Rare Book Monthly

Articles - November - 2020 Issue

John Crichton: a career in the rare book trade

John Crichton, career antiquarian as proprietor of The Brick Row Book Shop, lives comfortably within the two worlds in which rare books and collectible paper exist; between commerce and academics.  The ABAA at its best has long balanced knowledge, value and availability.  It is a difficult path to follow and requires keen intelligence and clear awareness of the bottom line.  For those skills he’s often been asked to be its guide in various roles.


John Crichton is proprietor of the Brick Row Book Shop in San Francisco, California. He has served as the President of the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association of America (2004-06); President of the Book Club of California (2000-04 and 2010-2012); Vice President of the Bibliographical Society of America (2014-16); he is currently the Chair of the Board of Directors of Rare Book School at the University of Virginia. He has lectured and written widely on the antiquarian book trade.


This is his story.


            The Brick Row Book Shop was founded in 1915 in New Haven, Connecticut. It was named after a famous block of buildings on the Yale campus, the Brick Row, at High and Elm streets, where now stands Yale's Stirling Library. The founding owner was Edmond Byrne Hackett, who operated the business until his death in 1953. Among his employees were some well-known names in the antiquarian book world: Michael Papantonio, Arthur Swann, David Randall,  and Robert Barry, Sr.  Chauncey Brewster Tinker was a silent partner in the business. In the early years, branches opened in Princeton and New York City, but in the depth of the Depression the New Haven and Princeton shops were closed and consolidated into the New York City location. Two decades later, shortly after Byrne Hackett's death, the Brick Row was sold to Hackett's last employee, Franklin Gilliam, who moved the shop to his home state of Texas and settled in Austin in 1954. For 17 years the Brick Row operated there and briefly in Houston until it pulled up stakes again in 1971 and headed for San Francisco. There it settled in on Post Street, near the other well-established firms of John Howell Books, David Magee, the Holmes Book Company, Bernard M. Rosenthal and the Argonaut Book Shop.


            In 1983 I purchased the Brick Row from Franklin Gilliam and have now operated the business – with the help of several employees and one early partner - longer than he did. If I persevere for a few more years, I’ll surpass Byrne Hackett’s tenure. But this was far from what I had in mind in 1975 when I received a degree in journalism from the University of Kansas and headed to Northern California in search of a career as a newspaper reporter.


            I was born and raised in Nashville, Tennessee, the youngest of four boys. After grammar school in middle Tennessee, my educational path took me to prep school in New England, college in Boston, and then the William Allen White School of Journalism in Lawrence, Kansas. An interest in things antiquarian began at an early age and developed more fully in Boston, where my focus turned to books. I ventured into Goodspeed’s out of curiosity on a couple of occasions, but it was not a welcoming place for the long-haired college student in bell bottoms. I had amusing encounters with the colorful George Gloss, Ken Gloss’s father, at Brattle Book Shop. Ernie Starr of the Starr Book Company was always encouraging and welcoming. At the mere mention of an author’s name, say William Dean Howells (a Boston favorite of mine), Mr. Starr would produce stacks of wooden fruit crates full of first editions. During my visits to Starr I almost certainly crossed paths with Starr’s young assistant, Peter Stern, though neither of us remembers the other from those early days.


            As I worked towards a degree in journalism at KU, I became interested in Kansas history and the overland trail, and was encouraged by a professor to use the Spencer Research Library directly across the quad from the journalism school. There, he said, I could read actual overland journals, which I did. This was the first time that I used a library dedicated to research and special collections. Another professor recognized my interest in first editions and rare books, and passed along catalogues he’d received from booksellers bearing names I didn’t know: Quaritch, Maggs, Ximenes, and a book store in Berkeley that would play an important role in my future, Serendipity Books. On trips to nearby Kansas City I visited Glenn’s Books, when it was still a general used and antiquarian book business near downtown. In those days there were used bookstores in many of the small towns, including Osawatomie, Kansas, where I stopped more than once. I was becoming a book hunter.


