Friday, August 13, 2010

A Wake For The Still Alive: Peter B. Howard Part 5

Photo: Ken Sanders.

"unlimited service to the ABAA..."

This little memory is for Peter, whom I have known, admired, respected, and feared all of my career:

It was 1967 and I was just three months an employee of Jake Zeitlin's "Big Red Barn” bookstore, Zeitlin and Ver Brugge, and knew nothing. I guess that we received a list or catalogue offering books for sale (computers and the internet hadn't been thought of, at least not in the book business) and I had ordered (for all of $40 if memory serves correctly) an Advance Proof Copy of Bertrand Russell's Satan in the Suburbs. I was just beginning to collect Russell and, of course, had no idea what an Advance Proof Copy of anything looked like! It turned out to be not unlike an ordinary small paperback, but it was an Advance Proof Copy, and it impressed me beyond measure!

When I was told that it had arrived in Jake's packing room, I went to claim it. I don't know what I expected, but imagine my amazement upon seeing this extremely well packed, maybe over-packed little parcel that took me what seemed to be forever to open. What a great job of packing! I had never experienced anything like it. Remember, those were the days when English dealers like Blackwell's wrapped everything in a layer or two of cardboard, tied up VERY tightly with string, and sent them on. I was very impressed.

And then, even more surprise: typed at the bottom of the invoice were the words "Serendipity Charges No Postage"!!! I have always wanted to emulate that very wise business policy and have sometimes done so, but with postage going up and up, and my partners offering more and more resistance I haven’t always gotten away with it. But I wish that I had!

Peter has gone on to a long career of great bookselling and unlimited service to the ABAA but those thoughts are what I remember most.

Thank you, Peter.

- Michael Thompson
Michael Thompson is proprietor of Michael R. Thompson Booksellers in Los Angeles, CA. 

Jeff Towns scouting at Serendipity Books.
Photo (and children) by Mykaljon Thompson.

“there has never been, nor will there ever be another”

I first saw Peter Howard in the mid seventies at the first A.B.A. bookfair I ever visited at the plush Grosvenor Hotel in London's Park Lane. Up from the country and hardly wet behind my bookselling ears , I was  over-awed by the whole affair but I do remember very clearly the stand marked 'Serendipity Books  Berkeley CA'.

The proprietor looked somewhat ill at ease. He was tall, bespectacled, had little hair and was dressed in a mossy tweed jacket, shirt, tie; he looked ill at ease in these clothes, too. His discomfort showed in his face and I was too timid to speak with him but I remember his stock: He had none of the great vellum bound anatomies and herbals  that the European dealers  displayed, nor was his stand the wall to wall gleaming calf of the British; his books were modern. And his case was full of bits of paper with text - some typed, some scrawled. But what words! Malcolm Lowry writing from Mexico, Kerouac from the desert, and Nabokov in Russian, together with proof copies, inscribed copies and gleaaming firsts. That display had a profound effect on me.

I first met Peter at the first ever North American book fair I attended as an exhibitor, at the King Edward Hotel in Toronto. He was taciturn and laconic - his staff Nancy and Burton were more fun. But, in concert with years of visits to Berkeley, first to the Shattuck store and then to the great University location, and Peter’s expeditions to the UK with side trips into Wales and book fairs all over, I came to understand and respect this great bookseller and we became friends

On his first visit to my home in Swansea Peter came down to breakfast possessively clutching a Victorian, painted, cast-iron toy money-box. It was one of my prized possessions. It was shaped as a baseball tableau.

It had a remarkable mechanical movement - you loaded a small coin into the pitcher’s hand, cocked his arm, pressed a lever, he pitched, the batter swung, missed, and the catcher deflected the coin down into the money box. It was quite wonderful and it was no longer mine. I learned a valuable lesson: to show Peter something (or even let him glimpse it) is seen as an irrefutable offer to trade!

Fast forward twenty years. Scene: Serendipity Books, late afternoon:

I entered the shop straight from the airport after a tiring fifteen hour journey and climbed my way through the boxes to say hello to Peter. He looked up from his computer when I said hello.  I was met with a scowl and growl.

"What are you doing here?!" he barked

I was shocked and bemused

"I came straight -”

"Why aren’t you at my house?" he barked again.

" I just got in, thought I would - ”

"Get to my house . There are fifty boxes of Dylan Thomas for you to go through!"

