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Book Collecting Anecdotes

Evergreen Colorado, January 2019

This is a story about the Franklin Mint First Day Covers commemorating the 25th anniversary of the first ascent of Mount Everest in 1978. The item was signed by both Hillary and Tenzing, the only thing that they both signed together:

I knew Edmund Hillary well, and we talked about this item, the 25th anniversary first day covers signed by both Hillary and Tenzing.
Tenzing came to America with Hillary to sign these for the Franklin Mint, and they spent over a week cooped up in a (Chicago?) hotel room signing their names. Hillary told me that they signed 17,000 of them. If that's a 5 day week that's 3400 a day. Too many, it must have been longer period of time.

I am sure it never occurred to anybody that 40 years later that it would be collected and be worth a lot. Or that climbing would be anything other than a marginal activity for people with lots on money and lots of time and no common sense.

Hillary signed books for me several times in the 1990s and 2000s and I made donations to his Himalayan Trust in return.  Over 20 years it totaled over $100,.000.  That may be the reason he always was very welcoming to me.

When he got old, about the year 2000, he stopped traveling so much.  So I started going to meet him in Auckland with books and vintage ice axes to sign. We would be alone in a hotel room or at his home on his kitchen table.  Only his wife June was usually there too.

When he was in his prime he regularly signed his name at the rate of 600 books an hour an hour, and it was always perfect. I timed him once! That was really how he raised money, by giving lectures and writing books. The publishers sent him around to promote the books and he would sign them after lectures.

His real signature was E.P. Hillary. He wrote Ed partly so people would stop calling him Sir, he preferred just plain Ed.

Tenzing however was illiterate, but that did not prevent him from writing two books and signing his name hundreds, maybe thousands of times. Tenzing  spoke many languages, and was very intelligent. He wrote his first book Tenzing Tiger of the Snows with American author James Ramsay Ullman.They were not cooped up in a hot American hotel room.  They worked on the book in the Swiss Alps.

Tenzing liked the Swiss over the Brits because they were not as racist and class conscious.  I spoke with Ullman's widow and she told me that Ullman taught Tenzing how to sign his name during that summer together in the Alps. That may be apocryphal, as I also heard that he may have started signing stuff earlier.

I believe the Everest 25th Anniversary coin and first day cover from the Franklin Mint was the only time the two of them signed their names on the same item at the same time. Tenzing never lectured, so he may not have had the chance to sign his name a lot. I have heard that people who wanted his signature on a book or photo would take it to Darjeeling India where he lived. He was always happy to do it. Tenzing died in 1986, so I never had a chance to meet him. If our paths had crossed when I started getting books signed by the great climbers of the world, it would have been beneficial to him, me and all our customers if he had signed even just a few of the many books that I later had Hillary sign.

Ed Hillary was and still is by far the most famous mountain climber, and New Zealander, in the world. Tenzing Norgay was the first common born Asian person to become world famous, other than people who became political or military leaders. He was much more celebrated in many Asian countries than Hillary or any climber ever was in the west.

There is actually a short video on YouTube of Hillary signing his name on a chalk board and you can easily see how it matches the signature on the First Day Cover and in books. He appeared on the American TV show What's My Line in the 1950s or 1960s and it was their routine for the guests to sign their name as they came on stage. I used to watch it as a child, it was on Sunday nights. The camera angle is just right so you can see his name, E.P. Hillary with that big flourishing sweep under his name, sort of like Nike's and Amazon's logos.




Sometimes people playfully sign authors names in books for fun. Some years ago I was in the old Stage House books on Pearl Sreet in Boulder, and the owner was sorting books while we chatted. He had made one pile of paperbacks that were going outside to the $1 bin. I grabbed a Sidney Sheldon novel from the pile and autographed it as Sidney Sheldon. Let somebody have a thrill of finding a signed book!



