Wednesday, August 11, 2010

A Wake For The Still Alive: Peter B. Howard Part 3

Photo: Ken Sanders.

“the biblical prophet...”

I have known Peter Howard for some forty years, during which time, along with many, many book transactions, we have had countless disagreements, confrontations and fights.  Many of these originated from his strong convictions about loyalty to friends – in particular his friend, and my nemesis, William Hoffer.

In spite of all my confrontations with Peter, I greatly admire his style and his capacities as a bookseller and have often referred to him – once in print – as being the bookseller who I consider to be the best bookseller of my generation. This contention caused serious opposition from some who had different views; other worthy dealers, in other fields, would be nominated, and I would have to concede that perhaps those opposing views had some merit. Admitting that, I would then add that perhaps I should have qualified my statement by saying the best in the field he dealt in, modern literature.

But in truth I meant it. I believe that Peter would have excelled in whatever field he chose to deal in because he had all the attributes that I believe are shared by all true booksellers.

First, reverence for the book and its importance as a worthy cultural artifact; next the supremacy of the dealer as arbiter of the standards of collecting and the moral imperative to convey those standards to others. And perhaps, his most admirable trait, his understanding of the importance of other dealers to the trade. His love of selling to the trade and his generosity in his dealings with his colleagues is well known and, I’m sure, the accounts found here will reflect many instances of this.
My favorite Peter anecdote – and there are plenty to choose from – relates to a personal incident. And I also think it is a wonderful example of a creative insult. It also reflects his character and the very different manner with which he viewed the trade and our relations with other dealers. Once, at a bookfair during one of our intermittent periods of strife, I returned to my booth to find Peter’s card in a book. I was a bit surprised because we weren’t speaking just then. While I no longer remember the nature of that particular fight, I was surprised to find that he had been in my booth, since my own method of dealing with colleagues I am angry at is to not buy any books from them. But I invoiced the book, deducting the normal trade discount and sent the book to Peter’s booth. Later that day my invoice was returned, with the discount crossed out and the full price of the book paid by cheque. Across the invoice, in large printed letters, read “DISCOUNT REFUSED.” I admired the classy nature of that deliberate insult then, and I still do. What a wonderful insult, I thought, expressing your contempt for a colleague by refusing to accept a traditional courtesy of the trade.

I’m sure he bought the book based on his oft-trumpeted credo of “serving the customer.” He did not allow his professionalism and duty to his client to be affected by our disagreement, and by refusing the usual trade amenity, found a way of putting me in my place.

When we were all younger I envied Peter his apparent certainty at the rightness of his own views; he always had an instant answer which he would throw in your face in the manner of some biblical prophet. Years later I saw a short bio somewhere which stated that one of his majors in University had been Biblical Studies. Aha! I thought – that’s the key to Howard; the biblical prophet; the man whose vision, fueled by passion, drives him to exhort and lecture; the man who has the truth and who is compelled to pass it on. Like several booksellers I’ve known he seemed to have transferred his religious impulses to his vocation.

I still consider Peter to be one of the greatest of American booksellers. We know Kraus and Rosenbach could sell great books, but there are lots of great salesmen around. What’s needed are more philosophers.

Peter’s ideas and actions influenced many, not just booksellers. I’m sure many collectors and librarians have also benefited by listening to his pronouncements.

He made his mark in his time and if he was not always easy to deal with, well, that seems to go with greatness. I would sometimes admonish Peter for not listening to my pronouncements, claiming he should be more respectful of his elders. I am exactly one day older then him. But that didn’t happen. Another example of the man who follows his own vision.

I learned plenty from him and if much of it came from my own efforts to confute those of his certainties I didn’t like, or couldn’t accept, that doesn’t lessen his impact.

I often welcomed the 3000 miles which separated us, but I’m glad I knew him and I continue to admire him.

Men like Peter Howard are the ones who change the world.

He will be remembered.

- David Mason

David Mason is the proprietor of David Mason Books in Toronto, Canada.

Peter Howard (r) with James Pepper.
Photo courtesy James Pepper.

“the great catalyst...”

Growing up in Southern California, I started riding my bicycle to  bookstores at the age of fourteen. By the fall of 1970, I was  eighteen years old, a freshman in college, and crazy about books.  While walking through my college library I saw a poster for the ABAA  Antiquarian Book Fair being held at the now lost Ambassador Hotel in  Los Angeles.

