Monday, August 9, 2010

A Wake For The Still Alive: Peter B. Howard

Photo: Ken Sanders.


I saw Robinson Crusoe at the 2007 California Antiquarian Book Fair in San Francisco.

He was standing in one of the aisles around twenty-five yards away from my vantage point and looked like an aged, unkempt and unshaven derelict marooned far too long, surviving on a diet far too short on calories. He was wearing a sarong-like thing wrapped around his waist, sandals, a rumpled shirt and a knit cap with earflaps. It seemed as if he had just come off a three day binge on arrack, the liquor made from coconut sap.

It was Peter Howard, proprietor of the legendary Serendipity Books in Berkeley, California, who appeared to be shipwrecked on Book Island.

In a business bursting with vivid personalities, Peter flies off the color wheel. His brilliant white light enters a prism and emerges in wild hues rarely seen in nature; Pantone is rumored to want him as the subject of a major chromatics R&D project. He’s a singleton, and not to every one’s taste; what is savory to some is sour to others.

That’s their problem – as Peter will be the first to declare.

For the uninitiated, some background on Serendipity Books, courtesy of a few online wags:

“This is one of the oddest cultural institutions in the U.S. It's like a psychotic, literary Xanadu where one wanders through the cluttered mind of a cranky, highly literate old man where it's perpetually 1978, wondering whether this is actually a bookstore or an epically vast warehouse/museum of books where everything is for sale...

"You are practically assaulted by the seemingly total lack of regard for the potential book buyer the minute you walk through the door. The misanthropic, wheat-from-the-chaff-separating feng shui of the main room says ‘Are you *sure* you want to come in here? Are you *really* sure? Well, then, brave book and/or poetry lover, enter and.................good luck!’ followed by crusty laughter, which echoes through the 38 rooms and hallways of this cryptic yet surprisingly undusty warehouse (and I mean warehouse) of books and printed stuff...

"There are books all the way up to the ceiling, so absurdly far up (like 27 feet or something) that they are almost guaranteed to never come down. In addition to the shelves, both fixed and (apparently) movable, there are piles of books. Everywhere. There are paper bags and paper bags and paper bags filled with books, on the floor and in the aisles, and there are cabinets filled with prints and folios and ephemera and beetles and god knows what else...”

“This is the single most amazing place I have ever been! When I dream about getting lost in a maze of forgotten books... this is what it looks like.”

“Do not utter the words ‘amazon dot com’ here. I'm also not sure what comes first with the Serendipity experience, the vertigo or hairline fractures from stumbles & falls.”

“I'm agnostic, but if there is a heaven, I imagine it's just like Serendipity Books.”

And on Peter:

“Imagine paper bags stuffed with unshelved books lining narrow walkways and the sounds of a cranky, querulous old man barking orders to his assistant.”

“This bookstore could rival all the antiquarian bookstores on the East Coast if the owner wasn't such an ass...If you go there do it for browsing only and avoid the owner at all costs.”

"I think the owner is perfectly curmudgeonly and almost intimidating, as any antiquarian book owner should be. However, when you buy an interesting book, he lights up with questions for you about why you selected it and what you think, and it turns out he is quite nice!"

Yes, indeed. The rind is tough but the pulp is sweet.

I am not a friend of Peter; I am, at best, an acquaintance drawn to him by reports of his countless acts of kindness and generosity to many over forty years that have filtered down to me. Our mutual friend, Brian Kirby, who is one of Peter’s closest friends and associates, vouches for him, Jim Pepper, this one, that one; a long list. That’s good enough for me.

Many owe their entry into the trade to Peter. I don’t; blame Bill Dailey for that. But I owe Peter something, I believe, more valuable.

He forced me to confront my prejudices. I could have – and did, for the first few years I was in the trade – write him off as a Class-A jerk, a snap-judgment amongst many I was prone to make as a younger man. As people I knew and respected began to tell me more and more about him I realized that I could continue to remain secure in my superficial appraisal or do the difficult thing and force myself to make the effort to get to know and understand him.

