William P. Barlow, Gone but remembered

- by Bruce E. McKinney

Bill Barlow, friend and collector

Bill Barlow, collector extraordinaire, slipped away on October 21st, looking forward to his 88th birthday soon after the New Year.  An accountant by trade, he was by avocation a collecting savant, his interests broad and intense.  As a stamp collector he had a gift for the unusual and irregular and as a book collector his goal was inevitably to be complete.  He had exceptional intellectual capability married with the patience of Job.  Simply stated, he was one of a kind.


His collections, once started, went on and on.  He had eclectic interests insuring there was something, somewhere he could buy or bid on and his offices on Market Street in San Francisco long ago became a regular stop for the UPS men, bringing packages - two or three every day, leading to his daily ritual of separating his treasures from their boxes and wrapping, then carrying them to his car to be transported to his collecting Mecca in Oakland.


As happens with committed collectors, he in time became a guest in his own home, his collections over the years beginning to burst their seams, he then rented outside storage to keep his long runs of old auction catalogues neat and orderly so to not envelop his home.  His collecting was a fabulous addiction and splendid to behold.


Bill early on was a wunderkind and grew up with deep admiration for his father, William P. Barlow, Sr.  He first attended California Institute of Technology and then transferred to Cal Berkeley and later joined his father’s accounting firm, Barlow, Davis & Wood, he in time making it his own.


In 1953, early on he made a chance find, a Baskerville printing of Paradise Lost and Paradise Regain’d (1758), and found Baskerville imprints sufficiently complex for his exceptional mind to find appealing.  The comparatively short list of titles, their variety of bindings, rarity and provenance suggested to him this material would be obscure to all but the cognoscenti and for Bill, with his exceptional mind, he knew he could capture and embrace the telling details.


But in time it became clear that one collecting subject would never do.    


What to do with a Stradivarius of the mind once accounting issues were daily resolved; he nursed other collections, pursuing both the spectacular and mundane.  To keep the UPS and mailmen busy he literally pursued his father’s collecting interest, the postcards and menus of the more than 10,000 restaurants that Duncan Hines identified as places worthy to visit.  For that, eBay was invented to absorb his restless imagination, ensuring mail and packages would arrive every day.  That was one of his passions.


His collection of auction catalogues, another of his enthusiasms, was the natural outgrowth of his approach to collecting Baskerville, his desire to have all possible information about his interests.  To do that, long before databases would synthesize all references in auction catalogues in a single search, he simply acquired the old catalogues whenever he could, then read and remember them, then stacking them neatly, shelf by shelf, in date order to be retrieved when the need arose to confirm, make or break a case.  His auctions, in time, found themselves in the basement of a local music store supplying would-be rockers while, in their basement accessible only by a key locked elevator, these catalogues were stacked on shelves that long ago had been bent and bowed in concession to weight and time.


I first met Bill at the Roxburghe Club in San Francisco. It's where book collectors, mostly older men, get together to talk about their shared passion. It is a place where there are others who share this same disease. You need to show some care not to come across as bragging, and yet it can be hard to check your enthusiasm when talking to others who understand this part of you that even your own family finds incomprehensible.


Among a crowd, even of unique personalities, Bill stood out. It was his intellect. Bill Barlow, quite simply, was brilliant. You wanted to talk to him. I think this was in 2004. Two years later, I asked Bill if I could interview him for an article in Rare Book Monthly. After some thought, he agreed. Later that year, I met him at his office, where we had the interview and a long discussion about collecting. You can read the article here. [www.rarebookhub.com/articles/396]


What I remember most from that day are not the particular words he spoke but his obvious joy when the packages arrived. I think he must have ordered something for his collection everyday, and his office is where he received his packages. For Bill, every day was Christmas, as he unwrapped the packages to see what new gift arrived. It is at spontaneous moments like these that we see what drives the serious book collector.


From that point on, Bill and I would get together on occasion to discuss our books. We did not collect the same things, but we shared the act of collecting. That in itself creates a deep, common bind.


Eventually, Bill invited me to his home to see his collection. There was the Duncan Hines collection and the postcards. There were also books, some of great financial value. To Bill, they were all of great personal value. It is what you like, not the market price, that drives most collectors.


In time, Bill took me to some of the deeper recesses of his house. It was there that he showed me his collection of book auction catalogues. Now we had something else in common besides just being collectors. I'm sure Bill had lots of friends who shared a passion for the books he collected, but old book auction catalogues? He probably had single books that were more valuable financially than his entire auction catalogue collection. I may have been the only person with a similar passion for old book auction catalogues, though our interests arose from very different sources.


