Fall 2008 (Vol. IX, No. 3) Table of Contents
- Extra Binding and The Mosher Books—An Overview from the Bishop Collection
- Bookplates: Thomas Bird Mosher
- Philip R. Bishop of Mosher Books
Thanks for granting this interview Philip, on top of the considerable time you spent on the Mosher fine bindings article that also appears in this issue. Tell us a little about your life BB (before bookselling).
There was little in the way of books in my childhood unless you count Reader’s Digest condensed books and a couple cheap encyclopedias and some bibles. Assigned books from the library and a few paperbacks of my own choosing, especially those written by Taylor Caldwell like her Testimony of Two Men, Captains and the Kings and especially Glory and the Lightning were about all I read unless you include the small premium books one could order through National Scholastic magazines and publications which we’d wait to receive in elementary school. There just wasn’t anything which really cultivated my interest in books per se, and certainly nothing that sparked my interest in collecting them—although once a collector perhaps always a collector. I did collect rocks and fossils which were all neatly lined upon shelves in my bedroom, and there was a coin collection. Even in high school and college nothing about books really sparked my interest except for a visitation to my girlfriend’s (now my wife) uncle who had a room on the second floor filled with barrister cases who’s shelves were overflowing with books. I remember being particularly fond of—I hate to admit it—a limp-suede set of Little Journeys from the Roycrofters, particularly because they seemed nicely printed and because the bindings were so fresh, almost seemingly new. Back in 1976 he let me borrow a couple volumes from the set if I promised to return them in a week. One summer, when I worked for the Book-of-the-Month-Club, I brought him boxes of books I was allowed to buy very cheaply from Doubleday, and in exchange I got one small archaic looking book with clasps. I think it was a Peter Leibert publication from Philadelphia bound in full calf. I had never seen anything like it before.
My first real interest in books came only after graduating from college. I attended a seminary in the Chicago area and did some volunteer work at the school’s library. I worked in a special collection room used to house part of the Abraham Cassell collection of bibles and Holy Land artifacts. That certainly was pleasant enough and I especially liked handling the cuneiform tablets which were so small in comparison to those huge Nuremburg bibles. I think what I appreciated most was being surrounded by the feeling of connection to the past.
After leaving the seminary and moving back East, I worked at an employment agency and ended up finding myself a job as an administrative assistant back at my alma mater, Millersville University. It was there that I met a couple professors who had the collecting bug and who would plant the seeds that would redirect me years later.
Dr. Francis Kafka was particularly helpful in a number of ways. His apartment was filled with all manner of books, many being references he used for his graphic arts classes taught in the Industrial Arts Department. There were also some sample books he collected from the 17th century and onward along with sample pages from incunabula and manuscripts. I couldn’t read Latin or Greek, but I could still appreciate their physical state and the importance of the text. I began to love these things, and strange as it may seem, I can distinctly remember their smell and their feel.
I remember in 1975 Frank Kafka put me in contact with the folks at Deighton, Bell & Co. in Cambridge, England and I wrote for their catalogues only to find that they were filled with all sorts of cryptic codes and words which I had never seen before. I mean just what was an 8vo, and what was a “plate before letters” and why were there names like Adams, Schwab and Riley added at the end of the descriptions along with some numbers? I wrote back to Deighton, Bell and asked them what in the world they were talking about in their descriptions and to my amazement they answered in detail. I clearly remember the letter from John Sibbald with all the references printed out in full. Frank helped me with many of the bibliographic terms, and together these two gentlemen formed my first serious introduction to the world of books and book collecting, and the more I found out, the more my appetite for old and rare books began to grow.
Following this introduction of sorts, I still wasn’t bitten by the bug until I got a note from Frank that I was to come over to see some antiquarian books he was going to sell, giving me first right of refusal. When I got to his apartment there was a table covered in dark green felt and on it ten wonderful looking books including early German and French bibles. It looked like an altar. The ten books were all in their original bindings with some looking quite ancient. He offered to sell them to me for what he originally paid years before. He also offered me six original leaves from books like the Kelmscott Chaucer, the first King James Bible of 1611, a page from Pliny’s ‘Natural History’ printed by Nicholas Jensen in 1475—incidentally the first printing of Roman type face—and a leaf from Wynkyn de Worde’s 1515 black letter history of Henry V. I bought everything and I was unquestionably smitten by the old book buying bug.
As time rolled along I began to narrow my interests. I loved philosophy and ordered early works of Aristotle and Plato from Deighton, Bell. Man, was it ever fun getting those packages in the mail from England. One little set was of Plato’s works from the 16th century. It was charming in three thick full vellum bound volumes. I also remember the early 16th century Filippo Giunta printing of Aristotle and its lovely printer’s device at the end of the book. My shelf of books through Deighton, Bell steadily grew but when I received an offer to go to New York with an education professor who collected early books on mathematics, well, I couldn’t resist broadening my horizons. Professor Joseph Rousseau would eventually donate his extensive mathematics collection to Millersville University, but back then he was still in the midst of forming his collection and we visited some of his favorite collecting haunts in New York. The most impressive was Samuel Orlinick of Scientific Libraries. Mr. Orlinick asked me what I collected and I indicated English and Continental philosophy. He began to show me a number of examples on his shelves but then pointed to a locked cabinet. Orlinick slowly went over, unlocked it, and pulled out a small folio, the sight of which immediately began to excite me. He opened it up and put it in my hands. My eyes lit upon that most famous of frontispieces of a king made up of thousands of his subjects along with scenes and symbols surrounding the great leviathan’s body along the margins. Good heavens, this was it, the book I had read and was so enamored with as a political science student—Thomas Hobbes’s The Leviathan (the “bear edition” London, 1651, but actually printed a bit later). I was stunned. We talked price and he agreed to allow me to make payments on the book. After settling on our deal, I gave the book back to him so he could put it back into the case. “No,” he said, “you take it along and send me the payments as we discussed.” Really?! Was it possible? It was, I did. It was my first important and expensive philosophy classic and I treasured that handsome volume in contemporaneous 17th century binding for many years.
