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The ABAA at Fifty: Notes Toward a History of the Antiquarian Booksellers' Association of America

by Edwin V. Glaser

On May 29, 1999, the Antiquarian Booksellers Association of America marked its 50th anniversary, an occasion to reflect back with pride and look forward with cautious optimism. The antiquarian book trade is currently in the midst of great changes: the development of modern technology, particularly the computer, has brought about changes in the way books are acquired and changes in the way books are sold. With all of us aware of the revolutionary impact the age of computing has brought to our profession, and with none of us quite certain how the  scenario will play out, it will be instructive and perhaps helpful to present a brief history of our Association. Thus, these notes toward a history of the ABAA, are offered.

The concept of booksellers---historically a very independently-minded breed---banding together for their mutual benefit received an impetus in the aftermath of World War II. A renewed sense of the desirability of international cooperation in all areas---political, commercial,social---was in the air. In 1947, at the instigation of the distinguished Dutch bookseller, Menno Hertzberger, representatives of five countries met in Amsterdam to consider the possibility of forming an international body that would link various national associations to the benefit of all concerned.

As Barbara Muir reported in her Formation of the International League of Antiquarian Booksellers (ILAB/LILA), published on the occasion of the XXXIII ILAB Congress in Los Angeles in 1996, Hertzberger "had canvassed those European countries which already had trade associations---the British, the French-speaking countries and the Scandinavians---inviting them to send delegates to a preliminary conference in Holland where the formation of an internationalo rganization would be on the agenda." Representatives from Britain,France, Sweden, Denmark, and Holland attended this first preliminary session. Muir, whose husband Percy was then president of the ABA,(the British Antiquarian Booksellers Association), and who chaired the Amsterdam meeting, goes on to say: "It concluded in an atmosphere of good will and optimism.. Some useful business had been done sorting out some trade problems with imports and exports that were an inevitable aftermath of the war. Friendly contacts had been established. Most important it had been agreed that everyone would meet the following year in Copenhagen, when it was hoped that the other countries would participate."

At the Copenhagen meeting in September of 1948, the League was formally founded. It was quickly recognized in the United States that national and international cooperation among booksellers was an idea whose time had come and that an American association was vital for the interests of professional booksellers.

A number of American dealers had initiated exploratory discussions, and informal talks were begun among some of the leading figures of the time in the trade, including Richard Wormser, Robert J. Barry, Sr., of C. A.Stonehill in New Haven, Jack N. Bartfield, Louis Cohen of Argosy, Marston Drake of James F. Drake Inc., Emily Driscoll, Stanley Gilman of Aeronautica, George T. Goodspeed, Howard S. Mott, David Randall and Charles Retz of Scribner's, Lawrence I. Verry of Barnes & Noble,and Mabel Zahn of  Sessler's.

A meeting was called for February 24, 1949 at the Grolier Club in NewYork to discuss the advisability of forming a national organization for antiquarian booksellers. Some fifty dealers were in attendance, with Drake acting as informal chairman.

The Antiquarian Bookman (now AB Bookman's Weekly), reported in its issue of March 5, 1949, "A great step forward towards the establishment of a genuine national association of antiquarian booksellers was taken on Thursday evening Feb. 24 at the Grolier Club. Some fifty booksellers, representing all parts and specialties of the antiquarian book field, responded to a call of twelve booksellers who had laid the preparatory ground in full realization of the difficulties that lay ahead."

"It was recognized that there were a great many differences, a long backlog of personal disputes and dissensions and an enormous field of individual views and prejudices. It was also recognized that all the above were some of the very reasons why a national association of antiquarian booksellers had to be formed: not merely to reconcile the differences but also to advance book-buying, to promote book-collecting, so that all would benefit from such increased activity in the book field."

It was reported that David Kirschenbaum of the Carnegie Book Shop was the first to speak and asked for the aims of the organization. "In a spirited discussion led by Messrs.Verry, Gomme, Schatzki and Drake," AB reported, "it was agreed that the first major purpose would be to further book buying and collecting. Each dealer was now trying to do by himself what an organization could do far more effectively. The necessity of ethical standards was raised but it was generally agreed that this was a subsidiary purpose which would be a natural evolution of the organization."

Sol Malkin, editor and founder of AB, was present as an observer,received permission to speak and pointed out some of the many things which an organization could do effectively, such as credit information both of fellow dealers and collectors; free publicity from newspapers on organization press releases; and the use of an insignia to mark member dealers.

