Rare Book Monthly

Articles - June - 2010 Issue

Serendipity: Outpost of Civilization

P-howard

Peter Howard (Courtesy of the Bancroft Library)


By Bruce McKinney

Twelve hundred and one University Avenue in Berkeley is both outpost and Mecca for those who love books. This is the store, shop and warehouse of Peter Howard who, after graduating from Haverford College in 1960, completed a masters and most of the requirements for a Ph.D. at U.C. Berkeley in 1962. In 1963 he launched Serendipity Books with high hopes, and a balance sheet filled with ambition.

In 1967 he opened a store on Shattuck at No. 1790 and in time broke through walls and leased five locations nearby before buying his present 5,500 sq. ft. site on University Avenue in 1986. For the past 25 years he has immersed himself in an ever deeper and more complex inventory of what is thought to be something like a million items divided 60/40 between shop and a warehouse long ago made necessary by Peter's continuing purchases. Beyond all this, he carries a steady flow of de-accessioned material from his alma mater. The card catalogue of this inventory sits neatly between his ears, his intelligence and memory the glue that hold this complex enterprise together.

He has for some time though, been seriously unwell; the news doubly difficult because his wife Alison is also fighting cancer. The shop is up for sale, the sure sign a generational shift is underway. Mr. Howard would not relinquish control unless required.

For the past two months two firms specializing in the purchase of large inventories, Powell's and All About Books, have considered purchasing the complete stock but nothing has so far materialized. In either case, the shop would close and the inventory be shipped to Washington or New Jersey. What will not fit into the crates and boxes, nor otherwise be transported, is the spirit of the place; the karma, zip and pizzazz that have made Serendipity an institution of the first order for those who love books and have learned to tolerate the sometimes caustic byplay of a sparring owner whose temperament could range from morning glow to afternoon showers all within the time it takes to eat a ham sandwich.

In this respect, Mr. Howard is in spirit, if not by DNA, the linear descendant of Charles Goodspeed, the Boston book selling codger of the first rank who suffered mortals, if anything, less willingly. They both presided over important cultural way stations. As rare as the rarest books, such places resonated a deeply felt appreciation for the printed word that is ever more out-of-step with iBooks, eBooks and the Google searches that serve peanut butter to people who have never tasted fillet mignon. Some few shops become institutions, a title rarely bestowed and less often earned. On Mr. Howard's head the crown sits lightly.

The open question now becomes what is next. The inventory, whether it is 600,000 or one million books of which 20,996 were recently available online, is offered for $2,250,000, the 5,500 sq. ft. ivy clad building for $1,250,000. One dealer, John Durham of Bolerium Books of San Francisco, is interested to rent the shop, but not to purchase the entire stock and much prefers that Peter repent his exit and live on to squire another generation. He explained, "I like the space, I love the guy." Just this past week Peter made an increasingly infrequent trip to the shop and announced, "no more deathbed discounts." He had a week off from chemo, was feeling revived and encouraged by his doctor.

Rare Book Monthly

  • <center><b>Sotheby’s<br>Collection of a Connoisseur:<br>History in Manuscript, Part 2<br>27 April 2021</b>
    <b>Sotheby’s, through Apr. 27:</b><br>Ronald Reagan. Series of 37 letters to Senator George Murphy, and related material, 1968-90. £50,000 to £70,000.
    <b>Sotheby’s, through Apr. 27:</b><br>Chaim Weizmann. Autograph letter signed, to General Sir Gilbert Clayton, 6 September 1918. £20,000 to £30,000.
    <b>Sotheby’s, through Apr. 27:</b><br>Sir Winston Churchill. Autograph letter signed, to Pamela, Lady Lytton, 1942. £20,000 to $30,000.
    <center><b>Sotheby’s<br>Collection of a Connoisseur:<br>History in Manuscript, Part 2<br>27 April 2021</b>
    <b>Sotheby’s, through Apr. 27:</b><br>Oscar Wilde. Five autograph letters signed, to Alsager Vian, 1887. £15,000 to £20,000.
    <b>Sotheby’s, through Apr. 27:</b><br>Napoleon I. Letter signed to Admiral Ganteaume, ordering the invasion of England, 22 August 1805. £10,000 to £15,000.
    <b>Sotheby’s, through Apr. 27:</b><br>Horatio, Viscount Nelson, and Emma Hamilton. Two autograph letter signed, to Catherine and George Matcham, 1805. £6,000 to £8,000.
  • <b>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 15:</b> Frances Palmer, <i>Battle of Buena Vista,</i> chromolithograph, New York, 1847. $4,000 to $6,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 15:</b> Antonio Colmenero de Ledesma, the earliest publication concerned solely with chocolate, first edition, Madrid, 1631. $10,000 to $15,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 15:</b> Romans Bernard, <i>An Exact View of the Late Battle at Charlestown, June 17th, 1775,</i> engraving, 1776. $40,000 to $60,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 15:</b> <i>A Short Narrative of the Horrid Massacre in Boston,</i> English edition, London, 1770. $12,000 to $18,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 15:</b> William Soule, <i>Lodge of the Plains Indians,</i> albumen print, 1872. $1,500 to $2,500.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 15:</b> Manuscript document to enforce New York’s “Agreement of Non-Importation” during the heyday of the Sons of Liberty, New York, 1769. $10,000 to $15,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 15:</b> Clarence Mackenzie, <i>Drummer Boy of the 13th Regiment of Brooklyn,</i> salt print with applied color, 1861. $3,000 to $4,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 15:</b> Moses Lopez, <i>A Lunar Calendar,</i> first Jewish calendar published in America, Newport, RI, 1806. $3,000 to $4,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries Apr 15:</b><br>The Book of Mormon, first edition, Palmyra, 1830. $30,000 to $40,000.
  • <b>Old World Auctions (April 28):</b><br>Lot 54. Fanciful engraving of earth's interior with magma core and errupting volcanoes (1682). $1500 to $1800.
    <b>Old World Auctions (April 28):</b><br>Lot 165. Rare state of Jefferys' influential map of New England in contemporary color (1755). $8000 to $9500.
    <b>Old World Auctions (April 28):</b><br>Lot 177. Mouzon's foundation map of the Carolinas (1775). $10000 to $13000.
    <b>Old World Auctions (April 28):</b><br>Lot 183. Very rare first state of De Fer's map of the Lower Mississippi Valley (1715). $20000 to $25000.
    <b>Old World Auctions (April 28):</b><br>Lot 253. Scarce Scottish edition based on Ellicott's plan of Washington, D.C. (1796). $2400 to $3000.
    <b>Old World Auctions (April 28):</b><br>Lot 313. Stunning view of Philadelphia by John Bachmann (1850). $3250 to $4250.
    <b>Old World Auctions (April 28):</b><br>Lot 338. Rare Civil War map based on Bucholtz map of Virginia (1862). $9500 to $12000.
    <b>Old World Auctions (April 28):</b><br>Lot 667. First map to accurately show Luzon in Philippines (1590). $6000 to $7500.
    <b>Old World Auctions (April 28):</b><br>Lot 682. Rare map of Shanghai International Settlement published just after WWI (1918). $7000 to $9000.
    <b>Old World Auctions (April 28):</b><br>Lot 738. Coronelli's superb map of the Pacific showing the Island of California (1697) Est. $2400 - $3000
    <b>Old World Auctions (April 28):</b><br>Lot 743. A cornerstone piece in the mapping of Australia and New Zealand (1726) Est. $6000 - $7500
    <b>Old World Auctions (April 28):</b><br>Lot 781. An uncommon signature during Jefferson's Governorship of Virginia (1779) Est. $9500 - $11000

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