Later in the afternoon we visited an ultra-serious collector of Aesop’s fables, and while looking over his collection, which covered two walls floor to ceiling, I was asked what I collected. I took out my newest purchase and proudly replied, “Philosophy.” Upon further questioning the Aesop collector said to me, “Oh no, dear fellow, you’re not a collector, you’re just a buyer.” I thought that some kind of snub, but I didn’t really understand the import of his remark until I became a collector myself. I continued to buy books, and even fancied myself a “collector” when I put together a modest assemblage of collected works of English and Continental philosophers. I didn’t have the resources to collect first editions of Locke, Berkeley, Hume, Leibnitz or Descartes, but I was able to purchase first or early collected works. I bought the “works” of other lesser philosophical thinkers. In doing so, I felt that I was getting more bang for the buck in having so many texts in one set, while still getting the “feel” of a 16th, 17th or 18th century book.
How did you get into the trade?
In 1985 I had begun to question a number of things in my life including whether or not I wanted to continue in university administration. I had perhaps counseled my 10,000th student about doing what makes you happy. I used to tell them about Sarah Caldwell (first woman opera conductor at the Metropolitan Opera) imparting her father’s wisdom: the trick to life was in not only doing what you like to do, but in finding someone willing to pay you to do it. It finally dawned on me that I should take my own advice. For the next three years I made preparations to hand in my resignation and then left the university after working there fourteen years. Being vested, I could draw a small monthly sum and I took up employment with a bookseller in Lancaster, PA. I also took a part-time job with a bindery in Millersville where I helped to put together a collected edition of Clive Barker’s works replete with Barker’s personal drawing in each and snakeskin used in the binding. I spent several years as a bookseller clerk meeting collectors and selling books from a bookstore called The Book Haven and for the most part, enjoyed it. I also worked part-time in the evenings with an ABAA bookseller doing all of his cataloguing in his garret among thousands of reference volumes. This was heaven and I learned a great deal, in fact so much so that by 1991 I struck out on my own as an independent bookseller. I joined the ABAA three years later.
Oh, by the way, I should add that employment with these booksellers certainly had its book collecting perks. It was while at The Book Haven that I met one of their New York customers who told me about a vellum Mosher book she and her husband bought years ago. She was Gladys Spector of Spector the Collector Books, and I went to New York to see and purchase the book which was the first vellum book added to my Mosher collection.
At my night-time cataloguing job with Antonio Raimo Rare Books we had received a catalogue from Thomas G. Boss Fine Books, and because of Tony’s recommendation to Mr. Boss on my behalf, I purchased what would become one of the highlights in my collection even to this day: a one of four vellum printings of Marius the Epicurean in a stellar Toof & Co. art nouveau binding.
That’s quite a leap, from university administrator to bookselling. Was it a soft landing?
It was quite a leap. My parents certainly thought I was nuts and my colleagues at the university didn’t know what to make of it. After all, I did give up quite a lot. My wife had belatedly received her English degree and was employed in travel, so we figured we’d kind of combine the two careers. It worked and she was a terrific source of support. Without her I probably would have had a miserable existence working for the limited pay I was getting from the area booksellers. I remember too that another bookseller in Portland enticed me to move up to Maine and I even had an apartment of sorts above the bookshop if I wanted it. At the last minute I backed out of the deal particularly because my pay went up at my evening cataloguing job. When that bookseller could no longer afford to keep me, I struck out on my own and hardly looked back since, except for the fact that my cataloguing job was and still is my view of heaven. I mean look, not having to go out and buy all those rare books, but having them put in one’s lap to catalogue—to be able to fondle, smell, paginate, collate, find out why they were important, and to have all the references one could need all at one’s finger tips, well that was just dreamy.
To get the funds to start my business, I sold off books from my philosophy collection. I was surprised just how well I took to selling those one-time cherished volumes, but I had to raise funds. I also did something which I don’t think I’d ever have the heart to do today. In 1991 I sold my most precious Mosher book, a copy of Marcel Schwob’sMimes (Mosher, 1901) printed on real vellum. It was one of only six copies, and I sold it through a San Francisco dealer to a collector in France. It was an expensive book and together with the proceeds from the philosophy material, I was able to start in the book selling business. For many years I regretted selling that copy of Mimes since the chances of my getting another copy of that treasure were minuscule to say the least.
Does the bookselling side support the “independent scholar” side?
Yes, of course. I wear four hats: bookseller, scholar, writer, and collector. Without selling books I’d hardly have the funds necessary to feed the collecting habit, and I certainly wouldn’t have the money necessary to travel to institutions to do research.
This interview will reach book length if we get into all the aspects of Mosher’s life and career, so for those who are interested in the man and the fine press he ran, it’s all laid out in your own book, Thomas Bird Mosher—Pirate Prince of Publishers: A Comprehensive Bibliography and Source Guide to The Mosher Books Reflecting England’s National Literature & Design (Oak Knoll Press and The British Library, 1998), which I note you list in fine condition for only $39.95 with the offer, “Will be custom signed or fully inscribed to the recipient by the author.”
