Rare Book Monthly

Articles - September - 2007 Issue

The Passing of the Second Bookend: Madeleine Stern Dies at 95

Stern

Madeleine Stern (left) with longtime partner Leona Rostenberg.


By Michael Stillman

The other half of New York's most famous "bookends" passed away two weeks ago, bringing a close to an era and a story never to be repeated. Longtime bookseller Madeleine Stern, partner in Manhattan's Rostenberg and Stern Rare Books, died on Saturday, August 18, 2007 at the age of 95. Her partner, Leona Rostenberg, died in 2005 at 96. We don't know whether there is a connection between antiquarian books and long life, but we certainly hope so.

This bookselling story began in the 1930s, when Rostenberg and Stern were fellow students and friends at Columbia University. In 1939, Ms. Rostenberg, her studies never quite completed, took a job as an assistant to bookseller Herbert Reichner, an Austrian who had fled a Europe on the cusp of war. He was apparently a great educator, but hard taskmaster as well. In 1944, Ms. Rostenberg, aided by a loan from Ms. Stern, set out on her own. A year later, "Mady" Stern would join her in the business, beginning the partnership that would endure for another sixty years.

They spent the following decades selling books while tracking down antiquarian works for their stock on European and American trips. Neither ever became a major collector, but their love for the books that passed through their hands was evident. Perhaps it was the search, the sleuthing for books they loved most. They became known as the "Holmes and Watson" of bookselling. However, the detective work was not limited to finding hard copies of books. They also delved into research, and may well be best remembered for uncovering the unknown works of Louisa May Alcott. Alcott is known for her Little Women and more literary novels, but she also pseudonymously published sensationalist fare to help pay the bills. It was Rostenberg and Stern who discovered and revealed to the world the other half of Alcott's writings.

It's interesting to note that the partners were in business even before AB Bookman's Weekly, the major facilitator of dealer-to-dealer sales for half a century, began publishing in the late 1940s, and were still going strong when the internet forced that publication out of business. They prospered through the closing years of bookselling's first 500 years, to become participants in the dawn of what is undoubtedly the most dramatic change the trade has ever experienced, the internet era. Of course, these two pioneers were nearing age 90 by this time, so they mostly stuck to the old ways of doing business as the third millennium began.

Here are two more things for which Ms. Stern will be remembered. She and Ms. Rostenberg were both writers, and they collaborated on many books, both about their own careers, and the tracking down of Alcott's hidden treasures. In a PBS interview a few years back, Ms. Stern noted that booksellers become "ghosts" when they pass on, as little is written by or about them, "unless he wrote books." Ms. Stern will never be a "ghost." Secondly, they were pioneering feminists. Perhaps they were not the sort of feminists who demonstrate in the streets, but the type who simply go out and do what women were not supposed to do.

Rare Book Monthly

  • <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Abraham Lincoln, <i>Emancipation Proclamation by the President of the United States,</i> pamphlet, 1862. $10,000 to $15,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Family papers of the distinguished Ruby-Jackson family, Portland, Maine, 1853-1961. $3,000 to $4,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Family papers of the Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens & the persons who served him, 1866-1907. $25,000 to $35,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Autograph book with inscriptions by orators Moses Roper & Peter Williams, 1821-54. $10,000 to $15,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Archive of letters, postcards, and greeting cards sent by Romare Bearden, 1949-87. $5,000 to $7,500.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b><br>E. Simms Campbell, <i>A Night-Club Map of Harlem,</i> in inaugural issue of Manhattan, 1933. $10,000 to $15,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Papers of the comedian Nipsey Russell, including a letter from MLK, 1929-2000. $6,000 to $9,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Early German-American anti-slavery broadside, <i>Sclaven-Handel,</i> Philadelphia, 1794. $12,000 to $18,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Edmonia Lewis, prominent sculptor, carte-de-visite by Henry Rocher, c. 1866-71. $3,000 to $4,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b><br><i>The Black Panther: Black Community News Service,</i> 44 issues, San Francisco, 1967-1971. $3,000 to $4,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Ernest Withers, <i>I Am A Man, Sanitation Workers Strike,</i> silver print, 1968. $5,000 to $7,500.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> <i>March For Freedom Now!,</i> poster for the 1960 Republican Convention. $4,000 to $6,000.

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