Of Bookmen & Printers: A Gathering of Memories, by Ward Ritchie. Los Angeles, CA: Dawson’s Book Shop, 1989.
Books about booksellers can be overly aware of how legendary they are, or steeped in formality and tradition, but this California-style treatment is just plain laid back and likeable. The author quit law school and went off to study printing with a French master in the late 1920s, became a denizen of book row in downtown Los Angeles when there was still a there there, set up the Ward Ritchie Press, and became intimately involved with important booksellers, Californiana collectors, and printers along the way. Rare books were at their feet like nuggets of gold, the sun shone on endless scented orange fields, and the printer’s ink and red wine flowed.
Of Bookmen & Printers is actually a compilation of mostly previously published material, somewhat revised here. Its chapters therefore can stand on their own, having grown out of talks that were later published, limited edition printings, and journal articles. It begins with, “For Ward a Foreword,” by Lawrence Clark Powell. “A Bookman’s Los Angeles in the 1930s” sets the stage. Other chapters are titled, “Jake Zeitlin, When He Was Joyous Young,” “Paul Landacre, Artist and Wood Engraver,” “Merle Armitage, His Many Loves and Varied Lives,” “Robinson Jeffers, Recollections of the Poet,” “Jane Grabhorn, The Roguish Printer of the Jumbo Press,” “Paris Adventure with François-Louis Schmied,” “John Cage, The Maniac of Music,” “St. John Hornby and the Ashendene Press,” “A Requiem for Lawrence Clark Powell,” and “Virginia City and the Genesis of a Cookbook,”—this last one a bit out of place—followed by an index. It is modest in nature; stronger on impressions than bookish details; and more about fine printing, private presses, and often eccentric authors than bookselling; but it all works together well and is highly recommended. Only 500 copies were printed, designed by the author and issued without a dust jacket. I just scored a nice signed copy from a California bookseller, and there are a good dozen still out there at reasonable prices. Some excerpts follow.
“In the 1930s Los Angeles was not exactly a small town, but it had an intimacy which the subsequent years have lost. There was such a concentration of business that one could run into a dozen acquaintances while walking not more than a few blocks. The big red Pacific Electric cars brought shoppers from miles around, and the yellow street cars crisscrossed the city, all leading to the area we called ‘downtown.’
“To me the heart was where the bookstores were. Along with a few bars and some mangy upstairs hotels of questionable morality, they lined both sides of West Sixth Street from Grand Avenue nearly to Figueroa. A few shops hung on the fringes, such as Dawson’s, a block away at the corner of Wilshire and Grand, and Louis Epstein’s bookstore over on Eighth Street. A half a million books or more were to be seen within this area of a few blocks, and booklovers flocked to the lure. There was variety in both books and establishments. For instance, in Ralph Howey’s little English nook one could sink into a soft leather chair and chat about books while stroking a binding by Cobden-Sanderson or looking at the pages of an edition printed by Giambattista Bodoni. Each book was in its place, immaculate and carefully chosen. Or up the street a block, one could gingerly slip into David Kohn’s Curio Book Shop, where a hundred thousand books were crammed helter-skelter in bins, piled on the floor, stacked in the basement, with only a bare semblance of order. It was a grimy job searching here for a treasure, since more than a decade of dust was mingled with the books; but for the hunter it was a delightful challenge. No one could possibly anticipate what might be discovered in the mélange. Kohn usually stood noncommittally in the doorway, hat pulled down to his ears, seemingly uninterested, while emitting an occasional eructation that echoed down the canyon of Sixth Street and created minor disturbances in the hotel cribs on the upstairs floors.
“Mingled with these shops were Bunster Creeley’s Abbey Bookshop, Ben Epstein’s Argonaut, Borden’s, Roger’s, Lofland’s, Holmes’s huge emporium of books, several incidental shops whose names I have long forgotten, and, of course, Jake Zeitlin’s bookshop and gallery.
“The aficionados of books were regular visitors to most of these shops, but there gradually developed a division of affection which found the serious, older, and Californiana collectors gathering around ‘Club’ Dawson, while the younger writers, artists, and printers loitered at ‘Club’ Zeitlin.
“Zeitlin’s first shop was on Hope Street across from the Bible Institute, but he soon moved to 705 ½ West Sixth Street in a little half-store, just big enough for a couple of hundred books and a minimal gallery where he hung the prints and drawings of local artists. It was here I first saw the books of the great printers of the 1920s—Eric Gill, Francis Meynell of the Nonesuch Press, Robert Gibbings of the Golden Cockerel Press, and Edwin and Robert Grabhorn of San Francisco. Jake gathered around him a stimulating group of artists and writers—Paul Landacre, Will Connell, Merle Armitage, Arthur Millier, Paul Jordan-Smith, Phil Townsend Hanna, W. W. Robinson, and many others including printers Bruce McCallister, Gregg Anderson, Grant Dahlstrom, and Saul Marks. One dropped by Zeitlin’s to see the new books from England and to talk to Jake. There was stimulating action there.
