Jeffrey Thomas: At the Water's Edge
By Bruce McKinney
This past month Jeffrey Thomas of San Francisco, an independent rare book dealer since 1981 and in the trade from 1974, passed away after an eleven month battle with illness. As recently as February, with the help and support of his children, he manned a booth at the ABAA Book Fair, sought out friends, colleagues and customers to both buy and sell books and trade bon mot. At that time he was aware of his declining fortunes, simply pulled his belt in a few notches and proceeded on the assumption that tomorrow would take care of itself. On June 2nd his tomorrows ran out.
Jeffrey was a scholar-bookman who liked his material and was sometimes reluctant to sell it. To an inquiry about price he at least once remarked "It may be available for less elsewhere but nowhere is it more appreciated." He preferred to give explanations rather than discounts. His greatest concern was to under price and his keen sense of value "as a collector" often saved him from this error.
In decline he was magnificent, his smile never better. He seemed reconciled but understood it would take others longer to accept what he knew to be inevitable. In this role he was a natural, a teacher and advisor even when the subject was himself, the play a tragedy and this the final act.
He was born in the '30s, grew up as "an orphan with parents," became an avid reader, graduated Yale in 1960, was in the military during the Vietnam era and subsequently went on to Berkeley for a PhD, writing his dissertation on Bret Harte. In the 1970s he signed on as a consultant to Howell Books, later joining the firm full time. Rounding 40 he cut loose, acquiring inventory and opening a shop at 49 Geary in San Francisco in 1982.
The shop was organized as the library of a wealthy man and in fact it was. Buyers were almost always as welcome as sellers. In his later years he both accepted the internet and was annoyed by it as it introduced a commercial aspect to the business that placed greater emphasis on price. His power was in description and comprehension and he strongly believed the market should value his material accordingly. Entering the field he joined a gentlemen's game but lived long enough to see the collars turn blue and the prices start south.
In Golden Gate Park recently at a memorial service for him at the Conservatory of Flowers an audience of the appreciative and respectful filled two rooms to overflowing. He was eulogized by John Windle, eloquently remembered by his brother Michael, bespoke by long time assistant Julie Wong, memorialized by his sister and children, all to safely install him on his voyage to eternity. He, who professed no preference for religion, now lives on as memory, to be recalled and invoked as the occasion warrants. Ultimately he will be most hoping for successful outcomes for his family and after that, simply to be incited at the moment of prospective book purchase with the outcry, "How would Jeffrey feel about this?" And down through time will come the softly spoken "Can you turn it toward the light abit?" While we remember him he is among us.
John Windle's remarks on behalf of the ABAA and as a fellow bookseller are linked here. So too is some fresh footage shot in January when Mr. Thomas sat for an interview. Simply select a film resolution (hi) or (lo).