Books About Bookselling: The Bookseller’s Apprentice

The Bookseller’s Apprentice

As the publisher’s foreword points out, “Anyone who has gone to Boston to look for rare books in this century will have memories of Goodspeed’s Book Shop.” The history of this establishment, founded in 1898, was recorded by Charles Eliot Goodspeed in his 1937 Yankee Bookseller, and here son George takes up pen to bring the narrative forward in a limited edition of 750 copies. As George worked his way up at Goodspeed’s from 1924 until the shop’s closing in 1995, it appears that the apprenticeship was successful.

Though a little slim, a bit disjointed, and lacking an index, The Bookseller’s Apprentice makes for a fine read. The first appendix reprints his father’s 1935 foreword to Catalogue 250; the second is a supplement to a 1948 fiftieth anniversary catalog that features wonderful photos of the Goodspeed operations; the third contains a 1950 obituary of C. E. G. by Michael J. Walsh; and the fourth has a few more recent photos of the Beacon Street location.

The first four following excerpts are from the foreword by David J. Holmes.

“During its long history, the book shop occupied a number of locations, beginning in a basement at 5A Park Street adjacent to Boston Common and, after existing at various sites on Beacon Hill, returning finally and fittingly to rooms upstairs at 9 Park Street, where it closed in February of 1995. From 1927 on, there was also an ‘Old South Branch’ of Goodspeed’s, a spacious underground book shop equipped to handle large libraries of good used books, in the basement of the Old South Meeting House at No. 2 Milk Street. Most of the rare material, however, was sold on the Hill.”

“But Goodspeed’s was unquestionably the dominant firm on the scene. Its prominence, both locally and internationally, coupled with the fact that the shop, in good Yankee tradition, kept its secrets to itself, made Goodspeed’s the subject of frequent rumors and speculations in the local trade, many of them unfounded and not all of them kind. Indeed, the shop, had a kind of mystique which lured me strongly, as it had countless others.

“Whenever I felt shop-bound, I left my office, walked to Boylston Street, crossed the Public Gardens and climbed the Hill to Goodspeed’s. There was always a feeling of excitement when I reached the corner of Park and Beacon Streets and saw the shop’s sign, elegantly printed in black and gold with its famous logo depicting a horse and rider and the words ‘Anything that’s a book’ which hung above the door. With luck, the window displays on either side of this door would have freshened up since my last visit to include new items from a recently acquired Old Bostonian library.”

“Like every scout who visited Goodspeed’s, I always hoped that my arrival at the cases coincided with the shelving of new acquisitions, since books at Goodspeed’s were modestly priced and often sold swiftly. I bought my first book as a new bookseller from one of those cases. It was a copy of Eden Phillpotts’ best-known novel, Children of the Mist, for which I paid $7.50 and which I sold, not long afterwards, for $15.00. A great success!”

“To a young non-New Englander, there was an appealing ‘Yankee’ feeling about the shop, a kind of aloofness or reserve. It was a place where people were still called ‘Mr.’, ‘Mrs.’, or ‘Miss’, and certain matters of form were taken for granted. Discounts were not loosely given to the trade, and one had to earn a thirty day credit. (You were notified of this achievement by letter from the bookkeeping department.) As a matter of course, the shipping department was located somewhere out of sight. And there were the private areas to which only the privileged were invited. It was several months before I was shown into George Goodspeed’s second floor office or permitted to view the treasures of the vault hidden beneath the stairs on the first floor.”

Milk Street fresh-air shelves

“Edwards had with him a sheaf of bills which he had been unable to collect from his American customers. When Wells found the name of his new employee among them, he sent a radiogram to his shop, firing Gambet. I believe this is the only instance on record of a bookshop employee being discharged from the middle of the Atlantic. At one time or another, Gambet worked for Rosenbach, James F. Drake and Thomas F. Madigan. He died in 1948 having, I suppose, established some kind of record for the number of booksellers by whom he had been employed, though as early as 1931 he wrote that he had made ‘a graceful exit from a wretched business . . . in which the only one who has a chance of making a decent living is the man who owns the shop . . .’”