Somehow I managed to drag my girlfriend to it convincing  her it would be a fun date. As I recall she actually had a good time  but I was enthralled. It was amazing that dealers would put famous  books or George Washington and Ernest Hemingway letters into my  hands. There were so many things I would have loved to own but had  little money. My one purchase was a $15 copy of the Wimp Press piracy  of Bob Dylan’s book, Tarantula, which at that point Dylan had not  allowed to be published. The booth was Serendipity Books and I met  the remarkable Peter B. Howard, little knowing that the encounter  would contribute to my one day becoming a bookseller.

One of God’s more complex creatures, Peter is the very definition of  the word mercurial. Quirky as he can be, Peter has always personally  treated me with great courtesy. I have many times been the recipient  of his kindness. I once found he had a moderately expensive book that  I wanted to buy for my personal collection. I sheepishly asked him if  I could have a little time to pay for it, thinking that maybe that 60  or 90 days would be quite nice. Peter looked at me and said “What do  you need, two years, three years?”

A quarter of a century ago,  knowing that I personally collected cinema in a serious way, Peter  sold me Orson Welles’ working manuscripts for the screenplay of his  classic film, Touch of Evil, now one of the great highlights of my  collection. He charged me $10,000 and gave me a year to pay. But with  Peter you knew that if you got in trouble he would give you more time.

Peter takes great pride in saying that Serendipity Books has never  charged for shipping. Uniquely, Peter has taken that saying to new levels.  For years when there have been book fairs in San Francisco, Peter  would encourage dealers to send their boxes of books for the fair to  Serendipity. He would store them, then at the time of the fair he  would rent a truck, take them to the venue and have them delivered to  your booth. When there were ABAA fairs in Los Angeles. Peter would  rent trucks and drive south the boxes to supply many booths of those  dealers from Northern California. All this for free.

I have always thought of Peter as the Great Catalyst. He has this  peculiar genius for obtaining and selling books. Many dealers over  years have had a large number of items supplied for their businesses  through their repeated scouting of the store. He has encouraged a  good number of young booksellers, some of whom are now considered the  established old guard. I have seen him go to great lengths to find  things for collectors. After years of selling modern literature only,  Peter decided to take a new look at things and expanded his business  to embrace all kinds of interesting non-fiction areas. Serendipity  Books is a place where a hyper-modern collector can find an esoteric  piece of poetry or an incunabula dealer from Holland finds an  historical treatise from the1490s.

One of the various sub-definitions of the word “serendipity” is noted  as “someone useful found by accident.” Peter Howard is much more than  someone merely useful.

- James Pepper

James Pepper is the proprietor of James Pepper Rare Books in Santa Barbara, CA.

Photo: Ken Sanders.

“the minotaur…”

Serendipity Books of Berkeley, California  is a zen koan of a book shop, and its proprietor, Peter B. Howard,  is the minotaur  at the heart of the labyrinth.  Or perhaps a reverse labyrinth, as Mr. Howard’s desk is situated at the far end of the great two story room as one first enters Serendipity and  flanked by two  runs of large towering bookshelves  set in a sort of isosceles triangle, yet open at both ends, so as to funnel both  your eyes and your body  towards the minotaur himself: Peter B. Howard. 

Like the oracle at Delphi,  one must pass through these portals  and be prepared to answer the riddle of the sphinx.  Many have  failed these initial  tests,  or quests,  and have  likewise failed to learn  any of the secrets that lay beyond.

Peter B. Howard  was  to the bookselling of the 1960s  as Orson Welles once was to  film of the 1930s: A brilliant and arrogant mind that does not suffer fools lightly.  As the great Berkeley and Serendipity scholar, Ian Jackson, once wrote in his brilliant series of treatsies  on Peter B. Howard and Serendipity Books  ("The Key To Serendipity or How To Buy Books from Serendipity"  and  “The Key To Serendipity Or How To Find Books In Spite of Peter B. Howard”) a question best not posted to Mr. Howard in any of its myriad forms is ”Are these books in any kind of order?” because, in Mr. Howard’s mind, the only place they reside in any sort of order or organization is in Mr. Howard’s mind  and nowhere else.

The Zen koans  are alive and pulsating throughout every rolling stack and every nook and cranny  but are ordinarily invisible to those mere mortals of booksellers who make it past  the initial Serendipity fulcrum and the minotaur himself  and wade off into the heart of darkness  or the river Styx  without  oars or illumination. Pity that Mr. Jackson never finished the map; the integral third volume which shall evermore rank, along with  Aristotle’s Lost Poetics, and the other unknown volumes that burned in Alexandria, as one of the great lost books of all time.

