Rostenberg & Stern: An Appreciation

If, like me, you haven’t been born into a family that boasts generations of booksellers, if bookselling isn’t in your blood, you can always learn from the past. Reading the memoirs of those booksellers who came before us can be as edifying as it is entertaining. There are many to booksellers from which to choose, but two in particular can inspire and educate: Leona Rostenberg and Madeleine B. Stern. Lifelong friends and business partners, the two ran their antiquarian book business, Rostenberg & Stern Rare Books, for 60 years and wrote dozens of books between them. They conducted some of the finest literary scholarship of their time and did much to promote the antiquarian book trade, participating in the ABAA (Rostenberg as President from 1972-1974) and founding the New York Antiquarian Book Fair, held annually since 1960. They may be the only two antiquarian booksellers ever to have a musical penned in their honor, Bookends, written by Katharine Houghton and performed at the New Jersey Repertory Company in Long Branch in 2007.

Rostenberg & Stern Rare Books, specialized in finding previously undiscovered treasures. In 1942, following a great deal of literary sleuthing, Leona Rostenberg uncovered the information detailing that Louisa May Alcott (1832-88), the American author of the sweet, placid novel Little Women, had also published some risqué (by 19th century standards) thrillers anonymously and pseudonymously as A.M. Barnard. Stern edited and oversaw the publication of these works in 1975 and 1976, making a priceless contribution to students of Alcott and American Literature and also expanding the rare book market for Louisa May Alcott.

Rostenberg and Stern often used a phrase that sums up exactly what makes an antiquarian bookseller different from her other bookselling peers: In their memoir, Old Books, Rare Friends, they write:

“As far as we know, the word Finger-Spitzengefuhl never made it to a dictionary. It was originally Herbert Reichner [another bookseller to whom Rostenberg was an apprentice] who passed it on to us. A tingling of the fingertips becomes an electrical current of suspense, excitement, recognition. In an artificially controlled voice, one of us calls to the other, ‘Look! This may be something.’ And two heads look down upon the title page of a discovery. Sometimes the Finger-Spitzengefuhl occurs on the spot as we scan the shelves of a foreign dealer. Sometimes it takes place only after the purchase has been made and we study our finds. Whenever or wherever it occurs, it is an experience that makes the rare book business a hymn to joy.”

It was a combination of the Finger-Spitzengefuhl-like hunch and following small clues that led to big information for Rostenberg and Stern in many cases. Researching until they information not widely known to scholars and other booksellers allowed the two to increase (and perhaps create) value for those books that might have been previously overlooked by collectors and booksellers alike.

Rostenberg wrote, “If everyman is a potential discoverer, then everyman is also a potential detective. Sleuthing ranks high in the Rostenberg Antiquarian Credo and rightly so, for, at its most challenging, all research involves detection. Detection applied not to crime but to books has a special lure. It demands, at least, two indispensable abilities: the ability to ferret out those ‘small facts upon which,’ according to the master detective Sherlock Holmes, ‘large inferences may depend;’ the ability to recognize those large inferences for what they are whenever and wherever they are found.”

While all of their books have useful information and entertaining anecdotes, one in particular, Between Boards: New Thoughts on Old Books, ought to be required reading for antiquarian booksellers new and old. The two final chapters, Catalogues & Collections and An Antiquarian Bookseller’s Credo are as good as any instruction you might gain by apprenticing to a veteran bookseller. Here’s what they have to say about bookseller catalogues:

“There is never anything elusive about a dealer’s catalogue. If it is a good one, it will be its maker’s earthly representative and hopefully remembered. A catalogue is a dealer’s showcase. In it he displays his wares; parades his knowledge; offers his expertise. His first catalogue is extremely significant. He has made his public debut before a critical group of connoisseurs. This, his first catalogue, occasionally becomes his hallmark, stamping him as a specialist in Western Americana, medieval arts and letters, or modern firsts.”

And here’s what they have to say about building a meaningful collection of books:

“A collection equals more than the sum of its parts. This defiance of the laws of mathematics naturally exhilarates the collector and exalts the collection . . . Be that as it may, a collection of books is not simply a combination of any heterogeneous books but of books that in some one way are connected with each other.”