            In July 1975 I moved to Berkeley, California and within a few weeks had an apartment a block from Serendipity Books, then on Shattuck Avenue. In between attempts at landing a job at a local news organization, I became acquainted with Peter Howard and the staff at Serendipity and, as well, with the numerous other used and antiquarian booksellers in Berkeley, Oakland and San Francisco. Among others, I met Robert Hawley of Holmes Bookstore, John Swingle of Alta California Books, and Louis Collins of Discovery Books, next door to City Lights Books. The legendary John Howell Books was too much like Goodspeed’s, and I rarely ventured inside. But just down Post Street, on the other side of Union Square, was the gracious Bernard M. Rosenthal, who when he heard what my interests were, encouraged me to visit the Brick Row Book Shop, three floors up in the same building. I took Mr. Rosenthal’s advice and headed up to the Brick Row, only to be met with a hand written note on the door that said “Back at 3:30.” Franklin Gilliam, its proprietor, famously liked long lunches and afternoon baseball games, and visitors to his shop often encountered similar notes. I didn’t meet Franklin until months later, when I was being taken to an afternoon baseball game by Peter Howard. He stopped in San Francisco to pick up another fan who was attending the game with us, and into Peter’s van stepped Franklin Gilliam.


            In the middle 1970s the San Francisco Bay Area had a vibrant bibliophilic community. There were book clubs, bookbinders, fine press printers, friends groups for nearly every library, book artists, several distinguished research libraries, countless collectors, and an association of antiquarian booksellers. This bibliophilic community supported a seemingly endless number of bookstores. Becoming involved in this world of books was a revelation for a kid from the South; it was unlike anything I had experienced or imagined.


            The idea of being employed in the antiquarian book world had not occurred to me. I was a budding collector, with little in the way of money, in search of my first post-college job, and spending the interim moments perusing used and antiquarian bookstores. My interests were fairly wide-ranging and completely impractical: almost anything in English and American literature, and the older the better. Edmund Wilson and William Dean Howells were favorites, as I enjoyed reading their books, but I was capable of purchasing any book that held some appeal and that my meager budget would allow. I also found myself purchasing books that appeared cheap to me and that I thought I could sell or trade for a profit down the road.


            My career in journalism floundered, and I began searching for more reliable employment and income. Friends encouraged me to follow my interests, which increasingly centered around books and the book business. I spread the word among the booksellers I knew, along with a brief resume. Before too long the telephone rang. It was Peter Howard. He asked if I was still looking for a job in the book trade. I responded yes. He said that he needed a bookkeeper. I knew little or nothing about bookkeeping, I confessed. Peter replied sternly: “You said you wanted a job in the book trade? I need a bookkeeper. Are you willing to learn?” The answer was an immediate but nervous yes, and I started almost within a week.


            I was enormously fortunate to be hired as the bookkeeper (something, honestly, I knew nothing about) at one of the most interesting, energetic and well-known bookstores of its kind in the country.  Serendipity, then with a staff of Tom Goldwasser, Burton Weiss and Nancy Kosenka, was a magnet for collectors, book scouts, dealers, librarians and bibliophiles of all stripes. As the bookkeeper, I was in the middle of it. I learned the fundamentals of how a successful antiquarian book business worked - an invaluable experience that was more beneficial to my future than a position as a cataloger would have been at another firm.  And at the same time I was meeting dozens upon dozens of individuals in the antiquarian book world who would play a part in my future, and many of whom became steadfast friends and respected colleagues.


            From the time that Peter Howard introduced us, Franklin Gilliam and I became companions. There were numerous common threads running through our lives, threads that originated in the South, where we both grew up. In the spring of 1982, he intimated that he was thinking of moving to Charlottesville, Virginia, and that he might sell the Brick Row Book Shop to finance the move. I was disappointed to hear this, even shocked. At first I had no idea that Franklin was thinking of me as the successor at Brick Row, but he was, and within a few months we had worked out the arrangements. In January 1983 I took over the Brick Row Book Shop in partnership with Franklin’s employee, Matt Lowman. Later that year we got Franklin packed up and off to Charlottesville, where he continued in business as Franklin Gilliam Rare Books, now run by his widow, Mary Cooper Gilliam.


            Matt and I paid $22,500 for the Brick Row Book Shop, which seems ridiculously cheap today, but at the time it wasn’t, particularly considering that what we received in return were some fixtures, empty shelves and good will. Franklin took his enormous reference collection (which was still thought to be valuable!) and the inventory that he owned – though some of the latter remained on consignment until we refilled the shelves. We paid Franklin $10,000 down (enough to get him moved and set up in Charlottesville), and the balance was paid in installments over two years. Just as I had been fortunate to work as the bookkeeper at Serendipity Books, learning the basics of the trade there, I was fortunate to purchase an established antiquarian book business with a history of good will and connections with institutions and the trade. In retrospect it does seem to have been a bargain, but at the time the only thing I could concentrate on was maintaining an open antiquarian book shop in increasingly expensive downtown San Francisco, which initially required a lot of debt and working seven days a week. (Sometimes, it still does.)


