Sunday, July 27, 2014

A Little History

I'm writing from the magnificent pile of stone and anguish known as Chapter 11 Books, situated between a Jiffy Lube and a drive-thru mortuary, and patronized primarily by people who'll have to come back when they've got more time. At the moment I'm wondering how one retires from a trade that most people take up after they retire. No answers are forthcoming. It's beginning to look as if I'll die with my books on.

The dream ends. I wake to find myself in a slightly too comfortable chair at the edge of my booth at the Twenty-Fourth, or Twenty-Fifth, or Twenty-Sixth Annual Antiquarian Book Fair at John Dewey Academy, in Searles Castle, Great Barrington, Massachusetts. It's been a slow day, but days at this show are always slow.
People drift in and out - polo shirted upper middle class people with frighteningly well behaved children, men in pink shorts, a lady with a Service Dog in a baby carriage.
These folks are on vacation, and they've got all the time in the world. They poke around, consult one another, amble off, return, ask questions. They seem to be intelligent, sophisticated people. They're here in the Berkshires from places like Boston and New York, for the Tanglewood Music Festival or to visit the area's many galleries and museums, and we entertain their questions because, occasionally, a question will lead to a purchase. Often the question is, “Can you do any better on the price?” If you say it right, I suppose, it sounds intelligent and sophisticated.
The "line" a few minutes before opening
Because everyone's on vacation, no one is on a schedule. That means customers wander into the book fair all day long. Today, however, not enough customers have been wandering in, or they've been wandering in too slowly. Bernice Bornstein, the show's promoter, is concerned. 
Beauty & the Beast - Bernice Bornstein and Peter Stern
Almost every dealer has sold something, but several have not sold enough. (In this context “enough” means enough to pay for travel, room and board, and booth rent. Not meeting these basic expenses is a bummer. We've all been there, and none of us want to go there again. Hearing such a report from a colleague evokes feelings of sympathy and solidarity rather than superiority.)
The road to Searles Castle was a long and winding one for Bernice - crowded, initially, with camper vans and portapotties. She and her first husband got their start hustling antiques at the Brimfield shows. It was, Bernice conceded, a rough life, but it had its benefits. The Bornsteins became fast friends with Paul and Arlene Gipstein, who went on to found the famous Papermania shows in Hartford, CT. This association inspired Bernice to to start a long running antique show at the Northeast Trade Center, a huge, decrepit barn in Woburn, Massachusetts. I got my first taste of antique show culture at this show in the early 1980s, and it was scary. The dealers were mostly squabbling, middle aged couples. They ate their lunches out of plastic coolers and were constantly on guard against theft of goods or reputation by their colleagues, other squabbling, middle aged couples.

The aggressive Irene Stella pushed Bernice out of that loop in the early 1990s, which was when dealer Rex Stark helped reinvent her, sort of the way Rex Harrison reinvented Julie Andrews in My Fair Lady. Well, at least he got her organized, and she soon started a paper and ephemera show at the Holiday Inn in Boxborough, Massachusetts.

Bernice, always a fountain of energy, will readily admit to being somewhat disorganized. The fact that this Searles Hall book fair is advertized as being the "24th annual" on her website, and the "26th annual" on her promotional literature is evidence of that – as are the several shows in which she inadvertently rented out more booths than the venue could accommodate – occasions hilarious for everyone except those dealers involved. And Bernice, of course. And crossword puzzle savant Bill Hutchison,who with Garry Austin figured out how to squeeze 42 booths into a space designed for 40, and spared Bernice from being tarred and feathered.

The success of the Boxborough show led Bernice to explore other possibilities. Interestingly, she was also motivated by a desire to raise the tone of her shows. “No disrespect to paper people,” she says. “They're wonderful, but they're schleppers. Now, these book people, when they get their booths set up, they're nice and tidy.”

