Michael Thompson was a bookseller, rising through the chances and opportunities that life provided, to ply the trade for essentially his entire life. He was bookman of the old school.
The road to perdition and ruin was discovered early, when he was a graduate student at the University of Texas and met Jake Zeitlin, then a bookseller, publisher, collector, poet and intellectual in Los Angeles. Michael was already a bookseller but unschooled and unseasoned. One thing led to another and Mr. Thompson was hired by Mr. Zeitlin where he did yeoman service and learned the trade. Five years later he emerged to start his own business, Michael R. Thompson Rare Books.
Over the years, he would move several times and always maintain a divided inventory, one portion for scholarly material and the other for rare books. Over time the financial significance of scholarly material declined while rare and collectible material increased. It was the classic story of the flower bending to the light. He closed his retail shop in 2006 and moved into an office setting with the Internet becoming his public presence.
Looking back he would remember with distinct pride the appraisals the firm conducted for Francis Crick of Watson and Crick who discovered the structure of DNA. He would also remember with pleasure and satisfaction his relationships with institutions.
In 2017 his wife Kathleen passed away. He had one daughter, Kelly Thompson Rigotti, who when growing up was his stalwart companion at book fairs. Fast forward to this fall Kelly, now a software executive, and her daughter will join Carol Sandberg, Michael’s partner for more than 30 years, who will carry on the company and its traditions and be exhibiting in Seattle in October. So, when the lights then come up, though Michael will be gone, two generations will be there in solidarity.
Death is inevitable but this in no way lessens its blow. Booksellers tend to live long lives. Michael made it to 78.
I met Michael at the Grolier when I was doing research and he spotted a “young” prospect and asked Jose Pena who the youngster was. He then came by and asked me to explain what the database was I was building. He then handed me his card and said “sign me up” and has been a database member ever since. I have always appreciated the gesture because back in the first years of the new century most dealers weren’t interested in the Americana Exchange and he was. Thank you Michael.
Over the years, AE and later RBH became places where aggrieved buyers came to complain. But, in all these years I’ve heard nothing but good things about Michael. That is a difficult thing to achieve.
The firm will continue under the guiding hand of Carol Sandberg. She expects to narrow the focus and concentrate on higher value material and appraisals.
The field is changing and its rare book dealers change with it.
He will be missed.
Here are links to two memorials written in remembrance of his life well-lived.
The William Andrews Clark Memorial Library
https://www.ilab.org/node/68905 [same through ILAB]
The University of Utah