It ain’t easy. Is there a firm, unwavering opinion this often brusque and cantankerous (yet supremely sensitive) individual doesn’t have?

I only see him at book fairs. On the prowl for Kirby, I routinely stop by Serendipity’s booth, and just as routinely Peter tells me that Brian isn’t around and I wind up contenting myself with brief, often awkward (on my part) sit-downs with him who, I’ve discovered, has a highly attenuated sense of right and wrong, and a keen ethical and moral code. Once, Peter pretty much ran off the rails when he learned that I once worked for somebody who didn’t provide health insurance. “Why would you want to work for someone like that?” Uh, food, clothing and shelter. “No! You can’t do that! It’s wrong.”

Suffice it to say, at a time when employers are cutting benefits, Peter continues to offer a very generous and enviable health insurance package to his employees.

Over years of observation, I have come to appreciate this highly complex man, who can elicit the entire spectrum of emotions from others, as one of the great characters in literature - though there’s not a fictional bone in his body. He’s All-True, all the time. His truth. It’s often difficult to bear but worth the weight.

Reader’s Digest used to publish an ongoing series, The Most Unforgettable Character I Ever Met. Had they run a piece on Peter that would have been it, end of story; can’t top this individual.

Peter is not, by any standard, a saint yet he is one whose entire life has been, in some way, in service to books with a firm regard of their essential cultural sacredness; he has a philosophy of books and bookselling, and a strong view of the role and responsibility of the rare book dealer within culture as torchbearer and tastemaker, as a mediator between the past and present, and oracle of the future. These facts, for me, provided the path toward acceptance, admiration, respect and, ultimately, affection for one I have little standing with; while I’m sure he’d recognize me, I’d be surprised if he remembered my name without prompting.

At last February’s L.A. Book Fair, having learned that Peter and Thanatos were becoming a bit too chummy, I stopped by to say hello and pay my respects.

During our brief interchange I told him that his complete and utter lack of charm was, to me, his most charming attribute. He smiled. I then asked if there was anything I could do for him. He could have responded in any one of many justifiably self-interested ways. Instead:

“Just be a good book seller.”

The guy’s inching toward death and what he wants from me – and, tacitly, everyone else – is to be a good book seller and, by extension, a credit to the profession.

That just about tore me up.

Peter was born to be and will end a consummate book seller and an idealist who never quit. His epitaph should read: He Died With His Books On. 


Photo: Eddie Rosenbaum for the Daily Californian.

“his generosity is boundless...”

A Los Angeles rare book dealer named Roy Bleiweiss first acquainted me with the notion of owning first editions. This was back in the mid-seventies when I was working at the venerable Westwood Bookstore, an institution established 1936. I had always been an avid reader long before meeting Roy, though never a collector. This changed in the course of several visits to his well appointed shop on Westwood Boulevard. After acquiring a small lot of Paul Bowles’ titles, the quest for firsts became my preoccupation.

Though Roy had inspired me, it was Peter Howard who grounded me in this peculiar vocation. For this to happen, I had the good fortune of working with a gentleman named Robert Sheldon. After a stint working for North Point Press and Capra Press, Robert took over the job of managing the Westwood Bookstore. One day he presented me with a small stack of rare book catalogues. Chief among these was an unprepossessing plain white booklet from the Berkeley firm of Serendipity Books. The cover indicated the contents dealt exclusively with writers of the 1960s. Having come to my maturity during this era, I was drawn to the author’s represented. Some like Pynchon, Kesey, Wolfe, hold their own today, while a great many others hardly rate a footnote. What appealed to me most was that I could afford to purchase many of these books on my meager salary.