            My interests in books of the 18th and 19th centuries dovetailed nicely with the stock and tradition at Brick Row, where there had always been a specialty in English and American literature. An early motto of the shop was “Books for Libraries,” and indeed institutional trade has sustained the business throughout its 105 years. Today over half of our sales are to libraries, with the difference roughly split between private collectors and the trade. The majority of theses sales are from catalogues and direct quotes of books and manuscript material to likely customers; the remainder comprises online sales from our website and other bookselling sites, book fairs, appraisals, and sales in the shop to visiting booksellers and collectors - the kind of serendipitous selling that is now on hold, along with book fairs, for the foreseeable future. Another specialty of the past 25 years has been the building of collections in various subject areas, which are then offered for sale to libraries. And, of course, over the years I have out of necessity resorted to buying and selling anything, within reason, from which I could make a profit.


            From the beginning in 1983 I steadily built up the inventory at Brick Row the old fashioned way – and in a manner that is increasingly difficult today - with buying trips to New England, the Midwest, New York and England, etc. Every three months or so, as enough receivables came in to allow me to take off and spend, I did just that, traveling widely and including at book fairs, when possible. The first of these trips were to Boston and its surrounding towns, where I was somewhat familiar with the terrain. The book stores downtown came first, which still included Starr, Sam Morrill, Goodspeed’s (who remained fairly unwelcoming, though I now wore a sport coat and tie) and Brattle. Once the downtown was covered, I headed to the book stores of Cambridge and the suburbs. And along the way I visited libraries and librarians.


            Other trips began in Pottstown, Pennsylvania, where I stayed as a guest of generous and kind Norman and Michal Kane of the Americanist. Norman was a great bookman who had a wonderful book barn on their farm outside of town. From there it was on to New England to Colebrook Book Barn, Howard Mott’s, Savoy Books in Lanesboro, Ken Leach in Brattleboro, ad infinitum. In the early days I crossed paths with Gary Oleson and Frannie Ness of Waiting for Godot Books, then based in Cambridge; we became fast friends and began taking theses trips together. Years later, the trips centered around their home in Hadley, Massachusetts, in which room after room is filled floor to ceiling with books.


            That book world I entered in 1975, with its vibrant bibliophilic community, is no longer as vibrant. That’s an empirical observation; not a moan. I recall hearing the old-timers in the bookstores of San Francisco in the middle 1970s, lamenting that there were not as many bookstores as there used to be. To this kid, fresh from college, that didn’t make sense. There were bookstores everywhere. But the old-timers had it right. By 1975 there were half as many bookstores in San Francisco as there were in 1950; by the year 2000 the lion’s share of those were gone. What the old timers instinctively knew is verifiable by studying the San Francisco business directories and yellow pages from 1850 to 2000, which I did a few years ago in preparation for a talk on the history of the antiquarian book trade in San Francisco. The same is likely true for every American city.


But despite the challenges of changing times and a shrinking business environment, the antiquarian book trade has held up remarkably well. Antiquarian booksellers are an enormously resilient and self-reliant group of people who, almost to a person, write their own paychecks, call their own shots, and admirably live by their intellect and wits. They have adjusted to some threatening changes in the market in recent decades, and they have come through intact - though I do feel strongly that there will be fewer participants in the trade in the future.


            The Brick Row Book Shop has survived 105 years, three owners, and more than 20 addresses. The inventory is smaller than it has ever been – but not less valuable; what we sell has changed, as it has for many dealers, but remarkably we continue to do what we always did in a fairly similar fashion. Most importantly, the business still provides a decent income, a constant education, colleagues and friends with shared enthusiasms, and a life spent with books. Percy Muir, in his engaging reminiscences in the Book Collector (published in installments, circa 1950-1960), wrote the following about the firm of which he was the third owner, Elkin Mathews. I paraphrase: it was an intelligently run antiquarian book business of the second or third rank that made no fortunes for its partners, but provided them with a living and an enormous amount of more or less clean fun. That nicely sums up the Brick Row Book Shop as well, and what it has provided me, for which I am forever grateful – and lucky.


Posted On: 2020-11-01 12:00
User Name: heas8994

A robust and a well deserved article on John. I learned considerable about him and
his fascinating path to being a well known and respected bookseller. Michael Heaston

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