Sunday, May 8, 1994

Serendipity Books

I wrote this in spring 1994 for Forbes-FYI, who published it soon thereafter. When Peter Howard died in March 2011, Serendipity's million-plus books disappeared in fire sales to other booksellers. 

It is often called the greatest bookstore in the United States; one of London’s leading antiquarian booksellers, no slouch himself, named it the finest in the English language. Serendipity Books, in Berkeley, California, has become the ideal of what a literary, secondhand bookstore can be, regarded with reverence and amazement by others in the field. Serendipity has set standards for knowing and acquiring not only books but the ephemera that accretes around writers. It differs from somewhere like the Strand in New York City just as a select warehouse differs from a jumbled attic.

As proprietor, creator, resident baseball fanatic, and ruling mind, Peter Howard has been in the book business for thirty years. Though Serendipity is a general bookstore, with stock under most subject headings, Howard specializes in literature of all sorts. This involves modern first (and later) editions of English and American Literature; fine printing; literary manuscripts and archives; little magazines; screenplays. He has entire shelves of Jack London, Steinbeck, Naipaul, Virginia Woolf; entire bookcases of Graham Greene, Nabokov, Henry Miller, C.S. Forester, Joyce Carol Oates. One enormous, well-organized room holds 35,000 volumes of poetry. An upstairs contains over 26,000 volumes of American fiction. You wander through one vast, high-ceilinged room after another, lose your way among the tightly-packed shelves, and sooner or later realize this is not a bookstore, but a national treasure.

“I’ve got 300,000 decent books in here,” says Howard. “Nobody, no single bookstore, can handle it all. You could just as easily fill this place with only fishing books, or with film books.”

No categorizing can give any indication of the treasures Howard has—or, with his three full-time assistants, can find for you. If you’re looking for Borges’ personal copy of a C.S. Lewis book, or rare editions in Russian of early Nabokov novels, or a few Christopher Isherwood or Jack Kerouac manuscripts, or an unfilmed Faulkner screenplay in typescript, or an obscure book of Picasso’s that comes with an original lithograph, turn to Serendipity.

In a profession known for its eccentrics Howard has a reputation as a Character, less for his appearance (like a genial Rasputin) than the brilliance of his occasional catalogues, which are equal parts good scholarship and salesmanship. He is current president of the Antiquarian Booksellers Association of America, and sees his profession as often misunderstood and misrepresented.

“Everyone who writes about the antiquarian book business emphasizes price rather than service. We serve customers by getting a book for them at the cheapest possible price. We serve libraries in the same way—we’ve sold to every institution in the country.”

He waives off questions about book collecting as investment only, the glamor of financial (as opposed to cultural) value—though feeding this desire keeps many antiquarian bookstores going.

“I despise price guides. They get the emphasis all wrong. Price is the last thing of importance. The first is:  Why? Why buy it? Why is the book important? If the first reason is money, then reconsider. In any case, the most overpriced books are modern books, within the context of the prices of other centuries’ books.

“As an investment, collecting books is a ludicrous way for someone to attempt to increase their capital assets. And it can be expensive, depending on what you choose to collect. Most people don’t realize what the range of possibility is around the author. If you’re serious, really serious, about, say, John Steinbeck, then you’re into it for $1,000,000 over a lifetime. If a guy walks in and wants a complete set of F. Scott Fitzgerald first editions, in perfect dust jackets, immaculate condition, everything, we’ll get them within a year. It’s a matter of how much he wants them and how much money he has. They’re all out there and can be had, except possibly the first, This Side of Paradise, because too many people want it. A first edition of The Great Gatsby, in a perfect dust jacket, will set him back about $20,000. But if someone wants the book, really wants it, then it’s at the other end of the telephone, or soon will be. But this sort of thing represents only about 3% of what’s out there of interest.

“And why collect books simply by the numbers? Are you adding anything to the world? It’s an aesthetic act, the idea of a collection: completing the structure, adding to the culture. When people come in they have blinkers on. I try to take the blinkers off. I want to be trusted by my customers—I’ll share my knowledge with them. And I try to confront people about their reasons for collecting, but there’s no right or wrong. They inform me.

“I’ve wanted to do four catalogues a year. I end up doing a catalogue every four years. It’s an inefficient way to sell books.” Still, he is justly proud of them, and particularly of his 641-page Faulkner catalogue, the most complete bibliography ever assembled for the largest Faulkner collection ever. It ranges from English and foreign editions of his books to 19th century Mississippi maps, the writer’s last will and testament, and private letters. A typescript of Faulkner’s first book of poems is priced at $75,000.

He insists there are still great collections to be made. “The guy with the greatest Twain collection built it in the last 25 years. Preposterous! Everyone thought it too late to collect Twain.”

He points out that new areas are always developing. Recent Serendipity catalogues detail collections of Viet Nam war literature (over 400 items), fiction and poetry related to the petroleum industry (nearly 600 items), and American fiction of the 1960s (over 2100 items). And today, he adds, there are more small presses, more fine presses, and more desktop publishing of fine books than ever before.

“What people are willing to buy has vastly expanded. All the barriers are being broken down between what people previously thought to collect. For example, baseball has been co-opted by book people. Screenplays form the largest single body of unpublished material by excellent writers. Both Faulkner and McMurtry, to name only two, produced some forty-odd screenplays each. They just weren’t at hand twenty years ago, but now they are.

“All through the 60s and 70s increasing numbers of people went into the so-called ‘antiquarian’ business—selling books you couldn’t get currently from the publisher. Many were academics like myself, seeking an alternative lifestyle. We all sensed there hadn’t been any increase in the book business. And then at some point suddenly everyone was interested in buying books. Why? For all the reasons. Boredom with television. Because they liked the books. Because they suspected that books might hold their financial worth. Books are objects of aesthetics and value, seen against the volatility of international currencies. On the other hand, there’s so much secret knowledge required.

“I’m seeking books at every waking minute—but I’m not as aggressive as some people. I don’t have trouble getting books in the door. The cost is less than you might think, and people send me books to sell for them. I’m constantly trying to replace stock. The physical effort, of administration and research, is enormous. But we deal in books because they carry so much emotional baggage. They’re transportable and have all the freight inside, plus they’re the only conductor of that freight. Books are our cultures, far more than, say, stamps or coins. Books are perfect.”

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