“But the favorite haunt of the bookmen of Los Angeles was the spot on Grand Avenue at the corner of Wilshire. There they encountered Ernest Dawson, a master merchandiser of books. He regularly juggled them from table to table and from shelf to shelf. As a result, it always appeared that a new library of books had arrived, keeping his customers constantly interested and inveterate repeaters. There were other inducements. ‘Father’ Dawson, as he was known, never wished to have a book in stock too long. If it lingered on the shelves for over six months, he’d itch to get rid of it. Before long he’d slash the price, and if it didn’t sell then, he’d cut the price again. This created an incentive to visit Dawson’s regularly, since one could never tell when these reductions would take place. Inevitably, this also led to a game of waiting, watching, and returning as often as possible to check on those books which one might want but thought might again be a victim of Father Dawson’s price-cutting pencil. This game of wits sometimes paid off, but often a less patient book-watcher spoiled the game by buying the book one was stalking.
“Books were comparatively cheap in the 1930s—great bargains by today’s standards—but most of us didn’t have much money to fritter on them. Dawson provided for the impoverished with a table of bargains at the street entrance. Here for from ten cents to fifty cents were the books from which I built much of my own library. While books provided a part of the excitement of a visit to Dawson’s in those days, more came in observing the parade of bookmen who would drop by several times a week.
“I remember many of them in hero worship. I was young and in love with books, and these were men of stature in that world. I doubt if Los Angeles will ever again know quite such an assemblage of bookmen. And for them this kingdom of books was concentrated in such a few blocks that there was an almost constant meeting and mingling.”
“Some of the most interesting books I ever bought on the bargain counter at Dawson’s were from the library of A. Gaylord Beaman, which they sold after his death. He was a man whose catholic tastes encompassed literature and incidental private press products. Gay was a member of the Zamorano Club and the Authors Club of Hollywood. His business was insurance, but his avocation was authors. No author ever came to Los Angeles without being met at the station by Gay Beaman. He’d greet them and dine them and then take them through the routine of Sixth Street’s book row before rounding the corner to Dawson’s. Many an author I met there, brought by Gay Beaman—Sherwood Anderson, Rockwell Kent, Christopher Morley, among them. The Authors Club in the late 1930s was the domain of Rupert Hughes. What a storyteller he was—quite risqué, but funny. He was always followed with a good anecdote by Irwin S. Cobb, also usually rather off-color. As I remember it, Beaman at those meetings was continually table-hopping—greeting, chatting, and seldom eating. He brought Somerset Maugham to one luncheon in 1941, and, as was customary, Maugham was asked to say a few words.
“He told of an interesting experience he had had recently. Cuba, it seems, hired an advertising agency to promote the sale of Havana cigars. It proposed a campaign based upon a series of short, short stories in which both a beautiful girl and a windfall of money came as a direct result of smoking a cigar. The agency wrote Maugham inquiring if he’d be willing to write five such sketches for them. He replied that since he wrote to make a living, he was not averse to the proposition and would be willing to write the five stories for $25,000.
“This extravagant request, for those days, rather shook the agency, and it wrote back to inquire if the sum suggested might not be a little too high. Maugham replied that since this was to be his first experience in writing commercial advertisements, it might be considered that he was selling his virginity, and he had been told by women of the profession that this was a priceless commodity and worth much more that the usual payment. He hardly expected a reply and never received one.”
“Some of the best parties I remember were given in the patio of his [Robert Woods] hillside house on Briarcliffe Road. He’d gather all of the Californiana crowd. Wagner and Hodge would relax and expound. J. Frank Dobie came from Texas a couple of times, saying they were the best parties he ever attended east or west. I can well understand his appreciation, with a dozen or two of our local collectors and historians on hand with whom to talk. He’d never been surrounded by such wealth anywhere.”
“Gregg Layne, along with Will Robinson, had the most intimate and detailed knowledge of anyone of Los Angeles history. It seems a pity that a whole lifetime’s accumulation of information such as his should be lost with him. As far as I know he left no notes or jottings and very few written articles. Will Robinson has mentioned to me that one of his great regrets is not having made notes of the conversations he had with Gregg about local history. His knowledge was incredible. I remember a Zamorano meeting at which he talked about the streets of early Los Angeles, and pausing for every street number, he recalled that building’s history, its inhabitants, and an interesting anecdote of early happenings there.