Charles P. Everitt, considered the dean of antiquarian bookmen present at that meeting, declared that it had always been a great mystery to him why dealers did not get together long ago to form such an organization. Howard Mott took the floor and pointed out that it is often overlooked that the ethics of the book trade are very high,higher than most other fields, and called for positive action in antiquarian book promotion.

At the conclusion of the discussion, a vote was called on the advisability of a national organization for antiquarian booksellers and the vote was unanimously in favor. A temporary committee to draw up a tentative set of by-laws was elected by ballot. The committee consisted of Herman Cohen of the Chiswick Book Shop, Laurence Gomme of Brentano's, David A. Randall of Scribner's, Herbert Reichner, Walter Schatzki, and Richard Wormser. Nathan Ladden of Maurice Inman, Inc. was elected chairman for the next meeting, which was to be held in March at the Parke-Bernet Galleries (now, of course, Sotheby's). Thus, with the groundwork for the organization laid, the first general meeting of the fledgling group took place on March 31, 1949. The 81 dealers present unanimously elected the interim officers to continue in their posts until the first annual meeting, which was scheduled for February of 1950. The temporary committee also had put together a tentative constitution for the meeting to consider. The first article of the proposed constitution had to do with the selection of a name. Those that had been most often suggested: National Antiquarian Booksellers' Association, Antiquarian Booksellers Association of America, American Antiquarian Booksellers Guild of America, (and) Official Antiquarian Booksellers of America." On the motion of George Goodspeed of Goodspeed's Bookshop in Boston, the name Antiquarian Booksellers Association of America was adopted.

In a proposed list of the purposes of the new organization, the statement "To further friendly relations and co-operative spirit among members" was listed as number 5. Marston Drake moved that this statement should become Purpose No. 1. "If nothing else is accomplished by this meeting tonight, this point is the one most important to the trade." His motion was carried. Other suggested purposes of the organization at this time included establishment of a trade magazine,an information service for credit responsibility, and the formation of a code of business ethics.

It is instructive to note that many of the same issues that continue to concern officers and boards even today--eligibility for membership, definition of an "antiquarian bookseller", amount of dues, ethical standards, election procedures,etc.--- were the subject of contentious argument at this formative meeting. Spirited discussion took place on the question of eligibility for membership. Ideas ranged from Irving Lew's contention that "all bona-fide dealers be eligible", to the concept that acceptance should be contingent upon agreement of at least ten of twelve members on a proposed governing board. Lew David Feldman,of the House of El Dieff, proposed that a majority of the officers and governing committee be required to deny membership to any applicant.This was moved, seconded, and carried.

The next question arose as to the definition of an "antiquarian bookseller", and debate centered on such issues as the necessity of having sales-tax registrations, and the ineligibility of persons engaging in the trade as a "side-line". Herman Cohen brought what was described as "appreciative laughter" when he asked, "Who wants to define side-line".

On the matter of dues, Walter Goldwater of the University Place Book Shop proposed that a scale of dues similar to that of the American Booksellers Association be followed. In that system, member firms' dues are based upon their annual gross sales. This caused George Goodspeed to remark that "perhaps two or three booksellers could pay dues on such a scale honestly." Walter Schatzki called for sufficiently high dues so that "a good salary" could be paid to an executive secretary. The agreed upon amount was $10.00 a year, with an extra $ 5.00 for each associate member (then called "additional members.")

Laurence Gomme, who was head of the Rare Book and Binding Department at Brentano's (then a significant player on the antiquarian book scene),and who had recently celebrated his 50th year in the book trade, was unanimously elected as the interim president of the fledgling organizational group. Others elected at this session were Nat Ladden as vice-president, Dick Wormser as secretary, and Bernard G. Otto as treasurer.

Twenty-four names were then nominated from the floor for the Governing Committee (later to become the Board of Governors), and the following were elected in secret ballot: Mary Benjamin, Herman Cohen, Marston E.Drake, Emily Driscoll, Laurence Gomme, George Goodspeed, Nathan Ladden, Aaron Mendoza, Bernard Otto, David A. Randall, Walter Schatzki, Richard S . Wormser, Mabel Zahn.

A flurry of activity to form regional chapters began almost at once.Middle Atlantic, Northern California and Southern California chapters were up and running before year's end, with formational work underway in Chicago and Boston. It was evident from the response of booksellers nationwide that such an Association was an idea whose time had come.