I immediately went. Allison's greeting was altogether more gentle.

The 50 boxes of books were stacked in the room I was to stay in. And they were wonderful.

Fast forward another five years. Cut to:  Serendipity Books during one of Peter's great bi-annual 'clean for a day' book fair party/extravaganzas.

Peter drags a harassed customer clutching a book over towards me. The book is one of many I have left on consignment over the years. Peter demands that I inform the customer what my best price will be. It is marked $650. I say $500. Peter loudly instructs the man to give me a cheque for $500 but to be sure to give Nancy a dollar and wanders off mumbling about how if Serendipity makes one dollar on every book....

There has never been, nor will there ever be another  bookseller quite like Peter Howard.

- Jeff Towns

Jeff Towns is proprietor of Dylans Bookstore in Swansea, U.K.

Photo: Eddie Rosenbaum, The Daily Californian.

“a long shadow...”

Peter Howard.   A bookseller's name which evokes strong feelings in the trade.  For me, it's primarily admiration.  Peter is/was a mentor, of sorts, that certainly has strongly influenced my career as a bookseller.  And I readily acknowledge the debt I owe him.  Of the many, many memories I have, one stands out...

In the early 1990s, as I was contemplating a second career in bookselling (I was in the Coast Guard at the time, facing mandatory retirement in a few years) he said something to the effect of "Do something else.  You're twenty years behind."  He was, of course, correct.  There is no way anyone can make up the actual experience of handling a myriad of books over the course of two decades.  I, every day, regret not finding this calling until my late 30s.

But I'm a contrary sort, so I persevered, and Peter, initially shaking his head, willing, and actively, supported my 1994 application to the ABAA.  Without such, I suspect my membership would have been delayed a number of years, as I was, at the time, in-between, not full time, and a bit shy of the financial levels desired by the ABAA for 'part-timers'.  Nevertheless, with his advocacy, I was accepted for ABAA membership in February 1995.  Which brings me, in my opinion, to one of Peter's most admirable traits-  he supports the trade, those that comprise the trade, and especially those new to the trade.  I hope I've learned this lesson, and apply it in my daily bookselling activities.

Further, following in the same vein, one other lesson taught to me has been to 'pay it forward'.  Peter has done me, as well as many booksellers, a wealth of courtesies over the years, for which he rarely asked for 'payback'.  As such, I try to do the same.  When a young bookseller inquires of me about 'payback' for a professional courtesy, I say, thinking of Peter's example, "Pay it forward."

Finally, as Michael Thompson has long advocated, "The best thing about the trade, is the trade."  To me, Peter Howard epitomizes the best aspects of the trade. Peter constantly, and routinely, 'got' great books.  He placed them were they should be placed.  He is acquianted with most 'movers & shakers' in all the divers book communities.  He encouraged new booksellers.  He's generous.  He knows books.  He knows how to sell books.  In summary, he casts a large shadow.  And when that shadow fades, he will be sorely missed.  Especially by me.  Especially by me.

- Vic Zoschak

Vic Zoschak is the proprietor of Tavistock Books in Alameda, CA.

Photo: Sheila Newbery.

Previously: [1] [2] [3] [4]

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.


  1. Part 1 of 2

    We had spoken on the phone once or twice, when Peter had called to talk to Bill Hoffer
    up in Vancouver, but I finally met Peter in 1976 or 77, on a bookscouting trip with my
    then-partner Terry Rutherford. We had purchased 60-day bus passes and began the trip at
    the Seattle Book Sale, then bussed down to the Bay Area. We went to Serendipity, then at
    the Shattuck Avenue location, where Peter was very welcoming, even loaning us a car to
    drive around in. A dilapidated VW bug as I recall. He was very kind and helpful,
    typically a bit gruff, but after my ‘apprenticeship’ with Bill Hoffer my skin was
    already thick enough. He offered us favorable terms and free shipping, naturally.

    We met again later on the trip. Peter was back east for a NY book fair, and we all
    attended a big used book sale in Connecticut a couple of days before the fair. Peter was
    there with Frank Scioscia, and while waiting in the lineup and discussing which section
    to go to first. I suggested that I would try to check out the novels. Peter looked at
    me: “Frank is death on fiction”, he said. It was true.