“Layne’s knowledge of Californiana gave him an advantage over most of the local booksellers. He accumulated one outstanding library that he sold to Mrs. Edward L. Doheny, who in turn gave it to the University of Southern California. With nary a moment’s hesitation he began another, which eventually was purchased by UCLA. For most of his life he sold draftsmen’s materials, but upon retiring he was retained by the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power to write a history of the development of water in the Los Angeles area. He worked five years on it and, later, often remarked that it was the best unpublished $30,000 history ever locally written. The reluctance of the department to publish it is beclouded in politics and finances.
“Larry Powell grabbed him for the UCLA Library when he left city employment, and the final year of his life was most enjoyably spent ferreting out the invaluable books of the Robert Cowan Library. UCLA had bought Cowan’s collection of Californiana and, following the then usual procedure, had not kept them intact and segregated within their Californiana or Special Collections. They had been distributed into the general collection of a million books. Gregg’s last days were happy ones, ferreting out these treasures and reassembling a rare library.
“Zeitlin’s Bookstore was the first to abandon the area of Sixth Street, moving in the 1930s to the old carriage house of the Earl house on Wilshire Boulevard, an extension of the Otis Art Institute. Others left as their ramshackle quarters were demolished and banks and high-rise building took over. Dawson was ousted from his corner at Wilshire and Grand, but he hung to the area on Figueroa near Sixth for several years when this building, too, surrendered to progress. Now there is not a remnant, not a trace left in the area of those bookstores which so well served the book collectors of Los Angeles during the 1930s and 1940s.
“Few from those days have survived. Others have come but are scattered like leaves in a wind about a city that has lost its central core.”
“Not too long after this bizarre affair [in which a bookstore customer claiming to be Rockwell Kent was wined and dined], I read that the real Rockwell Kent was planning a lecture tour that would bring him West. He had belonged to the same college fraternity as Larry Powell and I, and we cautiously wrote him and asked if he’d consider giving the annual Phi Gamma Delta lecture at Occidental College. He agreed.
“Jake, Larry, and I attended his lecture and afterward drove him up to my print shop studio for a dinner of spaghetti and quantities of red wine. He regaled us with tales of his undergraduate pranks and his adventures in Alaska and Newfoundland, among others. The wine had made us friends, and Jake suggested that the Primavera Press would like to print Larry’s recently completed thesis on Robinson Jeffers if Rockwell would illustrate it. Kent took another long swig of wine and agreed.
“I made some hurried sketches of what we’d need, including pictorial initials for each chapter opening. Of course Kent wanted to know what the letters would be. Fearful that if I delayed he might change his mind, I wrote down a dozen or so random letters that popped into my mind. Kent stuffed my notes in his pockets, and, surprisingly enough, in a couple of weeks a package of drawings arrived from him. Powell considerately rewrote all of the opening paragraphs of the chapters in his book to accommodate my haphazard choices of initial letters.”
“This was a beautiful press, much more decorative than most Washington presses. Willard Morgan discovered it in rusty pieces in the mining ghost town of Bodie. By local tradition, which Paul would hardly dispute, it had once been used by Mark Twain, but that is quite apocryphal. Morgan deposited it with Landacre, who lovingly scraped it, painted it, and reassembled it. It was a large press that was difficult for Paul to handle alone, but he would pull mightily from the front while Margaret pushed with all her strength from the back. Together they were able to hand-print editions of fifty or sixty copies from Paul’s blocks. It often took them several weeks to complete even a portion of that number. Sometimes the full edition was never completed, as they would print copies only when they had an order.”
“At that time I had an old ranch house on the eastern edge of Hollywood where William S. Hart had lived as a foreman when he was working cattle in the hills around what is now known as Silver Lake. Early movie producers, desperately needing a cowboy, had picked him up and made him an early star despite his lack of acting ability. The original Disney Studios were just up the street, and most of the artists lived and loved in the neighborhood. Our house was on a hillside of Griffith Park Boulevard and was possibly the oldest house in Hollywood. I had dug into the hillside beneath it to create a printing studio with typecases, presses, a whitewashed brick fireplace, a grand piano, and a large library. It was a hangout for the artists at Disney and others in the vicinity. Larry Powell aptly christened it ‘Ritchie’s Roadhouse.’”