One time I was in the wonderful bookshop Powell's in Portland, in their rare book room. They had a Rebuffat Starlight and Storm that had a long legible inscription in English and was signed by ''Gaston Rebuffat,'' and was priced as if it was really him. I had met Rebuffat in Boston in the 1970s during a lecture and he inscribed 2 books to me, which I still have. Plus I have seen his illegible signature many times so I knew the Powell's signed book was a joke, one climber to another.

Later that day I gave a lecture on book collecting to the Mazamas club and mentioned the phony signature I had seen that afternoon.  Somebody asked if I had brought it to the store's attention. I said no, I was hoping one of you would have the fun of doing it.



I occasionally see phony Tenzing signatures in books. Phony because they looked exactly like the one printed in his book. Even though I never met Tenzing, I know when I see a real signature.  I once owned the final typed manuscript copy of Tiger of the Snows book, with corrections made by Ullman, and tucked into an envelope was the original of that signature that was reproduced so many times.



New story October 2019:

There is a great story about how we bought 3500 Summit Magazines. Around 1992, after Helen Kilness and Jean Cresnshaw had stopped publishing the magazine, they called me and asked if I would like to buy all the books they had ever reviewed for the magazine. Publishers send free review copies to magazines and newspapers. I was very excited and said yes, and in fact I was planning on being in California soon and could come by and pick them up.

Just before my trip I called them to confirm the visit. They told me they had changed their mind and decided to keep the books. I asked them, 'Did they have any back issues of the magazine left?'  They said yes. I asked how many. They had no idea. So I asked them if it was all in one pile, how big would the pile be? They said, 'It would be about 4 feet by 4 feet by 4 feet.'

I said, 'Oh, then you have half a cord!'

Eventually I did pick them up. They said they still had some Vol 1 No 1s left.  When I saw that the cover of the Number 1's were white because it was a ski scene, I asked them to sign the covers. Now I have had them almost as long as Helen and Jean did, and we may still have a few signed and unsigned number ones. 


New story February 2018:

Several Hollywood studios have called me over the years for advice, help, maps, etc.  I finally stopped talking to them as they are so rude and never grateful.

My favorite was when they called me for a map of K2 in 1999 as a prop for that K2 movie Vertical Limit that Ed Viesturs was in.

I told them since what they wanted was a map that looked good for the camera, rather than for actually climbing the mountain, they should have their art department create a map that would look good on film.  I said that if it should be accurate, which it does not have to be for a movie, but if it was really useful, they should then donate the map to the climbing community as a service to our sport.

The guy acted like I had asked to sleep with his daughter.



I have been reading climbing books almost all my life. My brother, who was the real book person in the family, had borrowed Benuzzi's No Picnic on Mount Kenya from the public library in the 1950s, and I read it too.  The library filed it not under mountain climbing (796.52), but under WW2 prison camps (940.52.)  That started me in a lifelong quest of discovery, reading and collecting and making my living from something I have always been drawn to, the great true stories of adventure in climbing.

In the 1960s worked for the NY Public Library and discovered their ''Reserve Collection,'' books that could be sent on request to local branches. It was in the basement of the old Donnell Library on 53rd Street, across the street from the Museum of Modern Art. With a long subway ride each day I read a lot of climbing books!

The library transferred me to the bookshop on Tompkins Square on the lower east side of Manhattan. I had to walk through the legendary Fourth Avenue Bookstore district every day to get to work! I started buying books at those used book stores, but as I was making $2 an hour it was hard to buy anything over $5.  But by the 1970s I had a job selling gore-tex jackets to climbing shops, and was traveling everywhere in America.  I was climbing too, but I was better at reading than climbing!

These are some highlights from my book collecting in the 1970s and 1980s:

In a bookshop in Dallas I walked in and asked, do you have any books on mountaineering. The guy looked at me like he saw a ghost. He had just shelved a huge mountaineering collection and he obviously thought he had been stupid to do so. I filled a carton for under $100.


It can take perseverance to find books.

