Rare Book Monthly

Articles - June - 2010 Issue

Serendipity: Outpost of Civilization

P-howard

Peter Howard (Courtesy of the Bancroft Library)


By Bruce McKinney

Twelve hundred and one University Avenue in Berkeley is both outpost and Mecca for those who love books. This is the store, shop and warehouse of Peter Howard who, after graduating from Haverford College in 1960, completed a masters and most of the requirements for a Ph.D. at U.C. Berkeley in 1962. In 1963 he launched Serendipity Books with high hopes, and a balance sheet filled with ambition.

In 1967 he opened a store on Shattuck at No. 1790 and in time broke through walls and leased five locations nearby before buying his present 5,500 sq. ft. site on University Avenue in 1986. For the past 25 years he has immersed himself in an ever deeper and more complex inventory of what is thought to be something like a million items divided 60/40 between shop and a warehouse long ago made necessary by Peter's continuing purchases. Beyond all this, he carries a steady flow of de-accessioned material from his alma mater. The card catalogue of this inventory sits neatly between his ears, his intelligence and memory the glue that hold this complex enterprise together.

He has for some time though, been seriously unwell; the news doubly difficult because his wife Alison is also fighting cancer. The shop is up for sale, the sure sign a generational shift is underway. Mr. Howard would not relinquish control unless required.

For the past two months two firms specializing in the purchase of large inventories, Powell's and All About Books, have considered purchasing the complete stock but nothing has so far materialized. In either case, the shop would close and the inventory be shipped to Washington or New Jersey. What will not fit into the crates and boxes, nor otherwise be transported, is the spirit of the place; the karma, zip and pizzazz that have made Serendipity an institution of the first order for those who love books and have learned to tolerate the sometimes caustic byplay of a sparring owner whose temperament could range from morning glow to afternoon showers all within the time it takes to eat a ham sandwich.

In this respect, Mr. Howard is in spirit, if not by DNA, the linear descendant of Charles Goodspeed, the Boston book selling codger of the first rank who suffered mortals, if anything, less willingly. They both presided over important cultural way stations. As rare as the rarest books, such places resonated a deeply felt appreciation for the printed word that is ever more out-of-step with iBooks, eBooks and the Google searches that serve peanut butter to people who have never tasted fillet mignon. Some few shops become institutions, a title rarely bestowed and less often earned. On Mr. Howard's head the crown sits lightly.

The open question now becomes what is next. The inventory, whether it is 600,000 or one million books of which 20,996 were recently available online, is offered for $2,250,000, the 5,500 sq. ft. ivy clad building for $1,250,000. One dealer, John Durham of Bolerium Books of San Francisco, is interested to rent the shop, but not to purchase the entire stock and much prefers that Peter repent his exit and live on to squire another generation. He explained, "I like the space, I love the guy." Just this past week Peter made an increasingly infrequent trip to the shop and announced, "no more deathbed discounts." He had a week off from chemo, was feeling revived and encouraged by his doctor.