Searles Castle was one of Bernice's brainstorms. She knew about it because she'd been born and raised in the area. But the fact that she's taken this show through two sets of Castle owners, and from antiques to books and paper, is a tribute to her ingenuity. It should also be noted that, in the course of her experiments with venues in the 1990s she opened a show in her husband's parking garage on Dalton St. opposite the Hynes Convention Center.
My memories of that show feature the queasy, spiraling, vertiginous, hungover journey down five flights of concrete stairway on opening morning, accompanied by the awful smell of auto exhaust, and frigid blasts of November air from street level. But more important is the fact that this event pioneered the so-called “Shadow Show” idea. Her infamous Garage Show was held on the same weekend as the big ABAA book fair in the Hynes next door. It offered a less expensive alternative for non-ABAA dealers, and a terrific buying opportunity for those dealers exhibiting at the big show.

Bernice might have the Goldie Hawn thing going, but she's been pretty savvy about her shows. After she and Marvin broke up, Bernice saved her show by moving it from the parking garage to the Park Plaza Castle and the Radission Hotel down the street. A lot of dealers made a lot of money thanks to Bernice.

At the time of its inception, Bernice's idea for a second show faced stiff resistance. Many ABAA people felt she was cutting in on their action or slurping up free publicity. They feared that buying dollars would be spread too thin, and that a second, non-ABAA show would water the product down. However, after a couple of years it was clear that this was a classic win-win situation. Now a “Shadow Show” accompanies the New York ABAA fair and, in a way, the California fairs as well.

So, here's to you Bernice! Thank you for 26 years at the idyllic Searles Castle.

Or is it 24?

The buying wasn't so hot, but I did find one thing that played into my China Trade obsession.

Chinese Repository, Volume III. May 1834 – April 1835. Canton, 1835. 584, viii (index) pp. This periodical was published in Canton by Protestant missionaries, notably Elijah Coleman Bridgeman, between 1832 and 1851. These early volumes are of particular interest because they document the increasingly troubled years leading up to the First Opium War in 1839. This volume includes articles on missionary work, social conditions, politics, the British presence, current events, the Chinese written language, and such topical subjects as “Chinese Pirates.” It lacks a plate of Chinese written characters, but contains the b/w lithographed map measuring 13 x 18 ½ inches of “the Choo Keang or Pearl River,” from Ladnrone Island to Canton. The book is rebound in full green morocco with raised bands and gilt spine lettering. $750

Sunday, July 20, 2014

The Novel I Never Wrote

Last month I bought three pamphlets about a murder that took place in Salem, Massachusetts in 1830. It was a sensational affair in its day, a victory for prosecutor Daniel Webster, and an interesting sidelight in the history of American jurisprudence.

But that was not why I bought the pamphlets.

In 1829 William Low of Salem was sent to Canton to manage the affairs of Russell & Co. the great American China Trade firm. He brought his wife along and, to keep her company, his twenty-year-old niece, Harriett Low.
Harriett Low, as painted by George Chinnery
Happily for posterity, Harriett kept a detailed diary of her years in China. The Low household was a center of social life for American traders in Canton, and Harriett saw, and wrote about, everyone of importance in that group. Her diary was excerpted in Emma Liones's classic book China Trade Post-Bag, and reprinted in its entirety about fifteen years ago as Lights and Shadows in Macao Life.

She met Robert Bennet Forbes, AKA “Black Ben,” author of one of the great American autobiographies, 
 his brother John Murray, who would go on to become one of the great commercial minds in American history, and George Chinnery,
Self Portrait
the eccentric and gifted painter (the old lech was sweet on Harriett and painted a lovely portrait of her. I visit it every once in a while at the Peabody Essex Museum), and Robert Morrison, 
Morrison by Chinnery
the great missionary and translator, and William Hunter, a young American who went native and penned one of the liveliest accounts of China Trade life. 
She fell in love and suffered a broken heart. She entertained an endless stream of diplomats, missionaries, navy men, and famous American sea captains (quite a few of whom wrote about her in their diaries and letters).

She met everyone and recorded everything in the tumultuous and exciting years leading up to the First Opium War. But she never talked about what Russell & Co. were actually doing over there.