Very true, but I’ve all but run out of copies for sale. It’s really a great deal because they were offered in England and America for $125 (and still are), but I bought up some copies at a really good price and have sold all but two. [Editor’s note: make that one.]
And there is a wealth of information at The Mosher Press site hosted by Millersville University, with Table of Contents links to such topics as Biography of Mosher, Printing History, Books in Series, Piracy Dispute, Exhibitions, Book Samples, Fine Bindings, Mosher’s Writings, Bibliographies, Mosher Press Collections, Sites of Related Interest, and Bishop’s Writings on Mosher. (As a small example, the image above comes from a recent newspaper piece about your efforts to secure the 1900 Mosher Press specimen of The Letters of a Portuguese Nun used in the making of the 2005 film The Secret Life of Words.) So, we’ll concentrate here on the collecting aspect.
The Mosher Press website really fills in lots of information not available in the book and is constantly updated, so if you have the bibliography, then you can supplement your investigations into the Mosher Press with the website. And of course, people can always contact me. I get a lot of inquiries as a result of the website.
I was left wondering how you pronounce his last name though. Does it rhyme with “posher” or “closure?”
When I had a corporate patent attorney do a name check for the business, I needed to know if anyone else was still using Mosher Books or even the Mosher Press name. The closest name he was able to find was a business out of Brooklyn, I think, called Kosher Mosher. If you know how to pronounce kosher, you’ll know how to pronounce Mosher.
The big question would seem to be why Mosher? What spark got you started, and was it serendipitous or were you somehow predisposed to discover this or some other private press interest once you got into bookselling?
Why Mosher? Why not? I so highly revered the publisher and what he tried to accomplish that I felt I’d try to imitate at least the name on his catalogues: The Mosher Books. Of course I got rid of the article, and just made it MOSHER BOOKS. Part of what I was doing relates to your previous question about the bookselling side supporting the scholarly and collector sides. I wanted to impress on people’s minds that when ever they saw MOSHER BOOKS they’d also identify me with my writer, researcher, and collector sides. I might add that it worked beautifully over the years.
I guess the answer to your question is complicated. It all emanated from a sort of epiphany back in 1985, literally a point of enlightenment on Sunday, October 6. I know this might sound kind of weird remembering the very day, but back on that date everything changed or perhaps it might be better to say so many things changed since “everything” is too tall an order. From that day on I never ate another piece of meat, I reoriented my choice of career (even though it took three more years until the details could be ironed out), reoriented my relationships, and a whole slew of other things. I became very interested in spiritual matters, in literature, and music. My days and evening were reorganized so much so that I’d get to my university office at 2 or 3 AM to do my reading and writing. I wrote a number of people 5, 10 or 15 page letters. I reorganized my office to surround myself with books (people must have thought I was qualifiedly certifiable), I took courses in philosophy and even completed the course work for my master’s at Villanova University where I had been given a full scholarship after the first term. Of particular interest there were the hermeneutics of Hans-Georg Gadamer and Jacques Derrida. Outside of these more formal studies I also got involved in the spiritual investigations of Paul Brunton who was a master on yoga, meditation and mystical philosophy. And once, after a ten-day fast, I even had a limited audience with His Holiness, the Dalai Lama along with a few fellow sojourners. I intently read Walt Whitman and the Transcendentalists like Emerson and Thoreau. On the musical side of things I was composing music for the piano. I left any formal training years before, but music flowed out of me like water from a new found spring. I enjoyed it immensely. I suppose if there are any descriptors to typify this period I’d have to use words like unifying, integrating, uplifting and creative.
Prior to my “epiphany” I frequented The Book Haven, the shop I eventually worked in after leaving Millersville University. The owner there, Kinsey Baker, had repeatedly drawn my attention to some small books he fancied which he had brought down from Maine on a book buying trip. They were all titles from Mosher’s Old World Series, and over the course of a year I’d pick up a couple only to put them back without much expression of interest. But when I got involved in reading literature—which by the way was limited to the 19th century or before—I distinctly remember that my then current thoughts were marvelously mirrored by the writer Richard Jefferies—often referred to as the British H. D. Thoreau. I was in The Book Haven on one of my many visits and alighted upon that same little stash of Mosher books and picked up Jefferies’ The Story of My Heart and began reading it. I was struck, even dumbfounded, by the parallels of Jefferies’ thoughts and my own personal investigations, plus I became somewhat excited by the typography of its presentation. There was a refinement, a gentility, which I had dismissed before, but which now became part and parcel of the message. It became important to me that there not only be a fine expression of thought beautifully written, but that it became a visual treat as well. I totally perceived Mosher’s books as something very apart from the more common book design and layout I had customarily seen elsewhere, and found this combined message electrifying. I purchased the book, took it home, and avidly read it cover to cover. The next day I returned and bought all the other Mosher books Kinsey had in stock. That’s when my love of books rekindled, and in particular my love of such literary expressions and forms in the private press movement of the 1890s-1920s. I loved them all, but Mosher’s productions were the most affordable forms of this new form of literary expression. By the way, I still have that first Mosher book in the collection for which I paid the pauper’s sum of $7.50.
Did you start buying right away or did you do some research first?
