Rare Book Monthly

Articles - September - 2008 Issue

The Zobel Inventory Sold on Craig's List - A Perspective

Zobel5

The changing value of the printed word.


By Bruce McKinney

More than a year ago I heard from Miriam Zobel of the Zobel Book Service that she had some books to sell. I did not initially know that she lives in upstate New York in Clintondale, a comma between Poughkeepsie and Middletown to the southwest and Kingston to the north. I grew up in New Paltz, the nearby SUNY New York college town and knew something of the place. My first girlfriend Norma lived there and I, almost fifty years ago [I was twelve], used to race my bike against the school bus that carried her home. It was all of three miles. I did not however know of the Zobel Book Service which would move into town the next year, 1959. Their business would be the buying and selling of scholarly material to and from libraries up and down the East Coast. Clintondale was inexpensive, spacious and quiet. The Zobels, David and Miriam, had met in New York following WWII and run a book business on 3rd Avenue in the shadows of Columbia University.

Declining neighborhoods led them to join the exodus to the suburbs in the late '50s and the 8 acres, 1848 house and two outbuildings they found in Clintondale proved to be the perfect alternative to tenement life. In Clintondale they became a "catalogue" business issuing as many as two a month. Business was brisk and as the company name stated: a service. They moved material from where it was no longer needed to where it was next required. Periodically they'd pack their Chevy Bel Air to tour cities and college towns for a week or so. The jingle, inescapable on the radio, "See the USA in your Chevrolet' applied. It was a life.

As businesses sometimes do, this one masked another reality. David was a book collector and felt about selling books the way children feel about getting shots. They know its necessary but never get to like it. David didn't just acquire books, he adopted them and of course nobody sells their kids! So David enjoyed half of the book business: the buying part. For the other half he had a wife who paid the bills and while enjoying books, never lost sight of the end of the month when all bills needed to be paid. Every bookman should have such a wife; a realist to go with the romantic.

In 1990 David died. You know he had no choice because bookmen never willingly separate from their inventory. Miriam was 61. For the next ten years she continued the business with the help of her son. In that decade the book field began its transformation from a series of shops and catalogues to one increasingly dominated by electronic listings on the net. The changes were gradual but conclusive: what changed did not change back. Miriam [and her generation] lost a step while the next generation embraced change. Universities in particular were among the early adapters and the Zobel Book Service, a successful family business for 40 years, slowly but inexorably foundered.

By 2000 Miriam began to liquidate their enormous stock - at the time more than 200,000 books and pamphlets. By 2007, after visits and revisits, discussions by mail, telephone and the internet, offers and counter-offers, the inventory stubbornly remained at around 90,000 items. It was at that time our paths crossed.

Rare Book Monthly

  • <b>Swann Auction Galleries, July 30:</b> Adam Smith, <i>Wealth of Nations,</i> first edition, descended from William Alexander, London, 1776. $70,000 to $90,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries, July 30:</b> George Gershwin, photograph signed & inscribed with autograph musical quotation, <i>An American in Paris,</i> 1928. $8,000 to $12,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries, July 30:</b> Friedrich Engels, <i>The Condition of the Working Class in England,</i> first edition, NY, 1887. $5,000 to $7,500.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries, July 30:</b> <i>Bury St. Edmunds Witch Trials,</i> first edition, London, 1682. $2,000 to $3,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries, July 30:</b> Robert Rey, <i>Estampes,</i> complete portfolio of 12 wood engravings, Paris, 1950. $12,000 to $18,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries, July 30:</b> Archive of 47 letters by Enrico Caruso to a lady friend, 1906-20. $7,000 to $10,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries, July 30:</b> Books of Hours in Flemish, Netherlands, 15th century. $8,000 to $10,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries, July 30:</b> Jack Kerouac, <i>Doctor Sax,</i> deluxe limited edition, signed, NY, 1959. $4,000 to $6,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries, July 30:</b> Walt Disney, signature on title-page of Ward Greene’s <i>Lady and the Tramp,</i> first edition, first printing. $3,000 to $4,000.

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