“Lowell’s library was a very large one. He fancied himself a bibliophile, but on the whole his collection was rather that of a reader. He had nevertheless some taste for old books, which he annotated with notes of their rarity and significance. One such was an edition of Homer printed at Basle in 1551. He had acquired this handsome folio in the spring of 1839 shortly before he met Maria White, to whom he was married five years later.

“Looking through the early chapters of Scudder’s biography of Lowell to see whether there was any mention of the copy of Homer, I came upon this passage in a letter dated June 13, 1840: ‘She [Maria White] is a glorious girl with her spirit eyes. On the mantel is a moss rose she gave me which when it withers I shall enshrine in my Homer . . .’ I turned back to the old folio and found the rose, after a century, still there pressed between the leaves. A charming miracle of survival, it still remains there.”

“Wilson having been first in the field, it was natural for us to feel that he was entitled to the first crack at desirable pieces, but his resources at the time were comparatively limited. He was realist enough to know that this placed him at some disadvantage, and took it in grace when an occasional prize was awarded to Howe, the man with the ready money. Nevertheless, there were times when we had to decide, arbitrarily, as to which of the two was to be offered a particularly desirable object. I like to think we were sufficiently diplomatic in handling such situations. At any rate, I remained friendly with both gentlemen.”

“Ryan was a compulsive spender rather than a collector. He bought largely on impulse and rarely with judgement, but it was inevitable that he picked up many choice things along the way. On one day in March, along with a fine lot of natural history, he bought a fine copy of the first edition of Walden and a copy of Thoreau’s Cape Cod in literally new condition, so fresh that it might have been kept in cotton batting from the day of publication. This latter he determined to have put in a sumptuous binding by Sangorski and Sutcliffe, for which the binder was instructed to submit drawings for Ryan’s approval. I remonstrated with him, suggesting that a less brilliant copy would do equally well for rebinding, but he was adamant, since he wished the original cloth covers to be bound in at the end, and it was essential that they be pristine. I have always regretted being a party to this desecration.”

Beacon Street first floor and balcony

“One such ‘sleeper’ to which I have referred earlier appeared in the Harmsworth sale at Sotheby’s in 1949. The catalogue entry read as follows:

Cotton, J. Milk for Babes drawn out of the Breasts of Both Testaments, 811., First edition, red levant morocco by Riviere, g.e. [Church cat., 473; not in Sabin], Rare. 8vo. 1646.

“A magnificent specimen of undercataloguing by omitting to quote the subtitle: ‘Chiefly, for the spiritual nourishment of Boston Babes in either England: But may be of like use for any children,’ not only was the flavor of the book lost, but the fact that this was without doubt the first American juvenile. Nor was it pointed out that the little book was an ancestor of the New England Primer in which it was reprinted many times after 1690. Nor, indeed, did the catalogue do justice to the rarity; only two other copies were (or are) known: one in the British Museum, the other (wanting two leaves) in the Huntington Library.”

“The only defense a bookseller has against thieving is constant vigilance, whether it be in keeping a close watch on strange customers lest they make off with his stock, or in buying, to question as closely as possible the history of the occasional book brought in for sale. Either way there is the risk of offending perfectly innocent people, and still, after all reasonable precautions are taken, the grave danger of being victimized remains.”

“The number of books to which the adjective may be applied in the absolute sense is not large; and such are of infrequent occurrence on the market. A good example in modern literature is Robert Frost’s first printed book Twilight of which the poet had two copies printed. We have his word that he destroyed one of the two. The remaining copy he sold in 1940 to Earle J. Bernheimer. It appeared in the auction rooms in 1950, when it realized $3500, a price which seemed to me at the time very modest, indeed. That it went so cheaply was due, as Mr. Barrett writes, ‘to an egregious blunder.’ I let Twilight get away. I thought it should have been worth four or five times that amount, and before the sale I tried vainly to convince two of my collector friends that they should bid on it accordingly. Failing to convince them, I lacked the courage to back up my conviction and pursue the prize for stock. Time proved that I was right when, after another decade, it finally passed into the great Barrett collection, it did so at a figure not far from my original estimate.

“In any event, unique is a word to be used sparingly; and the conservative cataloguer is likely to qualify it as ‘unrecorded and presumably unique.’