As I mentioned, I bought everything Mosher The Book Haven had in stock. As well my wife and I found a number of Mosher books during our travels up to Boston and Maine. On one of the trips I was referred to Bill Hill of Cross Hills Books in Maine. I was stunned by the large collection of Moshers my wife and I inspected, and after a year or so of negotiations I bought the collection which included a copy of Benton Hatch’s bibliography on the Mosher Books. The copy of Hatch became my collecting mainstay for many years to come (until I couldn’t stand it any longer due to numerous inaccuracies and omissions and thus wrote my own Mosher bibliography). Having acquired such a large collection helped to give me a clearer sense of what Mosher produced, and together with the Hatch bibliography, I knew essentially what I had to acquire to complete each of Mosher’s fourteen different book series.
In spite of his relative obscurity, and the whole “pirate or Robin Hood” question, Mosher had some other patron saints before you came along, correct?
I’m not sure I know what you mean by Mosher’s patron saints, but in the field of collecting sure, he had several collectors who established supporting standing orders for his publications. Perhaps the three best were Emilié Grigsby, the heiress of the immense Yerkes’ fortune, Henry William Poor, the brokerage magnate, and John Quinn, the attorney counted as friend by many a British author. All of these folks were located in New York City and all collected Japan vellum copies and the most obscure of the Mosher books—those printed on real vellum. There were others like the department store owner, William F. Gable of Altoona, PA who was fascinated by the private press books of the era including those of the Roycroft Press. Mosher’s broadest outreach however was not to the wealthy few, although he admittedly did include them, but to the hundreds of collectors who could buy his books at modest prices and manage to assemble quite a pleasing collection. A good number of well healed middle class collectors not only bought Mosher’s books for themselves, but to give away as gifts. One such collector was Elizabeth Pearce Rockwell Butterworth who lived in Montclair, New Jersey. I have a great deal of the Mosher correspondence to her as well as her journal indicating what she bought. I even managed to buy the Empire secretariat at which she’d sit down to write to Mosher, order his books, and on whose shelves her Mosher collection resided. There were also celebrities who ordered the Mosher books. Among those was the foremost British stage actress of the time, Ellen Terry, correspondence from whom is in my Mosher collection. You can include the Barrymores and Julia Marlow in that class as well. And we can’t forget W. Irving Way, the one-time publisher in the firm of Way & Williams, and then later librarian at the Zamorano Club in Los Angeles. In the modern era folks like Kenneth Shanks of Louisville and Jean-François Vilain of Philadelphia and New York both put together large collections of Mosher. There were a number of others too, like one of the heirs to the Borden Foods fortune, Fred Board of Connecticut, from whose collection I bought the crème de la crème. Gosh, the names can go on and on: Frank Marra out of Forest Hills, Donald Dede from New Hampshire, a one-time collector in New Jersey, Oliver Sheean of Maine, Dick Fredeman and Jim Earl, both of Canada, and a collector in England who’s been buying a very specific state of The Mosher Books, and of course Bill Hill who I mentioned before. But in the field of Mosher collections there is one collector who surpassed them all: Norman Strouse who once headed the world’s largest ad agency—J. Walter Thompson.
How did you build the collection?
During my beginning years of collecting I managed to find a number of interesting items to supplement the Hill collection and so the Mosher collection grew upon that foundation, but it wasn’t until I contacted the foremost collector of Thomas Bird Mosher’s imprints, Norman Strouse, that things really began to take flight because in doing so I had found a compatriot with whom I could share my joy and passion in collecting. Norman Strouse was well known to the bookselling and collecting community. He collected so much more than just Mosher and gave away a number of important collections to institutions, but it was his Mosher collection that remained nearest and dearest to his heart. In 1964 when I was still in junior high school, Norman wrote what is today still the only book-length biography of Mosher called The Passionate Pirate (Bird & Bull Press). I had a copy which together with the Hatch bibliography formed my core reference material on Mosher. Back on May 11, 1988 I hand-wrote a five-page letter to “Mr. Strouse” pointing out my delight in reading his The Passionate Pirate and then covering some of the highlights of my own fledgling collection next to his enormous collection. He must have smiled. From that date onward until May of 1992 we continued a correspondence that both of us highly enjoyed, but which became increasingly strained due to Norman’s ill health and final incapacitation. He died on January 19, 1993. My correspondence continued sporadically with his daughter, Pat Beresford, whom I still occasionally hear from today. I remember she wrote me in one of her letters that during the last year or so of Norman’s life she read my letters to him at his bedside when he couldn’t read them himself. I also remember when she sent me a little memento from Norman’s collection. Unbeknownst to her the book would have far more meaning than she could surmise—a copy of Richard Jefferies’ The Story of My Heart in full leather binding. As I mentioned before, the book was the very first Mosher book that I ever bought. Getting the same from Pat Beresford on Norman’s behalf was like Norman speaking from beyond the grave. One of the things I did to honor Norman’s memory was to hand over research on my friend’s life and collecting, the contents of which were used in the biographical write-up on Strouse in the Grolier 2000—A Further Grolier Club Biographical Retrospective in Celebration of the Millennium.