Bill collected these catalogues to learn more about the books he was buying. Still, they were more than just a source of information for him. They were also physical beings, part of that family of books. For me, the interest was strictly in the information, their content, not their physical presence. I was building the Rare Book Transaction History database on this website, and had expanded it from containing just recent auction records to delving back in history for listings from old sales, long ago, often forgotten. We each sought, in our own ways, completeness.


Collectors are not lending libraries and we don't often agree to let someone take one of our treasures outside our home. You don't lend your children, but at one point, Bill said to me he would be open to letting me borrow a few catalogues to add to the database. I said that was not necessary, as what I was seeking were long runs of catalogues, not one or two. I was purchasing runs wherever I could find them at a reasonable price. They do on occasion show up in some dealer's basement or from an institution deaccessioning something unused but taking up too much space.


About two years ago, Bill expanded that offer. I can't say exactly why, but his age may have had something to do with it. His eyesight and mobility were not what they once were, meaning his records were no longer accessible to him. In a database, they might once again be. Bill also was interested in their preservation, and I think he may have seen that their presence within a database would assure they would always live on, while he could not guarantee the same for the physical copies. He hoped they would end up in an institution that would care for them as he did, but no one can say what will happen in time.


This time Bill offered to lend me entire runs. He must have trusted me completely as the first set he offered was his Bangs catalogues, perhaps the crown jewel of his collection. Bangs was the preeminent American auction house of the second half of the 19th century. They are not as well remembered as Anderson Galleries or the American Art Association which followed them, but Bangs was every bit as important on the other side of the boundary between the 19th and 20th centuries. Bill had around 700 of their catalogues.


I did not yet want to take Bangs. They were too delicate and valuable to take that chance. I asked to borrow something less important. That is when Bill introduced me to his off-site storage, under the music shop, where he kept catalogues not quite as valuable as those in his home. I was the classic kid in a candy store. Bill and I would go there, sitting in the dim light, our footsteps leaving prints in the dust, he sitting by his walker, calling me to reach into one bay or another, knowing what and where his collections by auction house began and ended. There were many catalogues from obscure auction houses, often ones I had never heard of before. After gazing at all the wonders, I selected one of the better known houses and longer runs, those of Stan Henkels. Henkels conducted auctions in Philadelphia from the 1880s to the 1920s, first for others, then for himself.


I personally scanned each of the catalogues, and after the process of copying and parsing the data into separate fields, such as author, title, and date, they were loaded into the database. There are now almost 370,000 Henkels lot records in the database, some from my own collection, but most from Bill's. Bill asked for absolutely nothing in return but I realized I could make some small gesture of appreciation. He collected the physical catalogues, I wanted only the contents. I had 17 Henkels catalogues Bill did not have. I added them to his collection. I returned all of the catalogues after placing each in a protective sleeve, and sorted them in order before returning them to their shelves. I then showed Bill how to search specifically for the Henkels catalogues in the database. He was almost as excited as when he received his packages. Once again he could find what he wanted in his collection.


It was now time to take on Bangs. For this, I bought a new and more expensive copier. It is one that allows you to only partly open a catalogue to scan it. It balances itself out for the angles to provide a flat, readable scan. This way, I didn't risk damaging the spines of these delicate catalogues by opening them too far. I have scanned hundreds so far.


Sadly, this is where the story ends. Bill never got see the Bangs records in the database. We never got to complete the project, all of those obscure forgotten catalogues, or priced records from Anderson and American Art. I already had copies of most of those catalogues, but Bill had many with the prices included. I don't know if anyone else has that. I think both Bill and I figured we had a couple of years left to complete the project. Sometimes, life intervenes. I hope that we will yet be able to complete this project but that is now up to someone else to decide.


Bill was 87 years old, almost 88, but we lost him way too soon. We lost a man of great intellect and knowledge, so much of which is irreplaceable. We lost a man of enormous generosity, as I learned from his willingness to share his precious collection while asking nothing in return. I will name our pre-1940 records the Bill Barlow Archive as I want him and his generosity to be remembered. Most of all, I lost a very good friend. I will no longer have a friend with which to share this strange passion for old book auction catalogues. Bill was one of a kind. I will miss him deeply. It hurts more than I can express.