Richard Ramer: A life of Books
- by Bruce E. McKinney
Recently Richard Ramer, the New York and Lisbon Rare Book Antiquarian specializing in Portuguese and Spanish material, issued a 50th Anniversary catalogue to celebrate a half century in the field. He has long dealt in Spanish and Portuguese books, as well as Brazilian and Spanish American imprints, among them early ones on a wide variety of subjects.
It’s his catalogue No. 11 and that number suggests a very interesting story.
In 1965 he moved to Bloomington to study Latin American history at the Indiana University. A major influence would be Charles Boxer, a great English book collector and historian. He had read his works and knew that, in 1960 he sold his library to the Lilly Library at Indiana University for $100,000 and under terms of the sale, was to spend 3 or so months per year in Bloomington, and give a graduate seminar. “He was one of the reasons I decided to study for my M.A. there. Shortly after arriving in Bloomington, I showed him a paper I had written about Robert Southey’s interests in Spanish and Portuguese literature, as well as Portuguese and Brazilian history. He liked the paper, but commented that I should have a look at Borba de Moraes’ bibliography of rare Brasiliana. This would open my eyes to the importance of rare books for serious scholarly investigation. He would later invite me to join a TGIF group that met regularly at a bar called Nick’s, become friends and over the years stayed in touch.”
Upon graduation in 1967 Richard returned to New York with a 2 year fellowship from the State of New York and used the opportunity to investigate the book trade. In that period it was as much a lark as a strategy as he still expected to become an academic. But these were Vietnam War years and the times were unsettled. Nothing was quite what it had been and adventure was in the air. As luck would have it, at Park Bernet in 1968 he bought a book for $20 and a year later sold it for $250. At the time an academic entering the teaching field could expect to make $6,000 or $7,000 a year so that first volume earned him about 2 weeks of academic pay. It was a promising start.
Now open to the idea of old and rare books as an investment if not yet a career, he looked for other opportunities to buy and sell based on his understanding of history and began to see a strategy that would permit him a career in the field. His academic understanding of history would become both his basis for purchases and later his explanations of relevance and importance. It was a good start that would serve as a counterweight to his initial inexperience with the book as an object as well as his dawning awareness of the norms of the book trade.
“I never had anyone in my family in the book trade, never worked for a bookseller or in a library, and knew next to nothing about the book as an object. It would take 4 or 5 years to begin to have even a clue about what I was doing, but it was a fortunate time to begin, with much material on the market. In those days Swann Galleries had a book sale almost every week, always with some very interesting items. Attending those sales, even if only able to buy a few things, was a great learning experience.
That would lead a decade later, “when I had become a full-fledged book dealer and was exhibiting at London book fairs to invite Charles, now safely back in England, to attend, and he in turn to invite me to dine at the Atheneum Club, or visit his country house. I was coming of age and it was an exceptional time to be a dealer because institutions had both money and desire and scholarly knowledge was precious. I felt confirmed.”
Another decade later, when Charles participated in a conference organized by Prof. Kenneth Maxwell at Columbia University in New York, my wife and I hosted a dinner for him, his wife Emily Hahn, their daughter Carola, Prof. Maxwell, the distinguished art historian Michael Teague, and several others. The table talk was recorded, and served well the eminent historian Dauril Alden when he later wrote the definitive biography of Boxer.
“In those years several members of the trade were most kind in providing tips and guidance: Steve Weissman, Felix Oyens, Jim Cummins, Bart Auerbach, Peter Kraus, Arthur Freeman and others allowed me to sit with them for drinks from time to time after auctions or during lulls at book fairs. This was an opportunity to absorb much about the norms of the trade and books in general. Douglas Parsonage of Lathrop C. Harper was also very kind. Along with Steve Weissman, he would later sponsor me for ABAA membership. Slightly later influences in the trade were Nicholas Poole-Wilson and others at Quaritch, including Derek McDonnell and Richard Linenthal. I also learned a great deal from Librarians; more from Roger Stoddard at Houghton Library than any other, but also from John Alden at Boston Public, Jack Parker at James Ford Bell, Ken Carpenter at the Kress, Steve Ferguson, Don Farren and Sam Hough at JCB, and Harold Whitehead at the British Museum (now British Library). Bill Runge at University of Virginia was also a positive influence; his assistant, Cindy Sinnot, became my first employee. The kindness of librarians was a great help in my early years, and has continued to be to this very day. Relationships with collectors have also been a wonderful influence.”
