Rare Book Monthly

Articles - July - 2004 Issue

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.

Rare Book Monthly

  • <b>Swann Auction Galleries Oct 24:</b> Sir Isaac Newton, <i>Opticks,</i> first edition, first issue, London, 1704. $15,000 to $25,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Oct 24:</b> Johannes Jacobus Canis, <i>De modo studendi in utroque iure,</i> first edition, Padua, 1476. $6,000 to $9,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Oct 24:</b> Pope Clemens V, <i>Constitutiones,</i> Nuremberg, 1482. $2,500 to $3,500.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Oct 24:</b> Nicolaus Panormitanus de Tudeschis, <i>Lectura super V libris Decretalium,</i> Basel, 1480-81. $5,000 to $7,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Oct 24:</b> Michael Faraday, <i>Experimental Researches in Electricity,</i> complete set, first editions, London, 1832-56. $3,000 to $4,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Oct 24:</b> William Gilbert, <i>Tractatus sive physiologia nova de magnete,</i> Sedini, 1628. $3,000 to $5,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Oct 24:</b> John Bulwer, <i>Philocophus,</i> first edition of the first book in English on the deaf, London, 1648. $1,000 to $2,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Oct 24:</b> James Cook, complete set, 9 volumes, London, 1773-84. $10,000 to $15,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Oct 24:</b> Nicolaus Bertrand, <i>Opus de Tholosano[rum] Gestis ab Urbe Condita,</i> with the earliest known view of the city of Toulouse, 1515. $2,000 to $3,000.
  • <center><b>Hindman Auctions<br>Fine Books and Manuscripts Including Americana<br>November 6, 2019</b>
    <b>Hindman Auctions, Nov. 6:</b> RATZER, Bernard. <i>Plan of the City of New York in North America, surveyed in the years 1766 & 1767.</i> London: Jefferys and Faden, “Jan.y” 12, 1776. $80,000 to $120,000
    <b>Hindman Auctions, Nov. 6:</b> [KELMSCOTT PRESS]. COCKERELL, Sydney C. <i>Some German Woodcuts of the Fifteenth Century.</i> Hammersmith: The Kelmscott Press, 1897 [issued 1898]. $20,000 to $30,000
    <b>Hindman Auctions, Nov. 6:</b> [GOLDEN COCKEREL PRESS]. KEATS, John. <i>Lamia, Isabella, the Eve of Saint Agnes and Other Poems.</i> Waltham Saint Lawrence, Berkshire: The Golden Cockerel Press, 1928. $6,000 to $8,000
    <center> <b>Hindman Auctions<br>Fine Books and Manuscripts Including Americana<br>November 6, 2019</b>
    <b>Hindman Auctions, Nov. 6:</b> [GRANT, Ulysses S.— GRANT, Julia, First Lady]. Carved Applewood and 18-karat Gold Jewelry Suite, Browne & Spaulding, Jewelers, New York City, 1865. $20,000 to $30,000
    <b>Hindman Auctions, Nov. 6:</b> [LINCOLN ASSASSINATION]. GARDNER, Alexander. <i>Incidents of the War |Sic Semper Sicariis</i> [caption title]. Washington, D. C.: Philip & Solomons, 1865. $5,000 to $7,000
    <b>Hindman Auctions, Nov. 6:</b> A COMPLETE COLLECTION of 115 titles published in R. R. Donnelley's Lakeside Classics series. Chicago, 1903-2017. COMPLETE RUN OF THE LONGEST-RUNNING CONTINUOUS SERIES OF BOOKS IN THE WORLD. $5,000 to $7,000
    <center><b>Hindman Auctions<br>Fine Books and Manuscripts Including Americana<br>November 6, 2019</b>
    <b>Hindman Auctions, Nov. 6:</b> GLEIZES, Albert. METZINGER, Jean. <i>Du Cubisme.</i> Paris, 1947. LIMITED EDITION, number 19 of 20 copies on papier d'Auvergne. $3,000 to $4,000
    <b>Hindman Auctions, Nov. 6:</b> [THE LITTLE REVIEW]. ANDERSON, Margaret, ed. POUND, Ezra, ed. HEAP, Jane, ed. <i>The Little Review.</i> Vol. I, No. 1 through Vol. XII, No. 2. 1914-1929. $3,000 to $4,000
    <b>Hindman Auctions, Nov. 6:</b> [MOUNTENEY, Leonard, binder]. LOUŸS, Pierre. <i>Songs of Bilitis.</i> Chicago: Argus Books, 1931. $2,000 to $3,000
    <b>Hindman Auctions, Nov. 6:</b> [HANCOCK, John]. Partly-printed U.S. Loan-Office Transfer Certificate issued on behalf of Hancock. Sgn’d on recto by William Imlay, as Commissioner of Loans of Connecticut. 28 February 1793. $2,000 to $3,000
  • <b>Bonhams, Oct. 23:</b> SMITH, CHRISTOPHER WEBB. 1793-1871. <i>Indian Ornithology.</i> [Patna, India]: 1828. $50,000 to $80,000.
    <b>Bonhams, Oct. 23:</b> DUPRÉ, LOUIS. 1789-1837. <i>Voyage à Athènes et à Constantinople, ou Collection de portraits, vues et costumes grecs et ottomans.</i> Paris: Dondey-Dupré, 1825. $60,000 to $90,000.
