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Boston Athenæum

· Boston Athenæum,Melvin Van Peebles,Independent Library,Book Collections,Fine Books

As I have said time and time again, one of the joys of being a bookseller is the discovery of something new. It is like being enrolled in a continuous education program. There is two parts to this week’s musing: a book I found 3 years ago, and put up on the internet, and the sale of the book two days ago. I should note that when a book is posted on the internet it is there until who wants it buys it. The posting does not get stale, it simply waits. Over the past few months, we have sold books that we posted just after we started the business five years ago.

In this case, I learned something new from the book I bought and from the purchaser of the book. Let’s start with the book we bought. Here are the pictures posted with the listing, followed by the listing commentary.

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The Big Heart by Melvin Van, Photography Ruth Bernhard; Fearon Publishers, San
Francisco, 1957.

At first glance, this charming book looks like a San Francisco tourist book. But it is a story about being a grip man on one of the famous San Francisco cable cars. It is almost a love story by the author Melvin Van. This book is the result of a fleeting convergence of two extremely talented people. First of all – the author described on the back flap as – “A college graduate at 20, Melvin Van flew for the United States Air Force for three and one half years, and now works as a San Francisco cable car grip man. 25 years of age. This is his first book.”. The author is Melvin Van Peebles, born 1932, who went on to have a very successful career in the entertainment world. According to Van Peebles, a cable car passenger suggested that he should become a filmmaker. He is most famous for creating (and starring in) the acclaimed film Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song, which heralded a new era of black-focused films. The book, that is a very quick read and very entertaining explains on page 21 on where the book got its title – “A cable car is a big heart with people for blood. The people pump on and off – if you think of it like that it is pretty simple.” The photographer, Ruth Bernhard (1905 – 2006), was most famous as a photographer of the female nude, starting in 1934. She had a long and celebrated life in her realm. Bernhard was inducted into the National Women's Caucus for Art in 1981. Bernhard was hailed by Ansel Adams as - "the greatest photographer of the nude". The book bears the ownership signature of Barbara Robertson, San Francisco, 1962. She was an author, journalist and photographer and retired as the curator of exhibits from the Nova Scotia Museum.

Now, let’s turn our attention to the purchaser of the book. It was an organization called Boston
Athenæum. It is a private lending library, a scarce breed today, for sure. In the nineteenth century, schooling became the order of the day, and the general population could read. But many still could not afford to buy books. This gave rise to private, fee-based libraries. You paid your dues and could check out books. It was competitive and many of the libraries had particular areas of focus. Finally, to great demand, cities and towns opened “free” libraries and that was the end of the game for fee-based libraries. Well, all but a few. What follows is information from Wikipedia and the Boston Athenæum’s website. If you are like me, at the end of this, you will go - Wow what a place! It’s on my bucket list.

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The Boston Athenæum is one of the oldest independent libraries in the United States. Patrons pay a yearly subscription fee ($460) to use Athenæum services. The institution was founded in 1807 by the Anthology Club of Boston, Massachusetts. It is located at 10 1/2 Beacon Street on Beacon Hill.

Resources of the Boston Athenaeum include a large circulating book collection; a public gallery; a rare books collection of over 100,000 volumes; an art collection of 100,000 paintings, sculptures, prints, drawings, photographs, and decorative arts; research collections including one of the world's most important collections of primary materials on the American Civil War; and a public forum offering lectures, readings, concerts, and other events. Special treasures include the largest portion of President George Washington's library from Mount Vernon; Houdon busts of Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and Lafayette once owned by Thomas Jefferson; a first edition copy of Audubon's The Birds of America; a 1799 set of Goya's Los caprichos; portraits by Gilbert Stuart, Chester Harding, and John Singer Sargent; and one of the most extensive collections of contemporary artists' books in the United States.

Today its collections comprise over half a million volumes, with particular strengths in Boston history, New England state and local history, biography, English and American literature, and the fine and decorative arts. The Athenæum supports a dynamic exhibition program and sponsors a lively variety of events such as lectures and concerts. It also serves as a stimulating center for discussions among scholars, bibliophiles, and a variety of community-interest groups.

The Boston Athenæum is also known for the many prominent writers, scholars, and politicians who have been members, including Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Louisa May Alcott, Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr., Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., John Quincy Adams, Margaret Fuller, Francis Parkman, Amy Lowell, John F. Kennedy, and Edward M. Kennedy.

I also googled the person who submitted the order. Anthea Reilly graduated from Harvard University and then joined Goodspeed’s Book Shop that was started in 1898 and in business until 1995. Goodspeed’s was one of the elite rare book shops in the world. George Goodspeed closed the shop when he was 93. (Oh Boy, I have lots and lots of years left!). Following her apprenticeship at

Goodspeed’s, Anthea joined Boston Athenæum.

I think our book has gone to a good place – and that matters to me.