The Hemingways, Fitzgeralds, and Faulkners, were already escalating in prices beyond my means. My workplace, though confined in scope to retail sales was, in the best tradition of eccentric operations, inclined not to ever return stock, assuming it was meant to sell and would eventually. Soon I was pouring over the inventory adding first edition copies of “Another Roadside Attraction” and “Killer Angels” to my budding collection. Assisted by the information provided in Mr. Howard’s ephemeral little booklet, I was beginning to forge a direction to pursue my passion.

It wasn’t long before I determined to pay Serendipity Books a visit. In those days the store was located on Shattuck Avenue in Berkeley. In the company of my wife, I paid the first of many visits to Mr. Howard’s shop and, in short order, became familiar with the controlled chaos which is the hallmark of this remarkable destination.

My first impression of Mr. Howard was that of a keenly focused, and earnest individual who, when engaged by someone in matters pertaining to books would speak directly to the issue, often imparting some insight or acerbic observation. He could also be dismissive if so inclined. Before introducing myself, I took ample time to study this tall, self assured person who was clearly the nexus of authority in the establishment. This tentative approach has served me best in all my dealings with Peter over the ensuing years.

Apart from a friendly “Hi” upon arrival, I constrain myself from barging into a discussion with a man who always seemed preoccupied with some weighty matter at hand; I bide my time for that perfect opportunity to invite myself into his world. That golden moment might often involve the subject of baseball, and certainly when it concerned his beloved San Francisco Giants. On occasion, I would remind Peter that I was a die-hard Atlanta Braves fan, and each time I would be left with the impression that he could only just grudgingly forgive me that folly.

There were moments of discovery and even adventure over the years. Once, while still at his Shattuck location, Peter took me to a warren of rooms serving as an annex around the corner from his shop. Another time, after the store moved down to University Avenue, I was shuttled to a warehouse on San Pablo containing a horde of boxes sequestered from the light of day, bringing to mind the final scene in “Indiana Jones.”

Many have commented on the complexities of Peter’s codes for distinguishing the provenance of the vast accumulation of stock. Despite the fact that he has encouraged me to study it, I remain ignorant to this day of its arcane structure. However, I marvel at the quiet workmanlike way he will ponder repricing a stack of books at check-out time. There was the penciled price, and then there would be Peter’s special price. 

Once he suggested I take a look at some new arrivals. This resulted in my obtaining a lovely copy in dust jacket of Thorne Smith’s “Topper.” I sensed at the time he wished for me to have it, and had I not bought it then and there, he’d have frowned on my lack of proper judgement. Another time, early in my bookselling career, I mentioned to Peter how a certain book dealer, known throughout the trade for being reluctant to pay his bills, had been deadbeating me for many months. My chances of ever being paid seemed bleak. A little more than a week passed, and the remittance arrived in my mailbox. Bad professional character was something Peter would not abide. His generosity is boundless and seeks no recompense. However, a contribution to the ABAA’s benevolent fund was always deemed appropriate.

When I think of Serendipity it is not just Peter Howard I think of with fondness, it’s also of dear Nancy the most genial of book people, who has never failed to greet me or my wife Edda upon arrival with anything less than genuine warmth and enthusiasm. To be sure, everyone associated with this landmark operation has reflected the highest level of Collegiality. Many times Edda would pop her head through the door to ask me “How much longer do you need?” To which, I would reply- “Oh, maybe another hour or two.” Then she’d be off to shop, assured I was in good company in her absence. In perfect truth, there was never enough time in Peter’s House to find that elusive item you knew was there, but had not yet found.

- Dan Adams
Dan Adams is the proprietor of Waverly Books in Santa Monica, CA.

“’my rhyme. my reason...'"

Driving into Berkeley with my wife in 1986, I had no expectation of meeting anyone like Peter Howard. Though my experience of book-dealers was limited, most had been diffident, reticent individuals, given neither to flamboyance nor open-handedness. My horizons were about to be widened.