Rare Book Monthly

  • <b>19th Century Shop.</b> LINCOLN, ABRAHAM. <i>A superb collection of manuscripts signed by Lincoln and relics related to Lincoln’s death</i>. Washington, 1864-1865
    <b>19th Century Shop.</b> Rare Relic of the Underground Railroad (1857). <i>$500 Reward Ran away ...</i>
    <b>19th Century Shop.</b> CARTER, SUSANNAH. <i>The Frugal Housewife,</i> (1772) the second American cookbook, plates by Paul Revere.
    <b>19th Century Shop.</b> SCHIRRA, WALTER M.. Icon of the American Space Program. <i>A Complete Set of Schirra’s Flight Log Books (1947-69).</i>
    <b>19th Century Shop.</b> A fine pair of daguerreotypes, one a black nurse holding a white baby, the other the white parents. Maryland, c. 1853.
    <b>19th Century Shop.</b> The Internet. (COMPUTERS.) CERF, VINTON & KAHN, ROBERT. <i>"A Protocol for Packet Network Intercommunication" in IEEE Transactions on Communications.</i>
  • Old World Auctions (May 4): Lot 18. Blaeu, <i>Nova et Accuratissima Totius Terrarum Orbis Tabula</i>, 1660.<br>Est. $14000-$17000
    Old World Auctions (May 4): Lot 20. Pitt, <i>Nova Totius Terrarum Orbis Geographica ac Hydrographica Tabula</i>, 1680. Est. $9500-$11000
    Old World Auctions (May 4): Lot 65. Ortelius, <i>Americae sive Novi Orbis, Nova Descriptio</i>, 1571. <br>Est. $6000-$7000
    Old World Auctions (May 4): Lot 84. Bailleul, <i>L'Amerique Divisee en Ses Principales Parties</i>, 1752.<br>Est. $19000-$22000
    Old World Auctions (May 4): Lot 99. Sayer & Bennett, <i>The American Military Pocket Atlas</i>, 1776. <br>Est. $10000-$12000
    Old World Auctions (May 4): Lot 269. Reid, <i>Plan of the City of Washington in the Territory of Columbia</i>, 1796. <br>Est. $2750-$3500
    Old World Auctions (May 4): Lot 291. Carleton, <i>Map of Massachusetts Proper</i>, 1801. Est. $12000-$14000
    Old World Auctions (May 4): Lot 378. Keulen, <i>Pas Kaart vande Noord Oost Kust van Cuba en d'Oost Kust van Florida</i>, 1695. Est. $3250-$4000
    Old World Auctions (May 4): Lot 651. Ptolemy/Fries, <i>Tabula Superioris Indiae & Tartariae Maioris</i>, 1541.<br>Est. $3000-$4000
    Old World Auctions (May 4): Lot 688. Wit, <i>Nova Africa Descriptio</i>, 1660.<br>Est. $2750-$3500
    Old World Auctions (May 4): Lot 706. Ortelius, <i>Maris Pacifici</i>, 1589.<br>Est. $8000-$9000
    Old World Auctions (May 4): Lot 727. Audubon, <i>Least Stormy-Petrel</i>, 1836. Est. $1400-$1700
    Old World Auctions (May 4): Lot 741. Bordone, <i>Isolario</i>, 1547.<br>Est. $16000-$19000
    Old World Auctions (May 4): Lot 747. Teesdale, <i>A New General Atlas of the World</i>, 1835. Est. $2000-$2750
    Old World Auctions (May 4): Lot 752. Colton, <i>Colton's Atlas of the World Volume I and II</i>, 1856.<br>Est. $2500-$3250
    Old World Auctions (May 4): Lot 760. Prevost, <i>Histoire Generale des Voyages ... Tome Quatorzieme</i>, 1757. <br>Est. $2400-$3000
  • <b>Dirk Soulis April 30:</b> Lot 131. After Karl Bodmer (1809-1983) Pehriska-Ruhpa Aquatint. $1500-$2500
    <b>Dirk Soulis April 30:</b> Lot 212. Catlin Snow Show Dance Hand Tinted Lithograph No. 14. $1000-$2000.
    <b>Dirk Soulis April 30:</b> Lot 213: Hurlimann After Bodner Saukie Fox Indians Aquatint. $500-$1000.
    <b>Dirk Soulis April 30:</b> Lot 226: After Karl Bodmer. Dance of the Mandan Indians Aquatint. $1000-$1500.
    <b>Dirk Soulis April 30:</b> Lot 281: Karl Bodmer (1809-1983) Massika and Wakusasse Hand. $750-$1500.
    <b>Dirk Soulis April 30:</b> Lot 244: After Catlin Nah-To-Toh Pa Lithograph, Plus Another. $300-$600.
    <b>Dirk Soulis April 30:</b> Lot 305: History...Indian Tribes N. America, McKenney & Hall, 3. $3000-$5000.
    <b>Dirk Soulis April 30:</b> Lot 316: Catlin, George, "North American Indians," 1841, 2 Vols. $500-$1000.
    <b>Dirk Soulis April 30:</b> Lot 284: Catlin, George, "North American Indians," 1926, 2 Vols. $200-$300.
    <b>Dirk Soulis April 30:</b> Lot 285: Coleson, Miss Ann, "Among the<br>Sioux Indians!" 1864. $500-$1000.
    <b>Dirk Soulis April 30:</b> Lot 289: Heard, L.V.D., Sioux War and Massacres, 1865, First. $400-$800.
    <b>Dirk Soulis April 30:</b> Lot 288: Life of Life of Ma-Ka-Tai-Me-She-Kia-Kiak or Black Hawk, 1834. $400-$800.
  • Bonhams Fine Books and Manuscripts, 8 June 2016, New York
    Bonhams June 8: ARISTOTLE.<br>384-322 B.C.E. De animalibus <br>US$ 300,000-500,000.
  • <b>Swann Auction Galleries May 5: Autographs</b>
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries May 5:</b> Anne & Margot Frank's copy of <i>Grimm's Fairy Tales</i>, in which Anne wrote her own and Margot's name, circa 1940. $20,000 to $30,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries May 5:</b> Albert Einstein, group of 4 letters Signed to Helmut L. Bradt regarding Bradt's emigration to the U.S., one bearing Nazi censor ink stamps, 1939-40. $10,000 to $15,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries May 5:</b> Archive of items from Ludwig Bemelmans to producer Mary K. Frank, concerning <i>The Street <br>Where the Heart Lies</i>, 1959-62. <br>$10,000 to $15,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries May 5: Autographs</b>
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries May 5:</b> Archive of correspondence to<br>Edwin A. Van Valkenburg from President Theodore Roosevelt and members of his family, 1913-21. $6,000 to $9,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries May 5:</b> Oscar Wilde, manuscript notes panning a book on book collecting, circa 1886. $5,000 to $7,500.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries May 5:</b><br>John Hancock, partly-printed document Signed as Governor of Massachusetts, Boston, 1781.<br>$4,000 to $6,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries May 5: Autographs</b>
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries May 5:</b> Franz Liszt, Autograph Letter<br>Signed to Carl Gille, Rome, 1869. $4,00 to $6,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries May 5:</b> Joseph Conrad, photograph Signed and dated, 1918. $1,000 to $2,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries May 5:</b><br>Two Guns White Calf, photograph postcard Signed with his pictogram, 1929. $800 to $1,200.

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