Fifty Years a Bookseller: or, The Wolf at Your Door

- by Bruce E. McKinney

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Rare books of all kinds can be found online, at libraries and at fairs somewhere, some place every minute of every day around the world.  What were once called rare books has evolved into collectible paper and now subsumes every manifestation of paper and ink, into a single field and today databases aggregate most of the offers into an answer proffered in a fraction of a second.  Presto everyone with an iPhone is an expert.

 

So what happens then when someone who has spent his life, over the past 50+ years working in the trade and now, ambling into his dotage, remembering the many interesting people, their approaches and styles, their preferences and peculiarities, and recalls them in clear and canny detail.  What did he learn, now leaving us to wonder, was life in the world of old books better then or better now?  Taken together, this is what Clarence Wolf has done by telling us a series of stories relating his experiences.  Chapter by chapter his account brings to life his life lived in the company with and in the pursuit of great books. To those lucky few who embrace the challenge to be competent in the field it’s required reading.  Rare paper requires intelligence, commitment, luck and perspective.  Clarence’s vignettes have created a stage full of memories against which we who love to collect, can understand ourselves and the changing world through which our passion carries us on to the next opportunities.

 

And this book is needed.  It used to be that book collectors needed only two sources of help, a great dealer and a psychiatrist.  If you’re collecting you may not have known this although your wife, husband or partner have long suspected.  The psychiatrist is to help you recover once you take a hard hit.  A great dealer can help you to avoid the many pitfalls.

 

And how has he done this?  He tells us his story and gracefully lets us imagine ourselves in the world he describes.

 

He was born of a family with a history of exceptional bookmen and it seems to have been almost inevitable, he would join the line.  Not many of us have that history but to the energetic and intelligent with the gift to imagine possibilities, we can sense in his stories how collectors and dealers have navigated through the ever changing possibilities he encountered over his career.

 

To bring that world alive, after explaining his own history he introduces and remembers many of the extraordinary personalities he encountered and in many cases worked with, seven chapters remembering the styles and approaches of those who in time emerged as the snowcapped mountains on his youthful plains.  And ah yes, he is of Philadelphia, the Nazareth, if not the gethsemane, of American book collecting.  It’s always been a good idea to plant in strong soil.

 

In time, his perspective broadened as he reached out to distant metropolises; Washington, D.C. Baltimore, New York, and Boston, subsuming wholes states and regions in single bounds, turning a map of America into a plan to visiting the trade, shows and collectors.  In that way, over the decades what was once a local business, MacManus would become a mecca for serious collectors.

 

Among the memorable and remembered, Mabel Zahn, the Queen of Sessler’s and doyen of books; Gordon Block, exceptional collector and distant relative; Mrs. Julia Rush Biddle Henry, heir; Frederic Farrar, collector of newspapers and pamphlets; Frank Siebert, the brilliant and irascible collector of Americana who bought from Henry Stevens, Ernest Wessen, Lathrop Harper, Wright Howes, Charles Heartman, Peter Decker, George MacManus and Dr. A. S. W. Rosenbach.

 

As his book gets into the 7th inning, he then remembers friends whose help and support both made a difference and whose knowledge and personalities gave texture and substance to his life:

 

Jack Freas, a friend and a dealer; Ricky Jay, prestidigitator; David Holmes, friend, cohort and fellow adventurer in the world of collectible books; and Bill Reese, who instilled order and logic in the field of Americana.

 

Over the past two hundred years it’s been a commonplace that book dealers would regale their literary friends with their stories.  And such accounts are all worth reading, if not only to confirm that not all book dealers can tell a compelling story.  In Clarence’s account, the highest standard is reached and when you have your copy you’ll reread it many times.

 

To order a copy:

 

Copies are available at $25.00 + shipping and can be ordered from G.S. MacManus, 12 Water Street Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania 19010.  Their telephone number is (610) 520-7273.

 

Their website: 

https://www.macmanus-rarebooks.com/