In those days, Serendipity Books was situated in cramped quarters on Shattuck. In fact, by ill-chance, we had arrived on the very day the business was transferring to the former wine warehouse on University which it occupies to this day. Workmen hauled crates through the front door, supervised by a man in a sweat-soaked t-shirt whom I took to be their foreman, until he turned his attention to us and asked what kind of books interested us.

I picked up a volume lying on a disordered tabletop. It was the first edition of Raymond Chandler’s The Little Sister, in that memorable Boris Artzybashef dust-wrapper; the one with the curtain delicately supported by an ice pick.

“Like this,” I said.

“No problem,” said Howard, brushing aside the question of price. “But look around.” He waved towards narrow, book-choked corridors receding into the shadows. “Maybe you’ll find something else.”

We did as we were told, occasionally stumbling over items that had spilled from the shelves. I picked up one, a thick sheaf of photocopies in a card portfolio. It was Dashiell Hammett’s FBI file. Clearly I’d come to the right place.

Over the next hour I scooped up a first of William Gaddis’s doorstop novel The Recognitions, a copy of I, Libertine by Frederick R. Ewing, alias science fiction writer Theodore Sturgeon, and, for my wife, a photographer, Naked City by Arthur Felig, aka Weegee the Famous. None were priced, nor had they been arranged in any order, except that which existed in the head of the proprietor. As Peter snapped at a visitor who complained that his stock lacked rhyme or reason, “My rhyme, my reason!”

At the front door, cartons continued to flow out. Glancing at our finds, Peter said “Why don’t you go have lunch? The place across the road is good. Tell them I sent you. Try the crisp skin chicken.”

The chicken was, indeed, superior, but when we tried to pay, the waitress waved aside our money. “It’s on Peter.”

None of this is by way of showing Peter Howard as amiable and avuncular. Rather it speaks to the contradictions in his character. Only later, for instance, did I discover that, following a car accident, he had lost all sense of taste. His appreciation of the crisp-skin chicken was, like that of any other food, entirely intellectual.

Nor did his casual attitude to pricing indicate an indifference to profit. Rather, he saw what the market would bear in any given situation, and set the rate accordingly.

On my last visit, he asked “Do you have Peter Jackson’s email address?”

“I can probably lay my hands on it.”

“I’ll pay you $1250 for it.”


Silently he led me to the back room where locked safes held his treasures. From one, he extracted a yellowing typescript in card covers. The Beast by Edgar Wallace - the embryo of what became King Kong, the remake of which Jackson was about to direct. If he paid $1250 for the address, what did he ask for the typescript. Two zeros more, at least.

On my first visit in 1986, he waved aside payment for the books we’d chosen. “I’ll invoice you,” he said. “Pay me when you get back home.”

Partly this trust was due to the computer being down until he could re-connect it in the new premises, but he was also delighted to find that my wife had photographed the wedding of our mutual friend Martin Stone. It put us on a slightly higher plane; not friends, but something more than clients. Peter immediately commissioned a full set of large-size prints. When Martin next visited Serendipity, he was taken aback to see them displayed at every corner of the shop.

The marriage barely outlasted that trip. And I never paid for the books. Instead, in the maelstrom of divorce, I boxed up some of my first editions and consigned them, ill-addressed, to Peter, not so much in payment as in abject expression of my inability to deal with anything so quotidian as a debt. Years later, back in San Francisco, I made a somewhat shame-faced return visit to Serendipity. Peter greeted me with, if not affability, then a gruff cordiality. “Got something for you,” he said, and handed me an envelope. It contained an invoice itemising how much the books fetched, and a cheque for the balance after deducting what I owed. Of the delay and the unconventional method of payment, nothing was said.

- John Baxter

John Baxter is a film critic,  novelist, and author of A Pound of Paper: Confessions of a Book Addict.

"there will never be another bookseller like Peter Howard..."

I can't even remember a time when I didn't know Peter, when I was either having fun with him, being pissed off at him, exchanging strong words, doing business, talking about books and writers - or sometimes a combination of all of those.

