The Old Booksellers of New York and other papers<br>By William Loring Andrews
He seems to have enjoyed the proximity of the quiet graveyard of St. Paul's Chapel. Perhaps he found it conducive to a quiet and reflective turn of mind; or was it, on the contrary, the noisy attractions of Scudder's American Museum that allured him? This popular place of amusement stood within a stone's throw of his premises, on the site of the old Herald Building. It contained specimens of natural history and cosmoramic views, to which the charms of music and sundry “extraneous exhibitions" were added to give variety to the entertainment. The dulcet strains of the brass band stationed upon the balcony in front of this building—but hidden behind the flaring posters which covered its front—on pleasant afternoons, must have penetrated to the inner recesses of Mr. Gowans's stores on Fulton and Nassau Streets. These "al fresco" instrumentalists were fair-weather performers only, for Fitz-Greene Halleck tells us, in his poem of "Fanny," that "music ceases when it rains in Scudder's balcony." Afterward, as Barnum's Museum, this building became the home of the Mermaid, the Woolly Horse and the Perpetual Motion, and the same melodious method of attracting the attention of the passer-by was successfully practiced.
Mr. Gowans's store at 115 Nassau Street extended through to Theatre Alley, a distance of over 100 feet. He occupied the store floor, basement and sub-cellar, which in time became crowded with books and pamphlets from floor to ceiling. His stock grew and never diminished. Books lay everywhere in seemingly dire confusion, piled upon tables and on the floor, like Pelion upon Ossian, until they finally toppled over, and the few narrow alleys which had originally been left between the rows became well-nigh impassable. There was no artificial light in the cellar, and the book-hunter must fain grope his way—if permitted—through the bewildering maze by the light of a small tin sperm-oil lamp. The freedom of Mr. Gowans's bookstore was not presented to every passer-by.
There was a certain attempt at arrangement and classification, but the owner of this vast store of printed matter could have had but an imperfect knowledge of what it contained; although I fancy that few of the real book rarities that came into his possession were overlooked, and I am quite sure they were seldom undervalued by him. His prices, when once fixed, were as unalterable as the laws of the Medes and Persians. They were marked in plain figures in the front of the book, and the cost price in cipher at the bottom of the twenty-fifth page.
I am told by Mr. E. W. Nash (Mr. Gowans's clerk for twenty years), that at the time of his employer's death the stock was estimated at 300,000 bound volumes, besides pamphlets innumerable. Eight tons weight of these were sold by his executors at four and one-quarter cents per pound. A few years earlier he could have realized ten cents per pound (including covers), and could he have smuggled them into the Southern Confederacy during the war he would have reaped a fortune.
Although a large proportion of this mass of books and pamphlets was of small interest or value to the bibliophile, still one possessed of sufficient energy and perseverance, and with abundant leisure to delve into these semi-subterranean stores, occasionally might return with a handful of treasure-trove. In a letter to the Journal of Commerce, dated January 15th, 1886, Dr. William C. Prime records a discovery which he made in the cover of a book which he had unearthed in this dusky depository: " It was a small quarto volume, containing two books bound in one, a work of Jerome Gebuiller on the origin and ancestry of Ferdinand, Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, printed at Haganau in 1530, and an account of the siege of Vienna by the Turks, under Suleiman, in 1529, printed at Augsburg, 1530. The volume was bound in paper boards covered with calfskin. Inside one of these covers were found the following sheets, which had been pasted and pressed together to form the binder's board, a common practice with the 16th century binders:
First--A sheet printed in a large and beautiful black letter, four pages of Low Dutch poetry. Second.-Two sheets from a book, " Exposito Sacri Canonis," a small 16 mo. page, Roman type. Third.--Two sheets from a small (16 mo.) Book of Hours, black letter, late 15th or early 16th century. Fourth.--The last sheet of a black letter 12 mo. book, religious, in Dutch, having one full-page woodcut, the double eagle device of the printer and the colophon of Vosterman. Fifth.--Four pages or one sheet of a neatly printed missal in red and black. Sixth.--Two sheets of a black letter book in Low Dutch—prose and poetry-with colophon of Vosterman, no date or woodcut device. Seventh.--Two sheets from an edition of Despauterius's Latin Grammar, circa 1542. Eighth.—Some sheets of brown paper."
An enterprising firm of booksellers in this city placard their window in this enticing fashion: "25,000 books at our price, 50,000 at your price, 100,000 at any price." It was books in the last-named category of which Mr. Gowans was the most liberal purchaser. He, or his representative, was in constant attendance at the auction room. When the auctioneer could obtain no other bid, the lot would be knocked down at a nominal price to "Mr. Chase," Mr. Gowans's commercial pseudonym. Thus he bought extensively without making serious inroads into his capital.
At these auction sales Mr. Gowans appears to have been addicted to a practice of interrupting the auctioneer with questions concerning the book that was passing under the hammer. When the celebrated John Keese filled the "pulpit," Mr. Gowans always found his match. A work entitled "History of the Taters," was offered for sale.
"Is not that Tartars?" asked Mr. Gowans.
"No; their wives were the tartars," was the immediate reply. There are many amusing anecdotes still in circulation that illustrate the ready wit of this popular member of the book auction firm of Cooley, Keese & Co. People flocked to their evening sales as they would to a play, and the comedian Burton, it is said, regarded them as no contemptible rival to his theatre in Chambers Street.