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:
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.