“In this category is the original American printing by Benjamin Franklin of Richardson’s Pamela. Charles Evans, in the second volume of his American Bibliography listed three separate printings in 1744, one in Boston, one in New York and one in Philadelphia, the latter printed by Franklin. No copy of any of these printings had ever been found. It was Evans’s practice, on occasion, to list books as possibly printed in the country because he had found them listed in advertisements or catalogues of American booksellers. It has often developed that no such American printings ever existed: the bookseller was merely offering imports of English books from his stock. Such are referred to by bibliographers as ‘ghosts,’ i.e., books described by bibliographers, but which are indeed nonexistent.

“This American Pamela had for years been held as one of Evans’s phantoms, as indeed it was, since, insofar as we still know, there was no edition in 1744. It developed, however, that Benjamin Franklin had indeed printed an edition of the book, a copy of which had reposed for years in the library of Simmons College in Boston. It had been found and recorded in manuscript by the W.P.A. imprints survey conducted during the years of the great Depression. It was dated 1742 (1743 on the title-page of Volume II) but the printing was not completed until late in the summer of 1744.

“Neither we nor, so far as I am aware, anyone outside of Simmons knew of the existence of this copy until 1968 when Dr. Park, then President of the College, called me on the phone to inquire whether there might be a market for it and at what price. It was hard to understand how the entire edition of such a substantial book (394 pages) could, with the exception of this one copy, have disappeared entirely. C. William Miller’s researches, since published (Benjamin Franklin’s Philadelphia Printing) may give the answer. That 36 sets were still on hand when Franklin sold his stock in 1748, suggests that the publication was not a commercial success and that many copies may have been scrapped.

“There was obviously no problem in disposing of such a book—the earliest work of fiction printed in the American colonies, by a printer who was later to become one of the great founders of the republic. As often happens in such instances, the difficulty was in dealing with a board of trustees all of whom became, of course, instant authorities on a subject of which they had the day before known little or nothing. The method of sale, the profit to be allowed the entrepreneur, and the identity of the ultimate purchaser were all of concern to each and every individual on the board. We felt fortunate, indeed, to be permitted to handle the transaction, even though under the circumstances the profit involved was nominal, and though we had to get the seller’s approval of our customer as an appropriate repository. We chose the American Antiquarian Society on whose shelves the book rests happily today. It is properly dignified by inclusion in that great institution’s brochure A Society’s Chief Joys.”

Goodspeed’s operations

“Baum’s great classic, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz has always been a rarity in fine condition. Such a copy, presented by the illustrator W. W. Denslow to Charles Warren Stoddard at the time of publication, and also inscribed by the author, with an original drawing by Denslow, was offered in a Goodspeed catalogue in 1909. Half a century later, on the death of the original purchaser, the copy passed once more into Goodspeed’s hands. On this second go around, it realized exactly three hundred times the earlier price. The same catalogue listed a copy of the first edition of Tom Sawyer, inscribed by the author, also to Stoddard, at the modest price of ten dollars.

“Unlike the Wizard of Oz, Tom Sawyer never came back to us, and remains a memory, though bodily it may be seen in the Lilly Library at the University of Indiana.”

“In terms of absolute rarity, the first edition of Little Women is not particularly uncommon, but like most popular books for the young, fine copies are another matter. The finest one I have ever handled came from an old collection in the town of Bedford, Massachusetts, the library of a minister which had been kept shelved for years in an unheated room. Not only had the books been little read; when we saw them they were covered with a coating of dust an eighth of an inch thick. When this protective coating was blown away, the original covers appeared in virginal splendor, the gilt lettering shining like new.”

“During the years, we have had our share of rare juveniles, including two copies of Mrs. Hale’s Poems for Our Children (1830) in which ‘Mary’s Little Lamb’ was first collected; and most recently one of the two known copies (albeit very imperfect) of the first edition (1698) of Benjamin Harris’s The Holy Bible in Verse, in a charming contemporary binding with blind-stamped panel showing an Indian hunting wildfowl with his bow and arrow.

“To one looking back over half a century, it seems as if the supply of rarities in this field is drying up. But a little time is still left, and perhaps one of these days someone will drop in at 18 Beacon Street with a copy of A New Gift for Children, the first known non-biblical book for children, published in Boston about 1756. To date, the only known copy of the first edition is in the Huntington Library. The 1690 edition of the New England Primer is yet to turn up anywhere!”

