Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Part IV
How did you get into the Book Business?

Tatamy Book Barn

"How did you get into the Book Business?"
Long Story - Medium Length Version

And the old-school lessons stuck.
A few years ago, in a thank you letter, a client wrote:
"In your own time, sir
you have kept alive traditions
that were dead
before you were born" - "Harold" "A New Leaf" (1971)

Not quite true.
I'm glad to say that many of the best traditions and book men of antiquarian bookselling were still well alive when I entered the business.

An example is Mabel Zahn of Sessler's.

Shortly after I started buying, selling, and trading in my modest way I began to locate some pretty good items. The problem was that, being so new to the trade, I had no market for these more up-scale pieces. Then I met Miss Zahn.

She had been working for Sessler's since about 1905 and, after the death Charles Sessler, managed the rare book room pretty much on her own. Sessler's was (for the first half of the 20th century), along with Rosenbach, Smith, and a few others, at the apex of high-line American bookselling. Miss Zahn saw all the great books, attended all the great sales, and met all the great collectors of that heady era: Folger; Huntington; Newton; Rosenwald; Hoe; Chew; Morgan; Widener; et. al. The list was very long and she kept up good contacts with collectors of taste and means.

Mabel had a wonderful and highly practiced "eye" (for people as well as books). By the time I came on the scene, her back room office at Sessler's did not have as many treasures as it once held... but there was still much to dazzle any bibliophile.

I was running around all over the place, including out of the way stops like the Tatamy Book Barn in Northampton County, PA (picture above); Leonard Lasko's (Mr. 3 L) first little ephemera/junk shop on Pine Street; Bernard Conwell Carlitz's upstairs shop on Chestnut; Klineman's; and hundreds of other long gone book shops. Though I did not know the term at the time - I was becoming a pretty good a book-scout, and Miss Zahn seemed willing to provide a ready market for my best "finds".

We did loads of satisfactory transactions that in addition to books, included maps, prints, and a couple of autographs. She was a tiny woman, and in her later years often seemed frail. But when negotiating over a rare book - her strength and toughness was all I could usually see.

Late in 1970 I brought to her a two volume early 19th century set on Mexico - handsomely illustrated with engravings (many folding) and nicely bound. We dealt with a couple of other minor pieces I had brought along and then turned to the Mexico set. We looked at it together. Finally she said, "Seventy-five dollars." I was expecting twice that much, and said so.

She pulled herself up to full height (maybe a bit over 5 feet) and said, forcefully "So! You don't think I know what I'm talking about." Immediately I said, "Oh no Miss Zahn." "I bow before your knowledge and experience." And saying this I gave a courtly and very sincere bow.

Her voice, stature, and body language changed immediately. She looked like a young girl.
She said in a weak little voice that was trailing off slightly, "Oh me?? No - I know so little. There is so much to know. So very much." I was immediately struck by the truth of her statement. It was not false modesty, but her very breadth of experience that taught her (and me in that split second) that the more we know - the more there is to know.

We agreed to dis-agree about the Mexico set.
I left, and that same day traded it to Carlitz for a special copy of Price's 'On the Nature of Civil Liberty' 1776. The Price book became one of my favorites... but the value I ended up getting for it was paltry compared to the lessons I learned from Miss Zahn.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I enjoy reading your blog and learning your experiences as a bookman.

9:35 AM  
Blogger BooksRare said...

Thanks. If you have any questions or comments, please do post them to me.


11:03 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

For many years I've heard tales of the BookBarn from my wife who visited it often as a child with her grandparents who worked there on and off.
We'd love to know more about the BB if anyone has any details they could share or links to information. She's very curious as to when that photo was taken as it looks so much different that memory has it. For one thing the long steps aren't shown, which were there to help Bob who was disabled or something? It doesn't fit my image either, but I was expecting a red barn filled with books...
Thanks so much,

6:15 PM  
Blogger BooksRare said...

The pic of the Tatamy Book Barn was taken after it's time as a book store. I'd love to have a good picture of its interior and/or exterior from the book store years. The long ranks of shelves have to be seen to be believed. As you mention, the owner was disabled... but he seemed to be able to make annual (winter) buying trips to the South West. Ron

2:50 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

How delighted I was when I found the story on The Book Hunter. The description exactly matches a painting in the apartment of a friend of mine in LA. I took a photo of it as I have always wanted to buy a copy but never knew exactly what I was looking for nor how to find it. It seems you may have it in your catalogue. Can you tell me how I may obtain a copy please please please.....The old man up the ladder is wearing black breeches and a tailcoat. He appears to be about 80 years old and has a book which he is reading in his left hand, another in his right hand, one under the elbow of his left hand and yet another book between his knees. There cannot be two similar pictures so your must be the same as the one in my friends apartment. I live in the UK and can be reached on anitoba@googlemail.com. Please say you can help me.

10:04 AM  
Blogger BooksRare said...

The correct title for the painting and print is THE BOOK WORM. It is by a fellow named Carl Spitzweg. There is a decent article on it in Wiki.
In my old catalog the reproduction is really very poor. There are many examples of the image on the next. With this information you may be able to locate full size reproductions.
PS: In my own collection I have the first American edition of the print [not for sale].

3:52 AM  

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