Last weekend, I watched CBC’s Documentary Special #125 "The Booksellers": a behind-the-scenes look at the New York rare book trade. For me, it was like having an ice cream cone that lasted for an hour and a half. I knew of many of these booksellers and have been in some of the shops featured. And about half way through one of the interviewees held up a book in his hand, as a way of introducing one of, if not the greatest bookseller of all time, Dr. A. S. W. Rosenbach. I went "Hey!" I have that book. So let me tell you about the dealer known in the trade as "The Doctor".
Let’s start with Wikipedia (by the way, I find Wikipedia so essential, that I gladly donate annually during their fund drive):
“Abraham Simon Wolf Rosenbach (1876 – 1952) was an American collector, scholar, and seller of rare books and manuscripts. In London, where he frequently attended the auctions at Sotheby's, he was known as "The Terror of the Auction Room". In Paris, he was called "Le Napoléon des Livres". Many others referred to him as "Dr. R.", a "Robber Baron" and "the Greatest Bookdealer in the World". He bought and sold numerous items throughout his life, including eight Gutenberg Bibles, more than 30 Shakespeare's First Folio, a copy of the Bay Psalm Book and the manuscripts of Ulysses and Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. The life- time total of his purchases is estimated to be worth more than $75,000,000 in 2019.
Rosenbach worked with Henry E. Huntington to help assemble the collections of the Huntington Library in San Marino, California. He did the same for Henry Clay Folger at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C. Other famous clients included J. P. Morgan, Lessing Rosenwald, and Harry Elkins Widener (today Harvard Widener Library).
In 1924, Rosenbach acquired James Joyce's Ulysses manuscript for $1,975. Joyce asked to buy it back but Rosenbach refused. In a letter to Harriet Shaw Weaver on May 24, 1924, referring to a telegram that misspelled the title as "Ullyses", Joyce wrote of Rosenbach in a limerick, saying:
"Rosy Brook he bought a book,
Though he didn't know how to spell it. Such is the lure of literature,
To the lad who can buy and sell it."
— James Joyce
End of Wikipedia.
The book featured in the video I watched was Rosenbach by Edwin Wolf 2nd and John F. Fleming; World Publishing, Cleveland, 1960. The authors had both worked for Rosenbach and they went on to be very successful book people as well. From the blurb, of that book – "Abraham Simon Wolf Rosenbach had plump pink cheeks, a twinkle in his eye, walked – as a friend once said – as a penguin would walk if a penguin could walk like Rosy, puffed everlastingly on a pipe or cigar, drank a bottle of whiskey a day, and was the greatest antiquarian bookseller the world has seen."
As I have mentioned in previous musings, when I finish reading a book I make a notation in pencil on the flyleaf. I wrote simply "read 1978, excellent" I have become more verbose since then. It was an eyeopener for me, back in my early book collecting days, and I savoured every one of the 616 pages.
Rosenbach wrote two books and I have a copy of A Book Hunter’s Holiday: Adventures with Books and Manuscripts, Houghton Mifflin, New York, 1936. And do you know what I wrote in that book? Nothing! Can you believe it. I read it though. The attached photo is a picture of the author in his shop. This book was a presentation copy.
Here is a sampling of chapter titles:
- Letters That We Ought to Burn (a delightful chapter on rare and indiscrete love letters)
- Extra! Extra! (the story of the broadside which led directly to our modern tabloid)
- Earliest Christmas Books (he was a collector of children’s books) and
- Mighty Women Book Collectors (he was way ahead of his time and good for him!)
In some teeny, weeny way, Rosenbach had some influence on what I really wanted to do when
I grew up. Hmmm – 1978 to 2017 – 39 years of incubation.