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Book Collecting Anecdotes

Evergreen Colorado, January 2018

New story February 2018:

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

My favorite was when they called me for a map of K2, for that crappy K2 movie Ed Viesturs was in. Not for geography, but as a prop. 

I told them since what they wanted was a map that looked good for the camera, rather than buy a map, they should have their art department create a map that would look good on film.  Then, I said that if God forbid 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 borrowed Benuzzi's No Picnic on Mount Kenya from the library in the 1950s, and I read it.  It was filed not under mountain climbing (796.52), but under WW2 prison camps (940.52.)  That started me in a lifelong quest of discovery, collecting and selling 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 in 53rd Street, across the street from the Museum of Modern Art. With 2 hours on the subway each day I read a lot of climbing books!

I was transferred 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 real job (selling climbing gear to climbing shops), and started 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 changed his mind.

A bookshop in Charlotte 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 bookshop  owner asked if I was ''serious about mountaineering.'' He gave me a phone number of an old fellow in town who had some books. Two years later I returned to Charlotte and bought the guy's books, a small but fabulous collection, including all three Filippis, for $1500 (1970s).  His wife made me a grilled cheese sandwich. That was my first purchase of a major book collection.

I once found a Tenzing signature in a Tenzing book at a 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 perhaps 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 a rural New Jersey bookshop they told me about a crazy 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 Filippis. They called her, led me over, and I made her an offer she couldn't refuse.  She 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 before taking it up to my apartment in NYC.

My wife and I drove to New Hampshire (from NYC) 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 asked 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 SF customer and I were talking on the phone 20 years ago, partly about how high prices were getting.  I mentioned I had been at a London auction and a copy of Freshfield's From Thonen To Trent 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 SF and 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 SF 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. Two years later I still have piles of his books all over I haven't even looked at yet!

Before the Internet you could find, and I did find, a first edition Whymper Scrambles sitting on a shelf in London for under 100 pounds.  For $160 I once bought a second  printing Scrambles in SF, 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 sitting on a table in Serendipity Books in Berkeley, for a few hundred dollars, 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 was shivering, even next to the heater, while I was on my knees pulling treasures out from shelves piled double deep. London in the 1970s and 1980s was like 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.

After thirty successful years of bookselling and collecting, I am now selling off my huge inventory and collection of books at bargain prices, as at 73 I know I cannot sell it all at the traditionally high prices of antiquarian bookshops in the time I have left. 

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

More to come.....