    <b>Bonhams, Oct. 23:</b> ADAMS, JOHN. Autograph Letter Signed ("J Adams"), [to Dr. Perkins?] while recovering from his small pox inoculation, [late-April, 1764]. $30,000 to $50,000.
    <b>Bonhams, Oct. 23:</b> AUSTEN, JANE. Autograph Letter Signed ("J. Austen"), to her sister Cassandra, 4 pp, "Thursday – after dinner," [September 16, 1813,] Henrietta St. $80,000 to $120,000.
    <b>Bonhams, Oct. 23:</b> AUDUBON, JOHN JAMES. 1785-1851. <i>The Birds of America, from Drawings Made in the United States and Their Territories.</i> New York & Philadelphia: J.J. Audubon & J.B. Chevalier, 1840-1844. $20,000 to $30,000.
    <b>Bonhams, Oct. 23:</b> DODWELL, EDWARD. 1767-1832. <i>Views in Greece.</i> London: Rodwell and Martin, 1821. $20,000 to $30,000.
    <b>Bonhams, Oct. 23:</b> JAMES, JESSE. Autograph Letter Signed ("Jesse W. James"), to Mr. Flood demanding Flood retract spurious accusations, 3 pp, June 5, 1875. $200,000 to $300,000.
    <b>Bonhams, Oct. 23:</b> DE CORDOBA, JACOB. <i>Map of the State of Texas.</i> New York, 1866. $15,000 to $20,000
    <b>Bonhams, Oct. 23:</b> ARNOLD, BENEDICT. Autograph bookseller's receipt for Dr. John Dickinson, Signed ("B. Arnold"), February 1767. $3,000 to $5,000.
    <b>Bonhams, Oct. 23:</b> EINSTEIN, ALBERT. 4 Typed Letters Signed ("A Einstein") to Cleveland E. Dodge offering early reports on the meetings of the Emergency Committee of Atomic Scientists. $10,000 to $15,000.
    <b>Bonhams, Oct. 23:</b> EISENHOWER, DWIGHT D. Typed Letter Signed ("Dwight D. Eisenhower") to General Henri Giraud written from a secret bunker in Gibraltar on the eve of Operation Torch, November 4 [but 6], 1942. $10,000 to $15,000.
    <b>Bonhams, Oct. 23:</b> Early Broadside Printing of the GADSDEN PURCHASE, Puebla, August 16, 1854. $2,000 to $3,000.
    <b>Bonhams, Oct. 23:</b> ALLEN, ETHAN. Autograph Letter Signed to Crevecouer during the Constitutional Debates in Congress, 2 pp, August 29, 1787. $30,000 to $50,000.
  • <center><b>Hindman Auctions<br>Library of a Midwestern Collector<br>November 5, 2019</b>
    <b>Hindman Auctions, Nov. 5:</b> DARWIN, Charles. <i>On the Origin of Species.</i> London John Murray, 1859. FIRST EDITION. THE VERY FINE MELLON-GARDEN COPY. $120,000 to $180,000
    <b>Hindman Auctions Auctioneers, Nov. 5:</b> ECKERT, J. P, H. H. GOLDSTINE, and J. G. BRAINERD. <i>Description of the ENIAC and comments on electronic digital computing machines.</i> N.p., 1945. FIRST EDITION, INSCRIBED BY GOLDSTINE. $5,000 to $7,000
    <b>Hindman Auctions, Nov. 5:</b> EUCLID. <i>Elementa geometriae.</i> Translated from the Arabic by Adelard of Bath. Venice: Erhard Ratdolt, 25 May 1482. FIRST EDITION. $60,000 to $80,000
    <center><b>Hindman Auctions<br>Library of a Midwestern Collector<br>November 5, 2019</b>
    <b>Hindman Auctions, Nov. 5:</b> [HAMILTON, Alexander, James MADISON and John JAY]. <i>The Federalist: A Collection of Essays…</i> New York: John and Andrew M'Lean, 1788. FIRST EDITION. $60,000 to $80,000
    <b>Hindman Auctions, Nov. 5:</b> GALILEI, Galileo. <i>Dialogo...Dove ne i congressi di quattro giornate si discorre sopra i due massimi sistemi del mondo Tolemaico, e Copernicano.</i> Florence, 1632. FIRST EDITION. $30,000 to $40,000
    <b>Hindman Auctions, Nov. 5:</b> JOYCE, James. <i>Ulysses.</i> Paris: Shakespeare and Company, 1922. FIRST EDITION, ONE OF 100 COPIES SIGNED BY JOYCE. $120,000 to $180,000
    <center><b>Hindman Auctions<br>Library of a Midwestern Collector<br>November 5, 2019</b>
    <b>Hindman Auctions, Nov. 5:</b> KEYNES, John Maynard. <i>The General Theory of Employment Interest and Money.</i> London: Macmillan, 1936. FIRST EDITION. $5,000 to $7,000
    <b>Hindman Auctions, Nov. 5:</b> NEWTON, Isaac, Sir. <i>Philosophiae naturalis principia mathematica.</i> London: Joseph Streater for the Royal Society, 1687. FIRST EDITION. $150,000 to $250,000
    <b>Hindman Auctions, Nov. 5:</b> ROWLING, J. K. <i>Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone.</i> London: Bloomsbury, 1997. FIRST EDITION, SIGNED BY ROWLING. $80,000 to $120,000
    <b>Hindman Auctions, Nov. 5:</b> SMITH, Adam. <i>An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations.</i> London: for W. Strahan and T. Cadell, 1776. FIRST EDITION. $70,000 to $90,000

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