting about, reading. I looked around the shelves and I wondered if all the Boston boys and girls lack red blood and the gift of fancy and actually read the books I saw. Miss Alma Howard, one of the dispensers of this shop, told me that all books are being carefully censored and selected by one Bertha E. Mahoney, the director of the Book Shop of the Union. Bertha seemed to be the ruling spirit. She has forbidden such and such books, she has placed others on the blacklist, but she also selected books that ought to be read by boys and girls. I asked what literary qualifications Miss Mahoney had to qualify her for the censoring. All I could gather was the fact that Miss Mahoney is Miss Mahoney, a whilom superintendent of the food shops of the union on the floor below. Needless to say, the union is a highly aristocratic place, frequented exclusively by the flower of Boston’s ultra fashionables. Why doesn’t someone start a real book store for boys and girls? Accessible to everyone, where second-hand books could be had for ten cents or a quarter?

Every other old building in Boston, and many churches bear honor tablets, telling us that here assembled revolutionists of 1776. The Boston of today, with all its laws of restriction and of censorship, is proud of its ancient rebels. How paradoxical! In talking about laws, a new one has just been enacted. The police apply to the sale of second-hand books the same rule as to the sale and buying of second-hand clothing. A dealer, purchasing books from anyone, has to report the purchase to the police, describe the article purchased and has to wait thirty days before he can sell it. The law requires that each book dealer must pay five dollars for a license. A similar law had been enacted 60 years ago, as a civil war protective measure. Oh, Athens of America! Selling books with a second-hand clothes dealer’s license!

Books in Ice Box

Opposite the Copley-Plaza, in a fashionable little building of its own, is the Dorado of America’s rejected poets and poetesses, essayists, novelists, free verse artists and of everybody else Amy Lowell and Ezra Pound would press to their bosom. Here is the book shop of the Four Seas Publishing Company, and never was there a greater collection of literary atrocities in one room than in this airy, inviting “Hall of Fame.” The soul of Amy Lowell greets one uncannily articulate from the page of each book. A very ambitious clerk praised the authors of the books higher than genius has ever been praised in America. “We have bought 81 titles from the Badger Publishing Company only recently and have not spared any expense to print the most attractive title and jackets for this new addition to our stock.” Everybody knows the Badger books. The Badger Publishing Company gladly accommodates authors of novels and extends to them the privileges of their printing establishment provided they are willing to pay for publication.

I descended to the basement to see the enormous stock of books the Four Seas Company had acquired. The store must have been occupied by a wholesale florist previously, and the most tremendous ice box I ever saw in my life filled the whole basement. The Badger books, thousands of them, were neatly piled up in the ice box. They were in the proper place, indeed.

The Mysterious Book Shop

On Washington Street is a very attractive book store conducted by a blind couple. Man and wife about thirty years of age, both totally blind. The shop is scrupulously clean. If you ask for a book, the proprietor will find it in a miraculous way, provided it is on the shelves. If you are browsing about, picking up a book here or there, he will ask you to read off to him the title, and then tell you the price. Both look happy, contented, and seem prosperous.

I wondered how it had happened that they started in the book business, that both of them were blind; had they been blind before they married or had misfortune overtaken them after their marriage? They’re in a strange and mysterious place, but peaceful and harmonious.

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