That question is answered (not that there was ever any doubt!) in the journal of the Salem trading ship Sumatra,
which I will be offering for sale in my next catalog (see my blog entry for March 30, 2014). The Americans were importing opium from Turkey and offloading it to Black Ben's receiving ship on Lintin Island. The drug was used as a substitute for specie (in desperately short supply in Britain and America) to obtain Chinese goods.

But back to those pamphlets.

It turns out that the convicted murderers were the brothers of Harriett's aunt. When the news arrived in China the poor woman was devastated, forced to keep her connection to the terrible crime a secret lest her social standing be ruined.

Nothing more than historical trivia, I know. I'll probably never sell those pamphlets, and they'll go into my China Trade reference collection, 
already brimming with books about characters like Ledyard, Morris, Shaw, McGee, Perkins, Cushing, Russell, the Low family, the Forbes brothers, Hunter, Green, and Delano.

Maybe those are just names to you. But to me they are as real and present as people who live in my town. I know them all  - the whole clan - and their quirks, and their families, and the people they knew, and I can see the places and feel the times they moved through as clearly as if I were watching a movie or reading a novel.

In fact, it is a novel – one I've been trying, and failing, to write for twenty years. It's called Opium Lives and it stars Harriet and Black Ben, with a supporting cast of those dozens of remarkable New Englanders who lived and worked in the looming shadow of the First Opium War.

I've got half a dozen outlines and at least three false starts. My problem is that the story is too big, too close. I need to get some distance on it. But how much farther away can I get from events that took place halfway around the world two centuries ago?

More often than not, when I'm out scouting books, I'll come across something like those three pamphlets, and I'll find myself right back in Macao, having a drink in Chinnery's studio, watching him ogle Harriett, or sailing up the Pearl River with Black Ben.
A Report of the Evidence and Points of Law, Arising in the Trial of John Francis Knapp for the Murder of Joseph White, Esquire... Salem, 1830. 74 pp. b/w plates. Half title present, but lacks wrappers. (and) Appendix to the Report of the Trial of John Francis Knapp... on the Second Trial. “Salem Edition”, 1830. 72 pp. In original printed wrappers (and) Biographical Sketch of the Celebrated Salem Murderer... Boston, 1830. 24 pp. Lacks wraps and frontispiece.

John and Francis Knapp had a wealthy uncle named Joseph White, from whom they hoped to inherit a large sum. Impatient for the money, they hired a hit man who did the deed, throwing Salem into a panic. Eventually a fellow criminal ratted out the killer who promptly ratted out then Knapps and committed suicide. Daniel Webster prosecuted a tricky murder trial in which the murderer was dead and the conspirators had not been present to the crime. In a precedent setting argument Webster convinced the jury that the mere proximity of the brother was tantamount to having been present for the murder. The two were found guilty and executed. These three pamphlets are typical of the flurry of publicity generated by the murder. The lot $350

Next week - Bernice!

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Actively Engaged in Retirement?

With the commencement of my seventh decade on this planet I occasionally find myself feeling old. I can rarely stay awake past 9 p.m., and I have the sense that my time is growing short, which sometimes makes my temper even shorter. This unfortunate confluence has inspired me to begin compiling a catalog called “Old, Rare, and Short.”
 Then, last Monday, I put the catalog on the shelf for a few days and headed out to Springfield Massachusetts for the last bit of the Ledyard walk - a 40 mile hike to Hartford Connecticut. (For those of you who have not been keeping up with my literary adventures, I have spent the past three years following a journey made by John Ledyard when he ran away from Dartmouth College in 1773. It is written as a series of essays, published each Christmas by Ten Pound Island Book Co.,
about America then, and America now, and about John Ledyard, and about a character called "I." Ledyard sailed down the Connecticut River from Hanover, New Hampshire to his family home in Hartford, Connecticut.

but "I" walks down a road alongside the river because "I" does not own a canoe.)
Fleabag Motel 6 a.m.