With the exception of the paid executive secretary, and the professional book fair managers, all of the ABAA's activities, programs and operations have been managed by its own volunteer members. From the national presidents to the boards of governors and various chapter officers and committees, members have given generously of their time and effort. As any of the hundreds of members who have participated in various ABAA activities on both the national and local level will attest, it is no trivial matter to spend countless hours on Association affairs while also trying to run one's own book business. The many activities of the Association not only benefit members but also provide an outreach to the larger community. Book fairs, membership directories, publications, the Benevolent Fund, cooperative bookshops and cooperative catalogues, scholarships to attend the Antiquarian Book Trade Seminar sponsored by AB Bookman's Weekly, the establishment of an ABAA presence on the Internet, and numerous chapter and local activities such as lectures and public programs, are all programs that have helped the ABAA and its members live up to the published "Object of the Association....to encourage interest in rare books and manuscripts and to maintain the highest standards in the antiquarian booktrade."

Book fairs are such a major element in the activities and functions of the present-day ABAA, it still comes as a suprise to be reminded that the first American antiquarian book fair did not take place until April of 1960. Encouraged by the success of the first British fair the previous year, the Middle Atlantic chapter sponsored a fair at Steinway Concert Hall on New York's West 57th Street. With 22 dealers occupying 20 booths, the fair opened with a 5 p.m. preview on April 4, and ran for five more days with hours of 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Admission was free.As Madeleine Stern reminisces in Old Books, Rare Friends, (Doubleday,1997), "Before the fair opened, a few minutes before 5 p.m., Leona(Rostenberg) wondered out loud what we had all wondered silently: would our fair attract any visitors at all? Then, before I had realized it,she had ducked outside to see whether anyone had come. When she returned, her face reflected radiance and disbelief. 'They're standing in line to get in! There are crowds outside!' Despite rain and storm, the jams of people on opening night filled us with incredulity and exuberance."

While the book fair has become an institution in the 39 years since that first one, another notable ABAA activity that began in 1963 closed its doors in 1987. The Antiquarian Booksellers Center in Rockeller Center was a cooperative bookshop run under the sponsorship of the Middle Atlantic Chapter, in which members rented a shelf or two and displayed some of their books and catalogues. Under the aegis of the late Edith Wells, the Center was, in effect, the ABAA's window on the world and introduced the Asssociation and its members to thousands of visitors over the years. However, rising rent and the ABAA's ever-strained monetary position ultimately forced its demise.

For many members, the ABAA truly came of age in the 1980s when a prominent former member was expelled because of his alleged failure to abide by the Association's Code of  Ethics. He then reapplied, threatening a costly lawsuit if he was not admitted, but the Board denied his application for re-admission With its limited financial resources, and its legal status as a trade association under various Federal anti-trust laws, the ABAA heretofore had been reluctant to expel members in the face of threatened legal actions. In what was a landmark case for the Association, the Board of Governers defended its position in court against a member who had threatened to break the Association financially if he was expelled. The Association not only prevailed in court, but was awarded expenses as well. The decision to pursue the case and its ultimate outcome gave new meaning and strength to the Association's determination to uphold ethical business practices.

The current and two immediate past presidents serve as the trustees of the Antiquarian Booksellers Benevolent Fund. Over the years many thousands of dollars in grants for temporary assistance have been given to booksellers who have been the victims of illness, accident, natural disasters and the like. The Fund, built on the generous donations of members, is available to both ABAA members and non-affiliated booksellers. Although the Fund needs publicity in order to attract donations, all of its grants are kept strictly confidential so that its good works are generally unrecognized by the membership as a whole.

The concept of the Fund grew out of the funeral of a prominent and much-admired New York bookseller and superscout, Charles Grand, who died in 1951 at the age of 49. Grand's funeral was attended by many booksellers, among them Howard S. Mott, Walter Schatzki, Richard S.Wormser, and Harry Newman, who, on the way to the services, concocted the plan of a Charlie Grand Memorial Fund, a project designed to help booksellers in need. This subsequently metamorphosed into theAntiquarian Booksellers Benevolent Fund.

Publication of the national Membership Directory, as well as publication of the regional chapter directories, provides an essential reference for librarians and collectors seeking to be in touch with the country's leading booksellers. The Directories are widely distributed to libraries, at book fairs, and by individual members from their own premises. Through the cross-indices of geographical location and dealer specialties, many customers have found the dealer and/or dealers most suited for the interests and location.

The Professional Rare Bookman, a lively journal that sought a circulation throughout the entire book community, was inaugurated in 1982 and lasted until 1985 under the editorships of John Jenkins and James Lowe, but proved too costly and too ambitious for a volunteer staff and ultimately metamorphosed into the ABAA Newsletter, which has thrived under the leadership of Rob Rulon-Miller.