Peter B. Howard bears a remarkable resemblance to the crotchety old bookseller in Michael Ende’s The Never Ending Story  - “Your books,  are safe, my books are real” - and his premises  are probably the closest I’ve  seen to those in   the library labyrinthe  in   the filmed version of  Umberto Eco’s  “The Name of the Rose," although I have yet to encounter  any arsenic-laced incunabula except, perhaps, from the tongue of the proprietor.   And Serendipity  is the operative  word  for both the premises;  in their vast inventories  and ever changing denizens.  The minotaur himself  and  his long suffering assistant, Nancy Kosenka, are the only two constants in this ever evolving and serendipitous  landscape.    And  those premises are a bit like the various lands of Oz,  although not nearly as neatly ordered and likely full of a lot more surprises. 

Prospecting the shelves  and the vast inventories  of Serendipity is a daunting task for the uninitiated  or the lone prospector.  But there is gold in them there hills,  or more precisely  in the thousands  of “sacks”  overflowing the aisles and floors  that denote  the newest of arrivals  to the Serendipity landscape.    Acquiring  books  from Mr. Howard  is an arduous  and detailed process  and not for the faint of heart  and I don’t have time to attempt an explanation of that process here.  Again I would refer the neophyte to Mr. Ian Jackson’s  articulations  of the Serendipity experience  contained in his two published volumes  about Peter B. Howard and Serendipity Books.

But what I wish to say  is that Peter B. Howard  is one of the most generous and knowledgeable  men  that has ever lived in the world of books.  He has an astonishing mind and intellect  and passion for books that is only matched  by   his equally intimidating  arrogance, superiority,  eccentricity,  and furor in the trade. He is simultaneously  one of the most beloved, admired,  feared and disliked individuals  that ever plied the world of books.   He has acquired  and articulated  and sold some of the most important  collections and archives in the second half of the 20th century in the book world, and hundreds of booksellers  are the richer  for his legendary  largess in the trade; both in spirit and pocketbook.  I know that my own acquaintance  with Mr. Howard and Serendipity Books  has been an unforgettable experience  and I am the richer  for it.

Peter B. Howard is the architect of Serendipity and it has been a willful  and determined construction  over the past half century, that is and always will be a work in progress.  By necessity and his own volition,  Serendipity  Books  cannot and will not outlive its creator. The minotaur  is on his own final journey into the very heart  of  the zen koan labyrinth maze of his  own making. Would that he would be able to  report back to us  what he finds when he finally gets to where he’s going.

- Ken Sanders.

Ken Sanders is "creating chaos out of anarchy for a better tomorrow" at Ken Sanders Rare Books in Salt Lake City, UT.

[1] [2] Tomorrow: Part 4.

Booktryst thanks Dan Adams, John Baxter, Taylor Bowie, John Crichton, Mary Gilliam, 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.


  1. It is difficult to summarize what I think about Peter B. Howard. Indeed to “summarize” Peter is to miss the point entirely. He is a man in full, and not easily explained to those who haven’t met him. But I will start with my first experience of him:

    I entered the trade in the mid-1980s, as a largely self-taught modern first edition dealer. As things are wont to be for beginning dealers, money was tight. Despite that, early on I was lucky enough to obtain a nice lot of Ernest Hemingway material: some of his own property that had been discarded by his wife after his death, and harvested by a trash picker from the curb outside the storage space where it had long languished.

    The lot consisted of manuscript notes, including an unpublished poem from the 1920s that Hemingway had scrawled on the back of an envelope from a Paris lingerie shop, the first page of the manuscript of one of his books, many letters to Hemingway from his friends, colleagues, and editors, a large stack of bullfight programs with Hemingway’s annotations and notes, his checkbook, and many signed and canceled checks, and various other personal items that would tempt the dealer and collector.

    I was armed with few contacts in the trade, but I was undeterred enough to concoct an ambitious asking price for the material. I asked my closest friend in the book trade, another young dealer named Ken Lopez, who happened to be exhibiting at the New York Antiquarian Book Fair for the very first time, to encourage the modern first edition dealer and Hemingway specialist Jeffrey Marks to take the 90 minute ride from New York City to my house in South Jersey after the fair concluded. Jeff had suffered through a bad fair and, not naturally of a sunny disposition even in the best of times, wasn’t looking forward to it. Eventually he relented and arrived late on the Sunday night after the fair, somewhat out of sorts, with two Canadian dealers, Bill Matthews and Richard Shuh, in tow.

    After some scouting in my labyrinth of books, Bill and Richard retired (Richard apparently spending a restless night because of the stares of the row of Cabbage Patch Dolls that stood watch over him in the room that my young daughter had vacated for the night in order to accommodate him). Jeff and I stayed up and looked at the Hemingway material.