“In what way Reed Powell’s name came up, I don’t recall, but Frost remarked that Powell had been up visiting a few days earlier, and in the course of a walk over the hills had said, ‘You’re not really a Vermonter. After all you were born in San Francisco, and spent most of your life in New Hampshire. You’re just a bastard Vermonter.’ Alluding to the sharp tongue for which Professor Powell was notorious, Frost replied ‘Better a bastard Vermonter than a Vermont bastard.’”

Goodspeed’s operations

“I have mentioned before the term ‘breaker’ for books frequently broken up for sale by the leaf, or, more usually, for the illustrations which are sold as prints. The most famous and the most expensive today, of course, is the great folio edition of Audubon’s Birds of America. But the prints from this great work were not always so highly esteemed, and it was not until comparatively recent times that complete sets were broken up for their illustrations.

“Odd volumes, however, came on the market occasionally, and, we were among the first to exploit the prints in this way. Indeed, as recently as fifty years ago our supply of them was so ample that we were able to consign quantities to others for sale without seriously depleting our own stock. The Scribner Bookstore in New York and the Henderson County Historical Society in Kentucky were two of our principal outlets.

“As early as 1905 we were able to catalogue at one time nearly two hundred of the bird plates at the extremely modest prices then prevailing. The Snowy Owl, for example, was listed at twenty dollars; the Columbia Jay at twelve dollars and a half; the Great Blue Heron at twenty; and the others in proportion at prices not more than one per cent of what they fetch today.

“We have never broken a complete set of this monumental work. A few months after I came to the shop, we catalogued the fine set from Amy Lowell’s library for $3500 (an advance of only $500.00 over what we had asked in 1903) and not long after a remarkably fine set bound in full levant by Sanford the old Boston binder, found no buyers at the same price. Sanford used to tell of the many months it took him to find skins large enough for the binding.

“The work was originally published by subscription, and some subscribers, for one reason or another, allowed their subscriptions to lapse. As a result, portions of the first two volumes occasionally turn up in the hands of descendants of the original subscribers. One such lot came to light in New Jersey in 1950. It was in February of that year that I had been in New York and called on David Randall, then manager of Scribner’s rare book department. In the course of my visit, he picked up a letter lying on his desk, waved it casually and remarked that it was from a woman nearby who had the first hundred and five plates from the Audubon. The prints were totally untrimmed and first states throughout. ‘I have offered $4,000’ he said ‘but the owner has made no decision.’ The letter, which of course he did not let me see closely, was on a characteristic blue note paper. I should naturally have liked to have a chance to bid on the prints. When I got back to Boston, I found on my desk what was clearly the counterpart of the one Dave had waved in front of me. I called the owner of the plates, made an appointment to see her the next day, went back to New York on the night train, and proceeded down to the New Jersey suburb. It was not difficult to come to terms with the owner at $4,500. Bookselling is a very talky business, and the temptation to blab is sometimes irresistible.”

Rita Donlon on the ladder

The last few excerpts are from the aforementioned appendices, in the words of the author’s father.

“Back in Boston with my few boxes of books I had next to find a store or ‘shop’ as I called it. (Most book dealers had ‘Book Stores’ in those days. ‘Book Shop’ seemed a little nicer to me, and so I adopted the word.) The most direct way of getting a store, I thought, was to go to a real estate office, and I chanced into Whittier’s Agency, where I was politely received. The first question asked was how much rent I wished to pay for the small premises I was looking for, the clerk at the same time pulling out a drawer of his card index. I replied, ‘Not over $50 a month.’ Bang closed the drawer! Driven to become my own agent I wandered around in a district which seemed promising. I had fixed upon the vicinity of Boston Common as being desirable. Walking up Park Street, I saw, about half way up to Beacon Street, a basement window with the sign ‘To Let.’ The rent, $55, I thought I could manage. Christmas was at hand. The beautifully printed books of Stone & Kimball (for the most part not greatly distinguished in contents, but attractively bound) at twenty-five cents were offered as a suggestion of something between a Christmas card and a gift, and I found that the ladies of Beacon Hill and the Back Bay were very appreciative of the opportunity of getting an acceptable gift-remembrance for so slight a sum. The odd volumes of the Stone & Kimball edition of Poe at fifty cents were very popular, and my own private collection of Ruskin and Dr. Thomas William Parsons, the translator of Dante, whose verse had appealed to me and whose books I had collected, gave a slightly superior flavor to the stock. For furniture, I had a chair and also a wooden box, covered with denim and stood on end, which made a sufficient desk. A shelf, nailed inside the box and holding three volumes of American Book Prices Current (all that were published at the time), comprised my reference library. My first day’s receipts were something over $20. (In those days of wisdom, before the government claimed a partnership in the business, I reckoned no transaction in my sales until the books had been paid for.)