A bookshop in Charlotte NC was open only from 5 PM to 10 PM and they were closed the day I was in town. Six months later I was back.  The shop owner asked if I was ''serious about mountaineering.'' He gave me a phone number of an old fellow in town who had some climbing books. It took two more years before I returned to Charlotte and bought the guy's books, a small but fabulous collection, including all three Filippis, for $1500 (1970s).  That was my first purchase of a major book collection.


I once found a Tenzing signature in a Tenzing book at a Powell's book store in Chicago, over 40 years ago, for $15.  Lesson learned, always open books, even common ones. O'Gara's and Powell's books, plus all the others, made Chicago the number one book town in the Midwest.  I was there so often that a bookshop named Bookseller's Row on Clark Street was actually putting books aside for me!


In the 1980s in a rural New Jersey bookshop near Princeton they told me about an old lady they knew who had some climbing books, but she had refused all offers from every book dealer in the state.  She also had all the three Filippi books. They called her and led me over and and I made her an offer she couldn't refuse.  She had read them all and had left bookmarks in every book, plus 1/4 inch of dust on top of every book. I had to use a brush to clean all the dust off in the street before taking it up to my apartment in NYC.


Also in the 1980s my wife and I drove to Vermont to a book auction to bid on a Filippi Karakoram.  I got in a bidding war, but prevailed at $350. After the auction another guy came up to me and asked me if I wanted to buy another copy, only his had the dust  jacket!   That's a 1912 dust jacket, perfect, no chips or tears.  He went to the auction to see what the auctioned book was worth. He saw me buy it, and then sold it to me for only $250.  I gave him a check and he mailed me the book, which I finally sold a few years ago for $5000.


A California customer and I were talking on the phone 20 years ago, and mentioned how high prices were getting.  I told him I had been at a London auction and a copy of Freshfield's From Thonen To Trent that had sold for $10,000. I thought of it as being worth 10% of that.  He told me, ''That was me!''  He had bought it through another bookseller at the auction. He told me he had been looking for it his whole life, and this was his only chance. That told me that he must already have everything else!

Ten years later and in California again I called the Freshfield collector and asked if he had anything he could sell me. He invited me over, as he had recently culled his shelves. The ''culls'' looked pretty good to me. I gave him a few thousand dollars and took 20 cartons.  His house was bulging with books. He even converted one room with bookshelves running through the middle of the room with aisles, just like a library or bookshop!

In 2015 he passed away, and he had told his family to call me when he died. I flew out to see it, and made an offer which was accepted. I was sure glad I had bought his ''culls.'' It was the largest and one of the best book collections I ever bought. Four years later I still have piles of his books I haven't even looked at yet!


Before the Internet you could find, and I did find, a first edition Whymper Scrambles Aminst The Alps sitting on a shelf in London for under 100 pounds.  Another time I bought a Scrambles Amongst The Alps also in California, but with a great handwritten letter tipped in, written and signed by Whymper, talking about how he got it published. I still have it.


In the 1980s I saw a Filippi Karakoram and Western Himalaya sitting on a table in Serendipity Books in Berkeley, just 45 minutes after getting off the plane at SFO.  I turned to my wife and said, 'We just paid for the trip.'


My wife Heinke and I went to England a few times in the 1970s, 80s and 90s, as well as just ten years ago.  In the 1980s there was a legendary worm hole of a bookshop called Vandeleur. It was so dark, cold and damp that my wife who was wearing a dress was shivering, even next to the heater, while I was on my knees pulling treasures out from shelves piled double deep. Book buying in England and Scotland in the 1970s and 1980s was like being in a treasure room from an Indiana Jones movie.


I was incredibly lucky to have been book hunting all across America and England in the 1970s and 1980s, just before Amazon and the Internet killed all the bookshops.

The reduce our large book inventory at a faster rate we have started reducing prices.  By last 2019 we had sold 75% of the books we had in 2016.

Hopefully our customers are having the joy at finding great books at 1970s prices, that I did in the 1970s and 1980s.

More to come.....

Michael Chessler 

November 2020

Evergreen Colorado
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