All is well that ends well
- by Bruce E. McKinney
Two lifetimes ago Clare Van Norman’s father, Clarendon Van Norman Sr., was a serious and respected Lincoln specialist in Illinois. His business, the Van Norman Book Company, founded in Peoria in the late 1920’s and soon after relocated to Galesburg would live on into the 1980’s. His son Clare, as a youth, enjoyed his father’s shop spending countless hours absorbing his father’s work ethic and esthetic taste. And had he not been a musician of exceptional talent he might have entered the book trade. But his path led to Juilliard in New York and from there to the Buffalo Symphony for two years, next joining the Metropolitan Opera and then the Chicago Symphony, each for two more years. When he then returned to the Metropolitan he was 35 and would in time become their first principal French horn player.
Over the next 28 years as his career evolved he married Linda and had a child, May, who today is in the musical field herself. In 1982 they bought a home in Sullivan County, the goals to be both near New York and live in the country. Linda became a schoolteacher and he a New York commuter. In many ways he had moved well beyond Galesburg and in others not. For his love of father and appreciation for the material that so intrigued his father he decided, after his father passed away, to move the entire remaining stock from his father’s business, some 1,800 boxes, to two outbuildings nearby his home where the inventory would masquerade as a bookseller’s stock but in equal measures be an investment and homage to his father’s taste.
So how would he do this? When Clare was growing up he saw that his father kept the material he was willing to sell on the first and second stories of the shop and the best objects, be they ephemera or books on the 3rd. The material he viewed as exceptional he sent to the 3rd floor, not to be sold but to be kept.
In then bringing his father’s inventory, some 30,000 books to Neversink in the early 1990s he followed his father’s thinking. He organized himself as Wantagh Rare Book Company. Pristine copies of somewhat common material were available, by appointment, to browse and buy. The best material would be invisible, shelved in the back room away from dealers and other adventurers. And in this way, for the next twenty years the Van Norman/Wantagh collection continued to increase. Clare was issuing catalogues, collecting, and quietly consigning to some of the best auction houses in the United States. He was dealing quietly and liked it that way.
With the passage of time his best opportunities to sell slipped by; increasing volume of copies on the web, the economic downturn in 2008 and age all conspiring to make sales more difficult.
In life there is always luck so for the better part of the past 10 years Peter Luke has been visiting Clare every month or so. Peter is a book scout/dealer with a keen sense of what sells and what does not. So he would trek from his home near Albany to see them and return with items to sell. And in those years he obtained something else, the trust of the Van Normans, earned book by book, his offers fair and they comfortable with his honesty.
In the past year it became clear to the Van Normans that Clare now 84, should sell his stock and for this he turned to Peter who bargained to buy all but 40 cartons of what had grown to 2,500 cartons while this collector/dealer was explaining to his wife he was selling. “Do we need to build another warehouse to house this shrinking collection?”
To handle the purchase Peter partnered with Rich West of Periodyssey, himself now a respected friend of the Van Normans, and they formed a new business, Partners in Paper. They packed cartons over the course of a month and shuttled truckloads from New York to Massachusetts. The material is now being sorted in Periodyssey’s Easthampton, Massachusetts warehouse and divided into two categories, material to keep and material to dispose. That which they will not keep is going to be sold over three days, April 17-19 as a Dutch auction shelf sale, that is, all material will be $25.00 each on the 17th, $15.00 each on the 18th and $5.00 each on the 19th.
It should be an exciting event, open to all on a first-serve basis - to collectors, librarians and dealers. Beyond the basic stock there are also selected books and paper, separately priced, in Partners in Paper’s permanent space that the interested may ask to see.
Bookshops close and their managements slip away. But booksellers are a unique and resilient breed; the instinct to acquire in their blood, their last words almost inevitably “I’ll take it.” For those who visit Partners in Paper to buy you will simply be marking yourself as members of the same clan, those who value the printed word in all its forms and can not live without more and better copies.
To all this then the Van Normans wish to add: we thank Peter and Rich for acquiring the stock and working so well and diligently to make it available to others. And they mean it.
In that ethereal association somewhere high up on a prominent wall there will inevitably be a plaque that remembers the father and son and the Van Norman name. Such is the way it is. You buy, sell and trade works on paper and occasionally as is the case here, find lasting recognition. The name today is a noun. In time it should become a verb, its meaning the act of steadfast devotion.
The opportunity to buy myriad examples with connections to the trade, to authors, important readers and collectors begins on April 17th at 9:00 am.
Here is a link to the Partners in Paper website and to Peter and Rich: [PartnersinPaper]
Peter Luke (518) 505-0840
Rich West (413) 527-1900
116 Pleasant Street
Easthampton, MA 01027