That was just the start. I guess I can cover this by indicating a few things that I’ve done to bring the Mosher collection to the status of a rich research collection. Over the years I’ve established a number of areas or sub-collections which I try to augment whenever I can. These areas of specialization were arrived at partly by sifting through large amounts of material. The first steps I took were to build each of the fourteen Mosher Press series (see http://marauder.millersville.edu/~mosher/series/series.html for more on Series) to the point of relative completeness. In doing so, I not only collected each title in the finest condition I could possibly find, but also collected the titles in their various states. For example, I’d seek out the plain Van Gelder copy, then the Japan vellum copy, and the vellum copy. There were also variant publisher’s bindings and when discovered they’d be subsumed into the collection. There were different papers used, and even flexible leather covers which the publisher used as a further sales enticement. I sort of felt like the Borg of Star Trek: “to resist is futile and you will be assimilated.” That’s what I kept doing, assimilating every possible state of the book into the collection and this sometimes included unique or trial copies. Part of this was accomplished by buying other Mosher collections. Just think of it, there were collectors who spent decades assembling what they had found, and if one is fortunate enough one can bring their whole collection into the fold and select those parts which add new light or present new material or which simply upgrade previously collected copies. Of course there were plenty of individual items outside of the collections that I’d find which nobody or at least few had ever seen before, and these would be avidly acquired. Remember, “you will be assimilated!” Brick by brick and stone by stone I’d build upon those collections.
In looking over the collection in years past I could see it beginning to naturally break down into a number of different areas. These areas I’d refer to as sub-collections within the whole. To keep this short, here are the major sub-collections I began to form and still collect to this day:
1st: there are the books from Mosher’s personal library including books he used as the source texts for his own publications and books which he inscribed or in which he kept notes or recorded events,
2nd: there is the whole area of manuscripts including letters to, from, or about Mosher in addition to entire unpublished books written by Mosher himself,
3rd: the Mosher books that were placed in fine bindings by bookbinders around the world,
4th: all kinds of references relating to Mosher and his publishing program or even just containing ads for the Mosher Books,
5th: paraphernalia related to Mosher including all sorts of press ephemera, printer’s dummies, small pamphlets, order forms, prospectuses, drawings, lists, and so on,
6th: correspondence with Mosher collectors both past and present, and sales catalogues containing Mosher material,
7th: my own research into the Mosher Press which, of course, resulted in the new bibliography. Beyond that I co-assembled a list of all advertisers he used in his publication, The Bibelot, and I keep records on all the books in Mosher’s personal library, lists of binders, sources of Mosher collections around the country and in England, new articles including references to Mosher, and my own detailed memoirs now up to 530 pages,
8th: inscribed and association copies of the Mosher Books. This is an important area, to be sure, and I don’t want the reader to think that it’s not by my glossing over it. The whole business of association copies can provide a wealth of information to the researcher and there are some extremely capable collectors who do nothing but collect association copies,
9th: a collection of Mosher look-alike books, and lastly the
10th being: the Mosher books printed on real animal vellum often called “pure” vellum back in Mosher’s day. This area is a rarefied one requiring experience and, in this day and age, sometimes big bucks. At present I’ve assembled 27 of these books, many in fine highly decorated bindings, but I have only secured examples of about half of what was produced. For more information on this, you can read my essay entitled “A Collection within a Collection” at
There’s much more I could say here, especially about how one manages to solicit such material, find it on the Internet, how to corral dealers into the fold of being helpful supports and building a network of such dealers and collectors who will send quotes or will let one know if something is coming up at auction, etc. But really Shawn, this could go on forever if I went into the various strategies employed.
You mentioned “anchors” in an earlier conversation we had.
Serious collectors understand the importance of building into the collection certain anchors, high spots, or whatever you want to call them. The collection should contain some indisputable bell ringers. Like with bindings, it would be to have some of the finest one could ever hope to find or see. In the area of association copies, it would be to have an association that would really “wow” the viewer. Of the vellum books, it would be having, say, the only known copy printed on vellum—a #1 of only one ever printed. You get the idea? It’s not just a matter of breadth, but also of depth.
What guides you in the selection process?
By that I take you to mean how do I select what should go into the collection. Well, of course, it has to fit within one of the categories, and the selection criteria changes from one category to another.
If it’s books from the Mosher Press, my selection criteria is to upgrade a present copy. The criteria changes with books from Mosher’s library however. Condition can be helpful, but it’s not the final deciding factor. I’ve collected so many books from his library that I don’t feel adding another is warranted just because it has his bookplate. I already have around 450 or so volumes from Mosher’s library, and I’ve come to the point that if I add anything it should be an important book meaning a book that somehow has a connection to what Mosher published or perhaps which I know he highly prized. Now if I come across a book from his library and it’s rather inexpensive, I’ll snatch it up, but if it’s priced high I’ll pass it by. Lately I’ve received quotes from dealers who have terrible copies of inconsequential books, maybe missing a good part of the spine or even minus the whole binding, and for which they still ask premium prices. One such book was offered without its binding and they still wanted over $250 for it. I noted that there was another copy of the book for sale at $75 with the binding intact. The book meant nothing to the Mosher story, had no connection to his publishing program, in fact he never even mentioned it anywhere in his correspondence nor in any of his writings throughout The Bibelot. So I respectfully declined the offer. I mean, what’s the point? On another occasion I was offered a Walt Whitman item. True, Mosher did like Whitman’s writings, but the price was high because it had more value to a Whitman collector than to a Mosher collector, so I passed on that one. There were around 8,000-10,000 books in Mosher’s library. Am I going to try to collect every one that I can find? Good heavens no. One has to pick one’s battles and go after truly important material, and not every little piece that comes along. Now if a book came along from Mosher’s library and it was a bit tattered, but contained some of his notes, and let’s say it was inscribed, that would be a different story and I’d listen to a quote within reason.
