Rare Book Monthly
Book Catalogue Reviews - July - 2009 Issue
A Michael Hurley Tribute from the Twelfth Street Booksellers
By Michael Stillman
Twelfth Street Booksellers, the Southern California specialist in gemology books, has published an unexpected catalogue. It is a combination 25th Anniversary and Tribute to Michael Hurley. As explained by proprietor Lillian Cole, it was the eccentric Los Angeles bibliophile Michael Hurley who gave her a start in the book trade. Not that she ever met Hurley, but then again, not that many people not already booksellers at the time did. He was rather reclusive, living alone with his books.
Hurley came to Los Angeles around 1930, a young man who had been a high school valedictorian back in Iowa. He found a job at the post office, rented a small home, and began a life of book collecting. It seems he did little else for the remainder of his life. He never married, never owned a home, never even bought a car. He bought books, ultimately 35,000 of them. He crammed his small home and garage with these volumes, piled high to the ceilings, leaving little room for anything else. His house must have looked like that of the legendary English collector Sir Thomas Phillipps, only smaller. If he had any purpose to his collecting, other than a love of books gone so wild it could well be described as "bibliomania," it is unknown. Hurley made no provisions for what would happen to his books after he died. He had no heirs. The collection fell to Los Angeles County to dispose of when he died in 1984 at the age of 77. What was determined to be the very best of his collection was turned over to Dawson's Book Shop, which published a catalogue. The remainder was put up for sale at several auctions, where they were sold primarily in mixed boxes. It was hardly the way to disperse a collection of this magnitude, but Hurley evidently was unconcerned about its fate once he was separated from it.
The passing of Hurley crossed with Ms. Cole's entrance into the book trade. She had recently become interested in becoming a bookseller, so she attended one of the Hurley auctions. It was probably the perfect starting point for a new bookseller without a specific field. If there was a particular focus to Hurley's collecting, it escapes me. He seems to have collected everything, more in the mode of the aforementioned Phillipps than any other collector who comes to mind. His auctions must have been a grab bag, but through them, Ms. Cole obtained the inventory necessary to start her business. In time, she moved to her current specialization, gemology books. Those from the Hurley collection not sold years ago went to the back of the bookshelves, almost as buried as they must have been in Hurley's house. Now, with her 25th anniversary in the trade, Ms. Cole has pulled some of them off the shelves, to create this latest catalogue which combines some of the Hurley titles, some purchased elsewhere, and some from her specialty in gemology. Here are a few samples from this catalogue.
Hurley owned his share of bibliographies, but here is an unusual one: The Annals of Murder. A Bibliography of Books and Pamphlets on American Murders from Colonial Times to 1900. This 1961 bibliography by Thomas McDade includes 1,126 entries, meaning it covers a small town's worth of people who disappeared from this life with a little assistance. A quick flip through TV programming today indicates this subject still fascinates us the way it did these earlier generations of readers. Item 27. Priced at $95.