I returned home after three days to find an excited email awaiting me. It was from Allison Malecha, my publicist at Grove/Atlantic. She wanted to let me know that my crime novel, The Old Turk's Load, which is now out in paperback,
had just gotten a terrific review in The Bookreporter. It began,

I love surprises, and THE OLD TURK’S LOAD is one of them. Gregory Gibson is the highly regarded if non-prolific author of three nonfiction works. At an age when most individuals would be not merely contemplating but actively engaged in retirement, Gibson has published an instantly memorable debut, a complex, occasionally darkly comic novel that exceeds its own promise on all levels... (read the complete review here)

The Bookreporter is, among other things, an influential online book review website, so this was great news.

I wrote to Allison and my publisher, 
 Gee, that's terrific! How do we go about converting this great review into big sales numbers and stampeding demand for the sequel? I will post it on my Facebook page. Twelve people will know. What else should I do?

My publisher replied,  
It’s very nice. Allison—if you know the answer about how to generate a stampede, please be sure to copy me, as I’ve been trying to figure it out for 40 years.

To which I responded,  
A $30K advance on my next book will be a step in the right direction.

He said,  
So would a date with Kate Upton—equally likely.

So I wrote back,  
Who's she, a mystery writer? Maybe I can fix you up...

He had no answer to that one.

So I went back to work on Old, Rare and Short.

Here's one of the featured items: 

Dying declaration of Nicholas Fernandez, who with nine others were executed in front of Cadiz harbour, December 29, 1829... Annexed is a Solemn Warning to Youth (and others) to beware the baneful habit of intemperance. (NY): (George Lambert), 1830. b/w wood engraved frontispiece and title cut. 36 pp.  A wonderful and scarce piracy pamphlet. Not in Gosse or the Driscoll sale catalog. According to the title page and copyright notice the narrative was “translated from a Spanish copy by Ferdinand Bayer” who presumably added the Solemn Warning. Fernandez delivers his death-row confession in the first person. This is followed by a commentary on the sentences - (What brought Fernandez to ruin? Intemperance, that’s what!) Then the twelve page temperance lecture, which is thematically linked to Fernandez's awful fate. Pages clean and evenly tanned. Bound in original blue wrappers. Pages untrimmed. A remarkable survival. $2500

Sunday, July 6, 2014



This is a book about a walk down the Connecticut River by a man who finds himself getting old, but not too old to walk. The ostensible purpose of his walk is scholarly, dignified, historical - the deconstruction of the legend of John Ledyard, who made a similar journey in 1773. But the walk might also be the man's final attempt to outdistance the "old" that will soon and forever after precede the "man" in reference to himself.
    Stubbornly, he chooses to walk the river because John Ledyard (who actually sailed down it in a canoe) won fame for his extravagant pedestrian exploits. In the first half of the nineteenth century Ledyard was one of the most famous men in America, seemingly secure in the pantheon of founding fathers, frontiersmen and military heroes. By the end of the Civil War, however, Ledyard had been all but forgotten by the American people.
    Now they seem to be remembering him again. Three new biographies of Ledyard have appeared since 2005, a phenomenon the old man finds strange. He finds Ledyard strange, and he finds the American people strange. There are moments when everything seems strange. This strangeness is exciting, as enticing as the frontier must have seemed to people of Ledyard's time. He reckons a prolonged walking meditation would be a way to plumb the strangeness of Ledyard and the strangeness of the country in which Ledyard found, then lost, then regained fame. He resolves to follow Ledyard's track down the Connecticut River into America.
    His journey is undertaken not as an athletic dash, but in a series of fits, starts, leaps, reiterations, loops, gasps, and grabs over a period of years and a distance of less than one hundred fifty miles as the crow flies. The crow, of course, and the old man who aspires to be its avatar, hop rather than fly, being easily distracted by shining things, new sounds, the smell of meat, etc. 
 Snips from - Iain Sinclair, American Smoke (2013); Citizens Bank (2014); Gregory Gibson, An Old Man's Strange Walk (not yet).

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Not This Time

Where do you start with a place like Vegas? Bally's Hotel and Casino is hosting the 2014 Moose International convention and dealing with a chronic shortage of aquatic plant life, willow shoots, and other forage. Hairy guys with backwards baseball caps. Old men and their leisurewear. Fatties in mobile chairs work away, tethered to slot machines. A Bally's credit card at the other end of the line drips the money in and out. The tether prevents the card from being stolen, lost, or forgotten. Sorry, sir, no photographs. What is the plural of Moose ? Do the International Moose employ it?