Next, if I’m considering Mosher books in extra bindings, then it’s basically condition, and then condition, and then condition. The amount of decorative detail and technical skill are also factors. Whether or not the book is signed by the binder will also factor in my decision. Price is always a consideration. Another thing that plays into all of this is whether or not one is a beginning collector or advanced. I have hundreds of those fine extra bindings, so adding another quarter or three-quarter morocco binding isn’t at all in the cards anymore. The more advanced the collection, the harder it is to find appropriate material because one already has so much and getting more of the mediocre kind of material doesn’t advance the importance of the collection one little jot.
For me, a simpler consideration applies to association copies when it comes to condition. If it’s a great association copy, let’s say with an inscription to Mosher, I’m not as concerned about condition so I don’t really mind if the cover is defective or if there’s a torn page. The importance is in the existence of the book with the association and that doesn’t require pristine condition. One can hope it will be in fine condition, but that’s not the critical element. I recently bought a book inscribed by Andrew Lang, Mosher’s arch critic over his publication piracies. The condition wasn’t all that great, but in his inscription he mentions Mosher’s piracies and how they are perfectly legal in America, but not in Britain. That inscription in Lang’s hand is what’s important, not the overall condition of the book. It reveals Lang’s understanding of Mosher’s legal title.
When I look at books printed on real vellum, I have certain features that I demand of the offering. Vellum is beautiful when clean, but ugly when dirty, wrinkled and otherwise unsightly. I won’t buy a vellum book if it doesn’t please me even if it is a Mosher book. A dealer had sent me a vellum Mosher and thought I’d snap it up quickly. I returned the book saying it wasn’t for me. I didn’t explain why I rejected it. In my estimation, dealers don’t like to have their books criticized no matter how right you may be. I received an e-mail back from the dealer saying that he was curious as to why I passed on the volume. He said he really wanted to know. I gave him my complete and unvarnished report. That instance was different. He wanted to know, but I wouldn’t ever volunteer that kind of information or at most keep it to a minimum. That’s one of the things I’ve learned along the way. Don’t forget, I’m also a dealer so I know what it’s like receiving an unsolicited report from the other end.
I don’t think I need to go into each and every category to explain my selection or rejection criteria. Suffice it to say that you have to come up with what you feel supports the building of your collection and try to keep to that, but remember, there are always exceptions.
Presumably you cast a wide net by now, and you trade up whenever you can. Are you presently both the leading collector and seller of Mosher material?
I am certainly the leading collector and am the leading seller of Mosher material, although if I had to make a living at it I’d be sunk. There just isn’t a really big market for any of the small late 19th or early 20th century American presses these days. And you’re correct Shawn, I have indeed cast a wide net and for many dealers in America and in England who know about me—and that’s a considerable number—I’m their first and perhaps only contact whenever anything interesting comes on the market. I get a kick out of some dealers who contact me and first ask if I’ve already heard about a certain Mosher book for sale. Then there are dealers who tell me they’ve been to England or California and ask for Mosher related material and they’re told that whenever their firm gets such they quote Bishop. Apparently my reputation precedes me, and the dealers who look for things for me. Keep in mind too that it’s so important to have the confidence and good wishes of select dealers. You’ve got to establish relationships which will pay off time after time after time.
I have heard established booksellers warn against letting the collector bug infect the sales desk, but you seem to have reached a healthy balance.
I wouldn’t exactly agree with that, but I’ve learned to at least manage it. I’m sure by many standards I’d be judged as being off the deep end. Actually there are many dealers out there who assemble collections and then sell them as a whole, so I’m certainly not alone in putting together a collection. It’s just that the one I put together isn’t going to be sold in the foreseeable future and perhaps never. But can I say that I don’t have “the bug?” I can’t say that because I do, but thank goodness I haven’t allowed myself to collect anything else or I’d really be in hot stew.
As a member of the ABAA and frequent show exhibitor, you deal in all kinds of fine books, of course. Where do you find most of your stock, and what percentage do you sell by hand versus online?
I find most of my books in book stores or at book shows. Quite frankly, just about everything I find is at those locations and only once in a while do I find books for the business on-line. Likewise, most of my sales are at book shows or come from quotes to collectors and institutions. Do I make a lot of on-line sales? Not really, but I have gotten several important collectors because they’ve seen my listings.
Generally speaking, are there any great known Mosher collection icebergs you expect to break loose and float out to sea some day?
I love your question. Yes, there is one but I doubt that it will ever come my way unless something radical happens. If it “breaks loose” as you say, I’ll be here ready to try to get it or to at least jack-hammer off pieces of it. I know that collection intimately and there are really only a few items, perhaps two dozen, in which I’d be interested. The rest would be duplication, and the whole collection is only part of the size of my own collection plus the elements of my collection are of higher quality to be sure. I’ve had many years to upgrade copies of the books and believe me, I know what I say when I indicate that this is the finest collection in private or even in public hands for that matter except for Norman Strouse’s collection which I’d say is equal in many ways. Speaking in just sheer number, the largest institutional collection is only about half to three-quarter the size of the Mosher collection here, and the largest private collection that I know of is much smaller and very unbalanced in many respects. For example, there may be thirty of the Mosher catalogues for a certain date, but other years are wanting. So far as I know, I have the only complete run of the Mosher catalogues in the country, public or private. But that’s just one example of what I mean by unbalanced. Another would be the type of books they have from Mosher’s library, or the paucity of same. I’ve made it a point to have many of Mosher’s personal library books that he actually used for re-making as his own publications. I’ve seen to it that I have examples of bindings and binding designs that he imitated on his own books, and I’ve concentrated in getting books that were marked up for the printer to use to set the type. The collection is well thought out, even if I say so myself.