    Jeff was entranced. However, he was unsure of the price. He asked:

    “Do you mind if I send Peter Howard down to look at this later in the week?” Jeff and Peter had recently and successfully bought the Carl Peterson collection of William Faulkner in partnership, and he apparently thought that this stuff might be appropriate for a similar partnered acquisition.

    No, I didn’t mind, but I was both awed and apprehensive. Peter was already a legend in the trade.

  2. How does one prepare for the visit of a legend? Armed, as I was, with several months of experience in the book trade, I had made my own sagacious observations: only three things were required to satisfy an antiquarian bookseller: food, drink, and most importantly, books.

    I had the books. So I bought a case of beer, a bottle of whiskey, and when Peter arrived, early the next evening, a pizza.

    Peter ignored the pizza, he ignored the whiskey (although I did not, because he made me so nervous), he may have had a single beer at some point, but if he did, I don’t remember it. For the most part, he even ignored the Hemingway material. More important things occupied him.

    He did not ignore the books.

    As I said, he arrived in the early evening and proceeded to systematically work his way through all of my many bookcases. When I finally went to bed at 5 a.m., I left him in my low-ceilinged basement working through the shoulder high rows of stacked boxes of unprocessed books.

    The whole time he was scouting, and with me seldom more than a few feet away, he lectured me on the rare book trade. He lectured me on the ridiculous prices I charged for common books. He enumerated my many faults as a bookseller. Surprisingly, as our acquaintance had been at that time of only a few hours duration, he lectured me on my many faults as an individual. He railed against booksellers who “held books for ransom”, a group which clearly included me, Ken Lopez, Jeff Marks, Ralph Sipper, Peter Stern, Jim Pepper, and pretty much everyone else in the trade whose name wasn’t Peter B. Howard. Clearly here was a man with no shortage of opinions. At some point, he too must have gone to bed.

    The next morning, after a brief conversation and some consultation on the phone with Jeff Marks, we came to an agreement on the Hemingway material, and it was time to settle up. Including the Hemingway material, the total selling price of the books, autographs, photographs, and artwork that Peter had harvested from my stock came to a couple of hundred dollars more than $34,000. At the time, this was an enormous payday for me: more than I could make in several months of reasonably industrious bookselling.

    Peter said, “What do I owe you?”

    I decided, chastened by the full course of lectures from the Peter B. Howard School of the Antiquarian Book Trade, to take the high road:

    “Let’s just round it down to $34,000.”

    Peter’s eyes gleamed. He plucked an inexpensive book, a paperback original, off of the shelf.

    “How much for this?”

    “Nothing, I’ll throw it in.”

    His eyes gleamed brighter. He grabbed another inexpensive book:

    “And this?”

    “Take it.”

  3. As anyone who knows him will attest, Peter wasn’t going to miss a chance at free books. I too was beginning to get the picture. He grabbed another,

    “And this?”

    “Ten dollars.”

    He grudgingly put the book on the pile, and promptly wrote me a check for $34,010.

    For me, who lived day-to-day, and from check-to-check, I was acutely aware of the miniscule balance in my checkbook at every single moment of every single day. Not unmindful of this, I asked Peter if he wanted me to hold the check for any amount of time?

    Peter looked at me quizzically. It had never occurred to him to ask me to hold the check. He replied in the negative. I could put it in today. However, it clearly prompted something in his mind.

    He asked “Can I use your phone for a minute?”

    Far be it from me to deny the use of my telephone to a man who has just written me a check for $34,010 (and indeed, to this day you will be extended that courtesy if you should happen to do the same). He picked up the receiver, dialed, and apparently made contact.

    He said: “Nancy? Put another $40,000 in the little account!”

    He hung up.

    I was duly impressed.

    But more important to me was the dramatic effect that this transaction had on my ability to advance to the next level in the trade.

    This was only the first of very many kindnesses that Peter Howard accorded me. On several occasions, Ken Lopez and I drove across the country and found ourselves naturally drawn to Serendipity. Peter would insist upon feeding us, sheltering us, doing our laundry, and most importantly providing generous – sometimes almost impossibly generous – discounts, and payment terms that allowed us to purchase inventory that we otherwise would have had no chance of buying, and which served to enhance our inventories, and indeed eventually, our careers.

    As time went by, Ken and I became more established, and needed the considerations less, and consequently the discounts became smaller, and rightly so. Peter’s kindness however, has never flagged, although I have continued on occasion to be scolded by him for one or another of my many grievous faults. His kindnesses have always served to leaven the occasionally harsh judgments that he might have passed on me.

    In nearly a quarter of a century of observing Peter (albeit often at a safe distance), it has become abundantly clear that his concern for, and support of booksellers, and especially young booksellers, was pretty much unparalleled.

    We’ll not see his like again.


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