He would never become a frequent catalogue issuer. He preferred making his case to institutions and collectors by careful explanation, often sending detailed accounts. It was a slow process that married his academic knowledge in history, as well as Spanish, Portuguese, Latin American and Brazilian literature, with his entrepreneurial interest, often taking several months for the offer and answer process to work themselves out, as often they did.
With the emergence of the internet he would have to re-invent himself and embrace the challenge that, over the past 20 years, has seen him shift from the issuance of printed catalogues to the issuance of eCatalogues. That’s why, after 50 years, he’s only up to No. 11. As he recently explained, “it’s been about 15 years since I last issued a printed catalogue but the occasion of a 50th anniversary seemed to suggest it.”
This is not to suggest he was ever inactive. Over the years he has issued 222 “Special Lists”, numbered 101 to 322. During the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s they were less frequent, and done in small numbers, photocopied and mailed to a few customers. Later they became regularly issued elists, from 20 to 40 per year, sent to roughly 1,000 potential clients. In addition to his primary topics he also regularly offers material in medicine, science, natural history, botany, Inquisition, Judaica, military, fencing, horsemanship, and agriculture, as well as the Portuguese experience in Africa, India, Timor, Macau, and Japan, and Spanish encounters in the Philippines and elsewhere.
“The world has changed.” Within recent memory the very relationship between the seller and buyer has been transformed by the internet that has made it possible to understand importance and rarity with a few keystrokes. And even so, as a transitional figure with one foot in the old and the other in the new, he maintains a reference Library of over 4,000 volumes in New York, with another 600 or so, mostly duplicates, in his Lisbon flat. But of late, his research has often been initiated on the internet. “Today a dealer has to offer exceptional material,” an outcome that favors the highly knowledgeable. For him it’s the natural outcome of 50 years of experience.
In considering his half century he is unfailingly polite, invariably and inevitably turning questions about what he’s done into statements of appreciation to those who have helped him do it.
“Over the years I have had the good fortune to have had some excellent people work for me. Dianne Durante, a Ph.D. in Classics who can read medieval manuscripts and is fluent in Latin, Ancient and Modern Greek, and can read another half dozen or so Western languages worked for me from 1985 to 2000 with about a year off for maternity, returned to the fold in 2009 and has continued to work for me since. Dave Whitesell worked for me about 4 years in the mid-1990s before going on the Houghton Library, American Antiquarian Society, and is currently Curator of Rare Books at University of Virginia Library. Dan Slive, currently Head of Special Collections at Bridwell Library, Southern Methodist University, worked for me for a few weeks between a stint at the Reese Company and his current job. Anne Garner, presently Curator of Rare Books and Manuscripts in the Library at The New York Academy of Medicine, worked for me part time while studying for her M.L.S. degree. Sara Eckerson has worked for me the past 10 years or so in Lisbon, 2 days per week while obtaining an M.A. and Ph.D. in comparative literature from the University of Lisbon; before that she worked for me part time in New York while completing her undergraduate studies at NYU. Sarah Cartwright worked for me in the early 2000s while earning a Ph.D. in art history from NYU; she went on to work as a curator at the Lehman collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and is now living in Florida. My grandson, Diogo Sampaio has been helping me in Lisbon for the past ten years while obtaining a law degree from the Universidade Nova; he is now completing a Master’s degree in law.”
So, it turns out, both for the market and the material Richard prizes, his wealth of experience is a very good fit. The scholar becomes the dealer and traverses an ever changing landscape over 5 decades. It was one thing at the start and today a field hardly recognizable to those who have made the journey. But at its heart it is still the discovery, pursuit and subsequent sale of important material. And, it still works for him who continues to prepare himself for the new world of old material, and contrary to the nay-sayers, remains optimistic about the future of the book trade.
Summing up his experience, what comes to mind is the oft but rarely better used phrase: no man is an island – an appropriate metaphor for the life of great books and even better friends he has lived.
nemo est insula