“Among the many attractive books published by the Colt Press was a series of small cookbooks. For one of these, The Epicure in China, Jane [Grabhorn] had brazenly lifted the recipes from the food page of theSan Francisco Examiner. Soon after the book’s publication, the Examiner called to ask if it might be allowed to reprint her fine recipes in the food section, for which it was willing to pay her. She was happy to accept the offer.”
The chapter on Charles Harry St. John Hornby of the Ashendene Press is particularly interesting. Ritchie paid him a visit in England between his printer’s apprenticeship and his return to California in 1931, and was warmly received in a house full of magnificent books and early manuscripts. “After tea we descended into the garden in back of the house and to the small building he’d built for the press. There was a trickling stream running through the property, and Hornby pointed out where Nell Gwyn, the mistress of Charles II, was said to bathe in the nude.” Hornby had received early encouragement from William Morris, and lavished the same on those who sent him samples of their work, including the author. The remaining passages are from a talk Hornby gave to an audience of accomplished printers at the Double Crown Club at this time, attended by the impressionable Ward Ritchie.
“I had a good deal of difficulty with the dampening at first as I found, as I had found before, that the paper cockled badly. Eventually I got over this by using interleaving sheets considerably larger that the paper itself. These I dampened with a sponge and left under 112 pounds pressure for twelve hours, afterwards interleaving the printing sheets and leaving them under pressure for a further twelve hours. This is the method I employ to this day. I also at this time in 1896 procured a really good ink from the firm of Janecke & Schneeman of Hanover. My presswork from 1896 onwards showed a marked improvement, but I always labored with the disadvantage of having to do my work at odd times, whenever I could snatch a spare hour or two. This naturally did not conduce the best work and I am afraid that my books savoured of amateurishness in many ways. But I did not profess to be anything more than an amateur. I was printing entirely for my own amusement, and such little books as I did I gave away to my friends and others whom I found were interested in the Press. I did not offer any to the public. I received some encouragement from American collectors, but very little in this country.”
“I consulted with the omniscient Robert Proctor at the British Museum and, after examining numerous fifteenth-century books, decided that I would like to have a type modeled upon the Subiaco type of Sweynham and Pannartz, with which three books had been printed in 1465 before these printers moved to Rome. Morris at one time made experiments with this type but never went so far as having it cut. Walker and Cockerell, who were then in partnership, made photographs for me from a vellum copy of Cicero’s De Oratore in the British Museum: My type was cut by E. P. Prince and cast on a great primer body by Miller & Richard. In these days of high prices it may be of interest to record that the total bill for photographing and cutting amounted to only 100 pounds. I was a very proud man when the first dozen letters reached me and I was able to set up a few specimen lines. I still think, as I thought then, that it is a very noble type. Its possession made me ambitious to produce something more important than I had hitherto done. I bought a larger press and had a new make of paper of larger size and decided to print La Commedia di Dante in three small octavo volumes. Of these the Inferno appeared in 1902. It was the last book done entirely by my own hand, and it gave me many a hard day’s work.”
“The setting-up and printing of 150 copies of this book was a very heavy tax on the spare time of a busy man, and I decided that I must either give up the idea of producing important books or take on a regular pressman. I decided on the latter course and engaged George Faulkner, who had had his training at the Oxford University Press and who is with me to this day. He required a good deal of licking into shape but eventually developed into a very good and careful pressman. I did not engage a regular compositor, continuing to do most of the setting-up myself with the help of my cousin and Faulkner, whom I taught and who luckily, in those days, was not trammeled by a trade union.”
“With the appearance of the Inferno of Dante I made another change in the policy of the Press. Hitherto, as I have said, I did not issue my books to the public. But I found that there was a growing interest in them amongst collectors, and I was continually getting letters from people anxious to acquire them. I could not give away copies to all and sundry, so I came to the conclusion that the only thing to do was to issue a prospectus in the ordinary way and accept subscriptions. There is really no other way of getting books into the hands of those interested in them. The expenses of the Press, with its more ambitious programme, were growing and might grow still further. I had to think about recovering at least some of them. I do not know how other Private Presses have fared, but I think it may interest you to know that after thirty-five years, throwing in my services for nothing, I am about ‘all square’ without profit or loss. I hope, therefore, that I have given good value for the money. The profit I have had, and it is a rich return, is the immense interest and pleasure I have gotten out of the Press. For the consolation of others who may be thinking of following in my footsteps I might add that I have probably run my Press rather extravagantly and that there may be something to be made out of a Private Press in these days by anyone who does really good work and who is indifferent to whether or not any profit will result. But I should not advise the venture as a quick road to fortune even thought it may lead to fame.”
Shawn Purcell operates Balopticon Books & Ephemera and can be contacted at http://www.balopticon.com.