The Antiquarian Bookseller’s Credo covers everything from a bookseller’s education, motivation, and research skills to valuation and finding joy on the job. There are many more nuggets of information to be gleaned from the pages of Rostenberg and Stern’s books for those of us striving to know more about antiquarian bookselling. Once you’ve finished Between Boards, I’d recommend Old and Rare: Thirty Years in the Book Business and Bookends: Two Women, One Enduring Friendship next as you work your way through the list of their many published books below.

Books by Leona Rostenberg

  • English Publishers in the Graphic Arts, 1599-1700: A Study of the Print-Sellers and Publishers of Engravings, Art and Architectural Manuals, Maps, and Copy-Books, 1963.
  • Literary, Political, Scientific, Religious, and Legal Publishing, Printing, and Bookselling in England, 1551-1700: Twelve Studies (two volume set), 1965.
  • The Minority Press and the English Crown: A Study in Repression, 1558–1625, 1971.
  • An Antiquarian’s Credo, 1976.
  • Bibliately, 1978.
  • The Library of Robert Hooke: The Scientific Book Trade of Restoration England, 1989.

Books by Madeleine B. Stern

  • The Life of Margaret Fuller, 1942.
  • Louisa May Alcott, 1950, (revised editions published in 1971, 1996)
  • Purple Passage: The Life of Mrs. Frank Leslie, 1955, revised edition 1970.
  • Imprints on History: Book Publishers and American Frontiers, 1956.
  • We the Women: Career Firsts of Nineteenth-Century America, 1963.
  • So Much in a Lifetime: The Story of Dr. Isabel Barrows, 1964.
  • Queen of Publishers’ Row: Mrs. Frank Leslie, 1965.
  • The Pantarch: A Biography of Stephen Pearl Andrews, 1968.
  • Heads and Headlines: The Phrenological Fowlers, 1971.
  • Books and Book People in Nineteenth-Century America, 1978.
  • Sherlock Holmes: Rare-Book Collector, 1981.
  • A Phrenological Dictionary of Nineteenth-Century Americans, 1982.
  • The Game’s a Head: A Phrenological Case-Study of Sherlock Holmes and Arthur Conan Doyle, 1983.
  • Antiquarian Bookselling in the United States: A History from the Origins to the 1940s, 1985.
  • Nicholas Gouin Dufief of Philadelphia, Franco-American Bookseller, 1776–1834, 1988.
  • Studies in the Franco-American Booktrade during the Late 18th and Early 19th Centuries, 1994.
  • The Feminist Alcott: Stories of a Woman’s Power, 1996

Books co-authored by Rostenberg and Madeleine B. Stern

  • Old and Rare: Thirty Years in the Book Business, 1974
  • Between Boards: New Thoughts on Old Books, 1978.
  • Bookman’s Quintet: Five Catalogues about Books: Bibliography, Printing History, Booksellers, Libraries, Presses, Collectors, 1979.
  • Quest Book—Guest Book: A Biblio-Folly, 1993.
  • Connections: Ourselves—Our Books, 1994.
  • Old Books in the Old World: Reminiscences of Book-buying Abroad, 1996.
  • Old Books, Rare Friends: Two Literary Sleuths and Their Shared Passion, 1997.
  • New Worlds in Old Books, 1999.
  • Books Have Their Fates, 2001.
  • Bookends: Two Women, One Enduring Friendship, 2001.
  • From Revolution to Revolution: Perspectives on Publishing and Bookselling 1501-2001, 2002.
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3 comments for “Rostenberg & Stern: An Appreciation

  1. September 11, 2011 at 4:42 pm

    Thank you for this wonderful article. I have read in so many places the reaction Rostenberg had when she discovered Louisa’ alias as A.M. Barnard – I would have whooped it up in the Houghton Library too!

    I have read 8 biographies of Louisa May Alcott and consider Madeleine Stern’s to be the definitive work. She presented a balanced view because she let the facts speak for themselves without inserting herself into the writing. Alcott’s life was very fascinating and no more was needed to tell it. I felt like I got inside the head and heart of Louisa with that book.

    I blog regularly about Louisa May Alcott at and will let my readers know about your article.

  2. September 13, 2011 at 5:05 pm


    As ever, an informative and inspiring article that all bibliopoles and bibliophiles alike would do well not to miss.

  3. September 14, 2011 at 1:49 pm

    Wonderful! These two ladies fill more and more of my personal shelf space as time goes on. Each “new” book to me is a treasure. I probably flatter myself, but I would love to have been able to sit for tea one afternoon with them.

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