You calculate that Mosher published 783 examples of “fine literature in pleasing book formats” from 1891-1923. Do publishing surprises from this press continue to present themselves?
Not that I’ve found. I think scholars have pretty well nailed down the corpus of works published by the press; however, every now and then something does pop up that might, just might, be a privately printed Mosher publication. I found such an item in an archive of correspondence between Mosher and the New York publisher, Charles Pratt, which I bought a couple years ago. The booklet is entitled Of Beauty and looks very much like a Mosher publication, although my Morellian analysis still leads me to suspect the piece as being of Mosher’s production and therefore I don’t attribute it to Mosher yet, but the jury’s still out. I use Morellian analysis to mean the careful examination and comparison of particular physical and content elements with known examples, in this case of Mosher’s publications.
There are so few books for which I’m still personally looking, but a privately printed work In Measured Language (1899) by Ephraim Chamberlain Cummings remains elusive, as does the privately printed Little Willie (Boston, 1904) by Eugene Field. I’m also still looking for Verses and a Dream (1922) printed for Josephine B. Pressey. There were only three copies printed and I know where two of the three are so there might be a slim chance that I might find a third available for sale. Likewise, I still seek—and notice these are all privately printed books—the Works of Arthur Symons: A Bibliographical Note (1912) which has been elusive. Only five copies were printed. Of the regular Mosher books themselves, I’m still trying to find a Japan vellum copy of George Russell’s (A.E.’s) Homeward Songs by the Way (1895), and some of the volumes of The Bibelot printed on Japan vellum. Of course I’m still looking for Mosher books printed on real vellum. I have these and any others listed on a Wants List which I send to anybody who cares to have it on file. They just have to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
What big Mosher mysteries remain unsolved, bibliographic or otherwise?
There are a few. One is where in the world did all of Mosher’s correspondence to his first wife go to? His first wife was Ellie Dresser who later renamed herself Aimee Lenalie after she divorced ol’ Tommy Boy and lived in New York City. I know her letters to him were destroyed by fire, but his letters to her still remain unaccounted for. Another big question I’ve had over the years is where in the world did Mosher’s 34 volume set of Bell’s British Theatre (1790-1797) go to? I remain vigilant at trying to find this set—for sentimental reasons if for nothing else—and would certainly like to buy it for the collection unless it’s already in an institution. Just knowing where it is would be a weight off my mind.
To be sure, there are other Mosher mysteries. Who was the “attic philosopher” (how he signed his name) in New York City whom Mosher used to visit? Another: if the business records were not destroyed, where are they? Where did Mosher’s rumored pornography collection go to, and what was in it? Is there an insurance list of the books that were destroyed in the fire at Mosher’s office?
In terms of bibliographical rarities, there is record of a privately printed Mosher Press publication which, so far as I know, a copy has not yet been found: In Memoriam (1917) printed for Arthur W. Sewall of Philadelphia. Records at the Mosher Press say it was printed, but thus far nobody has ever seen a copy except for the Mosher Press employees who recorded it and presumably Arthur Sewall and family. Were all copies destroyed? Are they still in storage? Who knows? Thus far all we can call it is a ghost book.
Do you prefer the old days, hunting up oft-under priced copies in all their quirky hiding places; or the convenience of the internet, where prices are often copied rather than calculated, and where there is much more to look at but many more people doing the looking?
If I could have my pick I really rather enjoyed the old days. I enjoyed the hunt. I enjoyed finding material in out of the way haunts. I enjoyed the serendipity. And I enjoyed having an exclusive set of knowledge built upon my reference works, my experience, and my ability to find out information. Now it’s all open to the democracy of eyes and has lessened the need to build and maintain a reference base. Of course it works the other way too. I do enjoy the rapid access to information and if you know what you’re looking for, the ability to find an otherwise obscure piece with relative ease. I guess if you could fuse the two worlds that would probably be optimum.
What happened to Mosher’s personal papers and library upon his death?
Ah yes, his personal papers. There were two sets: there were his business papers and then there were his personal writings and letters. The business papers were actually taken by an office assistant, Oliver Sheean, and given to Harvard. I don’t think he had title to the papers; he just did it. So you can see many of the letters that were in the business files if you access them at the Houghton Library at Harvard. As for the accounting books, they were heavily guarded by Mosher’s assistant, Flora Macdonald Lamb. After Mosher’s death in 1923 they were transferred over to the second Mrs. Mosher, and from that point they seemed to be lost or were perhaps destroyed. They weren’t turned over to the Williams Book Store folks who bought out the Mosher Press.
Then there were Mosher’s really personal papers which he had locked away in his desk. He had given Flora Lamb the instructions to take the material upon his death and to make sure it didn’t get into the hands of the second Mrs. Mosher. A stash of letters from his first wife which he kept were destroyed in the office fireplace as per his wishes. The other material Flora Lamb took home with her for safe keeping. Today the papers are part and parcel of the Mosher collection here. There are four great hoards of Mosher papers. The business correspondence from Mosher’s authors at the Houghton, the papers turned over to Norman Strouse through one of Mosher’s sons which are now at the Gleeson Library of the University of San Francisco, the papers turned over to the University of Arizona at Tempe by the family of Mosher’s other son, and the personal papers kept by Flora Lamb. Add to that the wonderful collection of letters from Mosher to W. Irving Way at the Huntington Library and you’ve got the major portion of Mosher’s letters and files. All the rest are scattered among numerous institutions across the country, and I continue to buy any correspondence to or from Mosher.