Numerous activities were initiated and operated on the Chapter level. The Rare Book Tapes were a project of the Middle Atlantic Chapter and provided an oral anthology of various antiquarian book topics by members who are considered pre-eminent in their fields. The chapter also issued a series of 14 highly successful cooperative catalogues in the early years of the Association, and undoubtedly helped put the ABAA's name before the public, but again, the work involved proved far too much to justify their continuation. The final catalogue was issued in 1972.

Over the years various Presidents and Boards of Governors have continued to explore for the benefit of the membership such issues as customs and the the facilitation of the flow of books over national borders, business and health insurance, constantly refining membership requirements, and the mediation of disputes between members. We have played host to three international  ILAB Congresses: in San Francisco in 1967, in New York in 1980, and in Los Angeles in 1996. ABAA members prominently figure in efforts to inform and educate the public about the world of antiquarian books, and are often called upon to lecture to the public. Within the past few years a speakers bureau has been set up to coordinate these efforts. ABAA members designed and participated in a course on Rare Books at the New School in New York in 1977, Bernard Rosenthal taught an extension course on antiquarian books at the University of California in the 1980s, and ABAA members have been prominent participants in both the Antiquarian Book Trade Seminar at Denver University and Colorado College and at Terry Belanger's Rare Books Course, first at Columbia and now at the University of Virginia.ABAA member Allan Stypeck reaches tens of thousands of listeners on the radio program, The Book Guys, on National Pubic Radio.

It is not surprising that in a group of nearly 500 rugged individualists there would be occasional upheavals and scandals. An event that created considerable anguish and in many ways tested the structure of the ABAA was the John Jenkins affair. John Jenkins was one of the most prominent and most visible dealers in the 1970s and 1980s.A master of publicity and the grand gesture, John caught the fancy of the public with his highly-publicized purchase of the Eberstadt stock and its removal from New Jersey to Texas in a caravan of semi-trailer trucks accompanied by an escort of Texas Rangers. John was a man of many parts: world-class book dealer, world class poker player, an ABAA president, author of several books, and probably the most aggressive security committee chairman the organization ever had, playing a keyrole in the recovery of an Audubon folio which had been stolen from Union College. He also had the knack of coming up with a remarkable number of exceedingly scarce documents. If it seems too good to be true, perhaps it is too good to be true. Allegations of fraud and forgery began to surface, followed by two mysterious fires at his well-insured premises That the allegations involved such a prominent figure in the ABAA brought with it the possibility of guilt by association, tarnishing the image of the organization and the trade.The ethics committee was put in the difficult position of being under pressure to sift through evidence, fact, rumor, heated innuendo, and allegation, before any indictments were presented in the legal system,and before Jenkins had his day in court. Ultimately John was either murdered or committed suicide depending upon whether you believe the sheriff or the coroner on the case.

In my presidential talk at the 38th annual meeting in 1987, I remarked:"I'm sometimes asked (and I'm sure we all are asked sometimes), 'why should I join the ABAA? What can it do for me? Why have an organization anyhow in this most individualistic of businesses?' "The first time I was asked that question I was so flabbergasted I was at a loss to respond. It has always seemed so obvious to me that if you've chosen to dedicate your professional life to a particular field of endeavor, you would naturally want to join together with your peers for mutual examination of the issues facing all of us, to exchange ideas and information, to create cooperatively such things as book fairs and directories, and to provide a respected entity that will assure others in our universe, such as collectors and librarians, that membership is a hallmark of quality and reliability. And lastly, but just as importantly, to provide a vehicle for socializing and good fellowship with our peers."

As we examine the history of the ABAA, it seems evident that just such thoughts were in the minds of the founders 50 years ago. Despite the many and profound changes in the technology of bookselling---more to the point because of those changes---an ABAA and what it stands for is just as vital to a healthy antiquarian book trade today as it was in those formative years. With all the changes, with all the technological advances, two elements are the same as they were in 1949. A book is a book is a book, whether bought and sold in printed catalogues, at a book fair, or on the internet. And a dealer is still rewarded for his or her expertise, experience, and reputation for fair dealing, for which the ABAA logo stands as a hallmark.

(For assistance in the preparation of this article, I am grateful to Liane Wade, ABAA Executive Secretary; David Margolis, ABAA archivist;Jacob L. Chernofsky, editor and publisher of AB Bookman's Weekly; and long-time members Barney Rosenthal, Leona Rostenberg and Madeleine Stern).

(Edwin V. Glaser has been a member of the ABAA since 1970 and was president from 1986 to 1988.)
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