    A few months later I flew down to Berkeley with Hoffer on a morning ‘Champagne Flight’
    from Vancouver. We had burgers at Oscar’s, near the shop on Shattuck, and hung around at
    Serendipity for a few days, making sporadic scouting expeditions to the area book shops.
    Peter had begun to expand the shop into the neighboring storefronts, and rare books
    were, to some extent, housed in an upstairs apt. above the store. The stock at
    Serendipity was astonishing, especially to our naïve Canadian eyes… I remember finding
    Clark Ashton Smith’s EBONY AND CRYSTAL in a closet – not just one copy, but bundles of
    5! Not cheap, but buyable at $75 per copy.

    William Matthews
    William Matthews, Bookseller
    Salt Spring Island, BC, Canada

  2. Part 2 of 2

    In the nearly 35 years since then I have spent a lot of time at Serendipity, even moving to the Bay Area for 3 years at one point. The Serendipity stories are myriad … I remember a few vividly.

    Paris. Late 1980s. Peter, Martin Stone and I are there to get the books from the library of a Russian translator named Yablonski. The books were stored in a warehouse in an outer arondissement of Paris. After complex negotiations, we drove to the warehouse (with ME driving) to meet Yablonski’s sister, a remarkably tall and beautiful Russian woman. Following some paperwork and formalities we were ushered to an upper story where, in a curtained-off area, the library was stored in boxes. It was great: most of Nabokov in the original Russian, private press and illustrated books, and a truly great collection of British supernatural and fantasy fiction including all the William Hope Hodgsons, many M.R. James first editions, and other rare English ghost story books in dust jackets. Peter sorted carefully through each and every box, extracting books while Martin and I packed them up and offered such advice as we able. Later, when we had removed the books to our tiny room on the upper floor of a run-down hotel, we stayed up all night getting them packed (not easy – try finding appropriate amounts of newspaper and other wrapping materials in Paris, late at night!). By about 3 or 4 AM Martin and I were totally exhausted, but Peter, magically energized by the books, soldiered on through the night, fresh as a daisy! The next morning I flew out of Paris headed for the Boston Book Fair, with several large and heavy boxes culled from the collection. I met Peter at the Copley in Boston a few days later where the books were unpacked in the room, processed, and for sale in the booth the next day. Peter is indomitable on these kind of trips – clearly he is sustained by the books and the sheer pleasure of scouting and buying and acquiring and, of course, selling them…

    I remember another time, in London, when Peter and I went to the home of Alan Clodd, the notable British publisher and collector. Clodd collected Samuel Beckett, and Peter had recently acquired a copy of Beckett’s MURPHY (1938). It had come from the famed Australian lot which had surfaced not long before, and it was in a condition typical of that lot: BRAND-NEW IN DUST JACKET! Alan had to have it. We spent a few hours combing through the shelves, and left laden with several shopping bags of wonderful books acquired in trade for MURPHY. Peter knows how to leverage a great book when it comes along.

    William Matthews
    William Matthews, Bookseller
    Salt Spring Island, BC, Canada

  3. Peter Howard and I were graduate students together at UC Berkeley in the early 1960s. Peter had started acquiring first editions, and I'd started my professional medieval library. We went book scouting almost every Saturday, mostly at women's club and library sales. Peter taught me first editions, and I taught him medieval scholarship. We each carried two bushel baskets and usually filled them by noon. Then we divided them up. I took the books on the Middle Ages, and Peter got the firsts. Then we sold the rest to secondhand stores, mostly to Moe's and Howell's. Peter took cash, and I took trade. I never had less than $1000 in trade at every Berkeley bookstore.

    One Saturday, we went to a snazzy sale by a women's club in San Francisco and found a 4x8 table full of 17th century leatherbound French drama. I put a basket at one end, and Peter tipped the tableful into the baskets. We made a killing that Saturday.

    I married a fellow graduate student who hated bookstores but cooked like an angel. So I made a deal with her. I'd park her in the cookbook section of a secondhand bookstore for an hour while I browsed. Then I'd buy her any books she wanted. This process became the basis of our fabulous modern cookbook shelves.

    Peter handled the books from the estate of my father- and mother-in-law, Howard and Dorothy Baker. He hauled off a vanload of books, papers, letters, typescripts, movie scripts, and prints (and two saddles). He sent us checks from this transaction for 20 years.

    Peter was the scrappiest person I ever met, but a brilliant teacher. He would have made a great medievalist.


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