As for Mosher’s personal library, there were two parts. That portion that was kept at his office was destroyed by a fire during Mosher’s lifetime. After his death, the Mosher library was sold in two parts by Parke-Bernet Galleries in New York: the major portion on May 10-11, 1948 and the last part on October 11-12 of the same year. There was a more or less complete 132-page manuscript listing of all Mosher’s books made around 1930 by Oliver Sheean. This listing is now in my own Mosher collection. The books got scattered to the four winds, but over 450 of them are now back together here as well.
How will the Mosher biography you are working on differ significantly from material that has been published already?
Basically in detail and in revealing friendships and relationships hitherto unexplored or unexamined. Norman Strouse’s biography is nice, but sketchy. He knew it only scratched the surface, and offered to open his collection to anyone willing to write a better and more comprehensive biography. Another area which hasn’t been explored much has to do with Mosher’s early life and what led up to his entrance into book publishing. That will clearly be a significant addition to what we know about the man. Beyond that, how he was able to make such a successful go of it as a small publisher in America.
One of the more difficult parts of Mosher’s life is his privacy, his introspective nature. Much of his life was built upon the inner man and intense connections with like-minded folks. Hopefully I’ll be able to present a better picture of what moved and motivated him, what influences he had upon others, and how he fit into his times and the literary movements of the day. His is a rather unique story and deserves a fuller treatment. I truly wanted someone else to write the biography, but given that I don’t see that happening, I reluctantly decided to attempt to do it myself. I have a back-up plan if the biography isn’t written, and that involves the same line of research on which I’ve embarked—but for now I’ll keep that to myself.
The other big question is where your Mosher collection will end up some day. Have you reached a decision on this yet?
Ah yes, the $64 million question. Right now, of course, it’s in my possession. It’s been so much a part of our lives. My wife, Susann, feels as much a part of the collection as I do. We’ve lived with it, laughed with it, and cried with it. She helped find items that are now part of it, and together with her own collection on the homes and haunts of American authors, we’re quite contented fusing our work life with our passions for living a simple life in a modest arts & crafts bungalow, having a few friends, having lots of books in addition to the Mosher collection, and tending our various gardens. Throw in a good bottle of aged scotch and some cats for good measure and we’re a happy crew.
But I haven’t answered your question about where the collection will go, have I? There are a few possibilities. One university in particular is interested in having it merge with a spectacular collection of materials relating to Victorian and fin de siècle literature. Their collections are rich in British books, letters and art from the period, but they don’t really have an American counterpart from the same period. The Mosher collection in all its permutations would be an ideal fit, but nothing has been firmed up so we’ll just have to see. As for the other possible angles, those I’ll keep to myself for now.
-Any parting thoughts or words of wisdom?
Actually I do have a few and I promise to keep these short. Both my bookselling and buying have put me in contact with people all over the world. Likewise, my collecting contacts have come from as far away as France, Switzerland, Spain, Australia, England and Ireland, and Canada. Even the great book scout in Paris, Martin Stone, knew about my Mosher collecting and managed to find me a leather bound book from the library of a princess. In America I’ve probably touched base with folks in over thirty states. I even remember a fellow who quoted me some important books from Mosher’s library while he was watching a moose just outside his window in Alaska—I know, he sent me a JPEG picture as it was happening. There are some great stories and adventures we’ve had finding this material and I hope it continues for years to come.
As I’ve pounded the streets looking for Mosher material, I’ve encountered a few dealers who either confessed complete ignorance about his publishing program, or professed him to be a nobody in book history. One big time dealer confided in me that when he was young he collected Mosher’s books but then he grew up. He followed this with a broad grin. Yes, I guess that’s kind of funny, but it harbors the feeling that Mosher isn’t worth collecting, that his books are just a bunch of flimsy and almost ephemeral things or at best gift books, or that anyone serious about book collecting shouldn’t concern themselves with Mosher material. In my view, simply stated, Thomas Bird Mosher not only expressed an ideal in bookmaking but lived it. He’s certainly one of the most colorful characters across the American bookmaking scene and I truly feel blessed having an entire library set up just for the collection of his wares, the various books he treasured and the manuscript material which makes them come alive. He was a bookman par excellence. The Mosher bibliography I wrote helped to set the story straight, but more will come out as time passes.
Lastly, in answer to that Aesop collector who said “Oh no, dear fellow, you’re not a collector, you’re just a buyer,” I can now say that I’m both. I buy and sell for the business, but can lay claim as a collector equal to any of his efforts, albeit in a different realm. Together we can both commiserate as fellow collectors. That’s it Shawn, I’ve said my piece.
-I want to thank you again for your time and expertise Philip. In the middle of our correspondence I asked about future contributions in the form of original content on new topics. “Well,” you responded, “new writing I can provide, BUT… you might feel deflated when I say that all I write about is on some aspect or another involving Mosher. It’s through the Mosher essays that I convey my suggestions for buying and collecting.” Now that I’ve had a chance to review much of that material and the universal applications you allude to, your answer makes eminent sense. Keep up the good work, and may the publication of these two IOBA Standard pieces unearth additional deep deposits of Mosherite for you in the years to come.
Thanks Shawn, I really appreciate the opportunity to have worked with you.
Philip R. Bishop operates MOSHER BOOKS out of Ephrata, PA and can be contacted at
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