There is a convention in noir cinema – someone has slipped the detective a mickey, or the alcoholic is in the middle of a lost weekend, or an innocent party has received a life altering shock. “Sorry, honey. I'm leaving you for a Moose.” The movies represent this state of psychic distress by means of flashing lights, carnival midway noises, and squirming, spinning shapes. Everything is out of focus. 
Voices come in and out, layered with hallucinogenic visuals and shreds of pop songs. Places and times jam together like a freeway pileup.

This is the lobby at Bally's Las Vegas Hotel and Casino. The mickey is optional, but the lights, noises, voices, and ghastly visuals surrounding me leave no doubt that I'm in someone's grade B detective flick, or lost weekend, or that the life altering shock is Las Vegas itself. A line in one of my aural hallucinations croons, “It's just too marvelous, too marvelous for words.” A museum of American excess.

There used to be water here. It was The Meadows. But now the place insistently refers to someplace else – Treasure Island, New York,
ancient Egypt
or Rome,
or the Circus.
Or Margaritaville,
a few blocks south of Bally's, eager to remind us that “It's Five O'clock somewhere.” Idi Amin, Pol Pot, Joe Stalin, Heinrich Himmler – all the bad ones. They'll be reborn as busboys in Margaritaville on the 24/7/365 shift, with the soundtrack of Jimmy Buffet's greatest hits – all three of them - playing over and over forever. At least there are no joggers. It's 102 Fahrenheit on the street. Strange flowers come out at night.

Up in the Skyview Room on the 26th floor all is quiet and cool. The 400 attendees at the 55th annual Rare Books and Manuscript Librarian's Preconference drift in between plenary sessions and meetings, for coffee or drinks, and to view the goods on display at the Booksellers Showcase. Forty of the country's best book dealers stand patiently by their booths, hoping to chat, waiting for the inevitable flicker of interest. The Bookseller's Showcase is a cooperative venture between the ABAA and RBMS – a chance for booksellers and librarians to get to know one another. The event is the brainchild of past ABAA president Sarah Baldwin and, in my opinion, it is one of the major benefits of membership in our organization. If institutional sales are a part of your business, doesn't it make sense to meet the people who make the decisions about what to buy? Wouldn't it be helpful to know them by name or even, heaven help us, have a first name relationship with one or two of them?

The event seems to get better every year. Or maybe I'm just getting more comfortable. I used to feel like a pimply kid on the sidelines at a junior high school dance. Now I feel like one of the chaperones. I'm certainly getting older, but the librarians, especially this time around, seem to be getting younger.
Unlike the book trade, most jobs on the library side have a finite span. Turnover is inevitable. And with the younger faces come new ideas about collection development. The Corning Museum of Glass wants information on lighthouse optics. I'd never thought of them as customers before, but why not? And on it goes...

Informed sources tell me this was one of most heavily attended RBMS preconferences in the past fifteen years. Las Vegas? Who would have guessed? Another greybreard floats the story that the ALA held an RBMS preconference in Vegas in the 1970s, but that the librarians spent all their money on the first night and missed meetings the next day. Supposedly they vowed never to return. So much for institutional memory.

Vegas is a safer place now. The credit card is tethered to your lapel, and the “muddy line between/The things you want/And the things you have to do" - (Cheryl Crow, Leaving Las Vegas) has been cleaned up, dried out. In fact the whole place now exudes a Disneyish vibe, ripe with the infantilization of American culture that marks our era. Being "bad" means you can smoke indoors and walk around with a beer wherever you want. Coors Lite. Kinda silly, actually. Right, Cheryl?
I'm leaving Las Vegas
And I won't be back
No I won't be back
Not this time