“The game was now on. Of course I wanted to have a slogan, and after much laborious thought, I adopted the motto ‘Anything that’s a book,’ the meaning of this being that I intended to try to have something to interest all classes of buyers. The little phrase has been a source of embarrassment at times, however, being quoted against me by disappointed would-be sellers when I have turned down their offers of books which I could not use. A motto should have a trademark to bear it. The Heintzemann Press happily suggested the bookish idea of a tonsured monk absorbed in reading of his homily as he rode. The facsimile given on the following page is from the first rough draft before the motto evolved into its final form.

“Of course the great difficulty with a new bookseller who has little money is to find stock to replenish his shelves. What money I could get I could not afford to put out in a few rare items. I had to have quantity. Even then I found difficulty in getting enough books, so I was for a while driven to the device of constant rearranging of the stock. Monday morning the rear shelves would be moved to the front, the top shelves to the middle, the middle to the bottom, and so on, so that even the most frequent visitor often remarked on the rapidity with which the stock was replenished.”

Charles Goodspeed and company

“Speaking of junk-store finds reminds me of the experience of Mr. Z. T. Hollingsworth, whose magnificent collection of Washington prints I am glad to say is still owned by his sons. Mr. Hollingsworth collected a fine set of the autographs of the signers of the Declaration of Independence. One day a friend called at his office and said, ‘Here, Hollingsworth, I understand that you are interested in old autographs. I was going through Charlestown today and passing near the Navy Yard I saw an old ash barrel on the sidewalk with some papers sticking out. Here is one which looked interesting and I pulled it out. Perhaps you would like it.’ This gift was an autograph document in the hand of Elbridge Gerry, dated Philadelphia, July 9, 1776. The contents were of no importance, but it was not only written by Gerry, one of the signers of the Declaration, but was also autographed by all the other Massachusetts ‘signers,’ including John Hancock, Samuel Adams, John Adams, and Robert Treat Paine. When Mr. Hollingsworth’s autographs were sold at an auction in 1927, this document was knocked down to me at $1,850.”

“But I think that the prize offering of the period by Goodspeed’s was in Catalogue No. 6 (April, 1901), where an immaculate copy of the first edition of Emerson’s Nature, with a presentation inscription from Thoreau incorporating a quotation from Burns, was priced at $100. Mr. Wakeman bought this volume and it seems to have been one of the bargains at the sale of his library twenty-three years later, when it realized only $160. In the same year I find we offered what was probably our first copy of Paul Revere’s engraving of the ‘Boston Massacre’ for $650. The French copy had just been sold at auction for $800. I suppose that, in all, we must have had from twelve to fifteen copies of this much sought for, although not particularly rare, print. The crude quaintness, historical significance, and fame of the engraver (greatly enhanced by Longfellow’s famous verses) sustain the demand for this engraving, although its value has not greatly appreciated in the last thirty years.”

“Three peculiar dangers beset the bookseller, and from these he has little protection save his own honesty, good judgment, and alertness. First is the danger of buying material which has been stolen either from individuals or, more often, from public libraries, and to avoid this danger he must always be on his guard. He is also, from the nature of his merchandise, in constant peril from sneak thieves. He cannot set a watch upon visitors without giving offence, and culprits when caught seldom receive punishment. The courts for some reason are lenient in such cases, and the offender usually gets off with probation or a filed case. The third danger is from the forger. There are forgers of books, forgers of prints, forgers of autographs, indeed fakers of almost everything antiquarian which has a value. A book in which a dozen or so booksellers might contribute a chapter from their own personal experience with these pitfalls would be readable.”

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