One funny snapshot I keep in my mind about Peter dates back to the mid-1980s, at the first Vancouver Book Fair. Our booths were next to each other, and Peter was in rare form the whole time. I noticed an older woman enter his booth and pick a book off the shelf, which she started to leaf through while holding onto a shopping bag with one hand.

When Peter saw this from his chair across the room, I heard him bellow "BOTH HANDS!" And when the woman paid no attention he started repeating "BOTH HANDS! BOTH HANDS! BOTH HANDS!" until she realized that Peter was addressing her! She was so flustered I'm surprised she didn't drop the book on the floor as she hastily left the booth.

But my favorite memory and my favorite day with Peter is one  I can pinpoint to an exact date: Sunday, October 20, 1991. I was finishing up a happy little trip to the Bay Area and had made arrangements to arrive at Serendipity in the late morning, some eight hours before my flight back to Seattle.

When I arrived around eleven in the morning, Peter was there and I was actually pleased that he and I were alone. Everybody knows the public persona of Peter, and how he is when he's in front of a large audience or when he's being distracted by ten things at once. But this Sunday, he was quite relaxed, and as I scouted the shop in my usual unorganized fashion, we chatted about anything and everything under the sun, from books to food to politics and real estate.

Around one, we took a little break to go outside for a breath of fresh air. And that's when I saw, up in the hills, a small fire burning very brightly. We both remarked that it should be put out shortly, and went back inside for more work and scouting.

But I was left with an uneasy feeling and around three I went outside and immediately summoned Peter. The fire had quintupled in size, as this was the beginning of the tragic Oakland Hills Firestorm, which killed some twenty-five people and destroyed millions of dollars worth of property.

Now, my original plan had been to take a cab to the airport but Peter insisted that given the spreading fire it would be difficult (he was right). So we piled my suitcase and ourselves into Peter's van and headed for SFO. By this time, ashes were raining down in Berkeley and for a moment I imagined what it might have been like to be In Pompeii in 79 AD! Peter was at his best as we navigated the side streets and stayed off the freeways, which were already becoming jammed. He got me to the airport in plenty of time, stuck around to make sure my flight would be taking off, and away he went. An hour or so later, the plane did depart and we flew through a huge cloud of ashes - and only then did it really hit me that this was a huge disaster.

I treasure the memory of that day, not only for Peter's kindness but also for the rare chance to spend time with him on a totally one-on-one basis. After that day and in years since, we had a couple of quarrels but our bond remained secure. I am very glad to be able to call Peter Howard a friend of longstanding, as well as a veritable force of nature in the book trade. The most obvious cliché is to say that "There will never be another bookseller like Peter Howard," but it's true. Thank you, PBH!

- Taylor Bowie

Taylor Bowie is a rare bookseller and bon vivant Seattle, WA.

Part [2] [3] [4] [5].

Booktryst thanks Dan Adams, John Baxter, Taylor Bowie, John Crichton, Mary Giliam, Ed Glaser, Eric Korn, John Martin, David Mason, James Pepper, Ken Sanders, Charles Seluzicki, Ralph Sipper, Martin Stone, Michael R. Thompson, Jeff Towns, and Vic Zoschak for their contributions.

A special thank you to James Pepper and John Crichton for their assistance with getting this project off the ground. Very special thanks to James Pepper and Ralph Sipper for their ongoing encouragement and support.

[SOLD OUT]. A print issue of A Wake For the Still Alive: Peter B. Howard is available in a limited edition of 200 copies for sale, at $20 postpaid. All proceeds will be donated to the Antiquarian Booksellers Association of America's (ABAA) Benevolent Fund.

Ordering information:

Payment by check only, payable to: Antiquarian Booksellers' Benevolent Fund.

Mail to:

Stephen J. Gertz
c/o David Brass Rare Books, 23901 Calabasas Road, suite 2060, Calabasas, CA 91302.

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