Here's a rather unusual item that caught the interest of several librarians at the Ten Pound Island Book Co. booth. This British warship was blockading Boston Harbor during the War of 1812, waiting to do battle with the Constitution. She wound up capturing the wrong ship, but didn't complain:
Manuscript. "The Following account explanatory of the encounter with the French frigates Atalante and Terpsichore, of 44 guns each, and of the capture of the latter ship, on the 3rd day of February, 1814, by His Majesty’s Ship Majestic." Folio sheet, approximately 14 x 16 inches. The "Majestic", a razeeed fourth rate frigate, was one of the British ships charged with blockading Boston Harbor in hopes of doing battle with the US frigate "Constitution". This broadside pertains to "Majestic's" capture of the French ship "Terpsichore", which was first thought to be the escaping "Constitution". Printed by “Gardner, Printer, Portsea.” No mention of this event appears in Clowes. Worldcat shows only NYHS holding a copy of this broadside. Laid down on linen. A few spots near the top of the sheet, otherwise in very good condition. $3000

Sunday, June 22, 2014


 Another excellent opening last night at Flatrocks Gallery. This one was called "Series" and it presented the work of three artists, each of whom explore a single subject from a single vantage point numerous times.
I'll spare you the art history riff, but will tell you that we had a great party. And we got a nice writeup in the Boston Sunday Globe this morning. The show was particularly meaningful to me because it featured the work of Tim Harney, an artist I'd worked with 37 years ago.

I don't know how many people remember the CETA (Comprehensive Employment and Training Act) program. It was launched in 1973 as a bi-partisan brainchild of liberal senators unthinkable today. Although it was intended to provide job training and work experience for young people, like a continuation of the WPA, it was widely considered to be a commie dole, an abuse of the already broken welfare system, and a free handout to hippies and other social undesirables. These timeless sentiments were as powerful then as they are now. CETA only lasted 9 years.

Fortunately for me, the program came to Gloucester in 1977, as “The Gloucester Arts and Humanities Project.” They weren't training fishermen! I applied and, since I was sufficiently poor, had a good proposal, and was friends with the director, I was accepted. My proposal was to update and complete a bibliography of Cape Ann literature. There were about a dozen other artists, writers, and film makers in the Gloucester Arts and Humanities project, mostly novices and wannabes, all involved in similarly "cultural" activities. The fact that we received weekly paychecks did nothing to allay local suspicions that we were a bunch of hippies, social undesirables, and commies, pigging out at the government trough.

We CETA workers, however, took ourselves seriously. I had just started out in the book business, and had read enough to know who Jacob Blank was. I found an old wooden paint box, fitted it out to hold index cards (as I imagined Blanck had done when compiling his monumental Bibliography of American Literature) and started looking for Gloucester books.
My search took me to all the excellent libraries in the area
and my efforts were rewarded. It turned out there were lots of books, maps and pamphlets about Cape Ann – hundreds and hundreds, to be imprecise - and I handled each and every one of them. I recorded on my index cards salient facts about the publication of each item, gave a physical description of it, and composed a brief narrative summary of its contents.
The aspiring bibliographer and his box
Then I typed all my index cards in alpha lists arranged topically by the Dewey Decimal System and, several hundred pages and nine months later, out popped the Bibliography of Cape Ann Literature. (only the short title listing is shown in this link).

The instructors at the Colorado Antiquarian Book Seminar 
are always telling their students, “Listen to the book!” And boy, did I ever listen to the book in 1977. In fact, since I didn't have the benefit of an apprenticeship or a learning experience like CABS, the way I learned the rudiments of my trade was by handling hundreds of books, maps and pamphlets about Cape Ann.

The thing about meeting Tim Harney again was that he was one of the artists in the Gloucester Arts and Humanities project back in the day. He was a kid like me, and he'd wanted to be an artist as badly as I'd wanted to be a bookman. And now, here we were, 37 years later. An artist and a bookman.

As we reminisced about that year we'd spent together, we realized that a good percentage – eight or nine out of that gang of wannabe writers, film makers, and artists – did, in fact, turn out to be professionals in their fields. The CETA program, in Gloucester anyway, had been a success. And Gloucester was a better place for it.
My old pal Tim Harney
 Next week - Viva Las Vegas!