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      SCHOOL: Collecting Motivation

This is long and NOT required reading:


I was born during the Great Depression to a Swedish immigrant who was a cold forge operator at Henry Ford's River Rouge plant. Interesting days of union busting and meager rations. (To this day, I am, and shall remain, a union sympathizer and an FDR Democrat, which drives my well off Republican babyboomer offspring nuts!)

And also once upon a time (1953), I was just an avid reader in the U.S. Army, with a budgetary limit on the amount of money I could spend on books (a "salary" of $88 a month if I remember correctly - who could forget?). This translated to a limit on my per book expenditures of just 10 cents per book.

One Saturday afternoon, at a Girl Scout book sale just outside Tacoma, I was filling my hands with 10 cent paperbacks, when what should my wandering eyes behold, but a funny looking kind of book with limp suede covers. It was 50 cents, well over my budget. But it was fascinating. The pages were uneven (uncut). The inside of the covers appeared to be silk. The Title Page was rich in what appeared to be hand colored ornament, and the next page made claim to "nine hundred and forty-seven copies of this book were printed and illuminated by hand, this being book number 202." Under that were the signatures of Elbert Hubbard, followed by "Illvmined By" Lucy Edwards. What did it all mean? What did "illuminated" mean. For that matter, who was this guy William Morris in the very first chapter of this book entitled, Little Journeys to the homes of English Authors? Finally, I could not resist. I put the paperbacks back and spent my allowance on this single, strange book, and as Frost has said, "That made all the difference."

Pondering later on that little book, it suddenly occurred to me that I had just learned that a book could be more than just a very important vehicle for communicating ideas, stories, and history, but that it could also be beautiful, some say a work of art. This was the beginning, but not the end. I am not there yet. Today, I sometimes think I know less than I did then.

So where did it lead me? Discharged, and now with family, I went back to school at night at Wayne State University. There I found an interesting class entitled, "The History of the Book," and since I got English credits for taking it, I took it. This class introduced me to the whole history of incunabula, the history of early English and American printers, and almost as importantly, John Carter's ABCs for Book Collectors. The class was taught by one Mr. Charles Boeson, who also had a rare book shop across from the University. Soon, after completing his class, I could be found haunting that shop, looking, listening and learning everything I could about books. It is important for me to note here that by this time, I had learned never to mention Elbert Hubbard again, that he was some kind of crass and commercial imitation of William Morris and not to be confused with the real thing. True bibliophiles looked down their noses at the Roycrofters (or so I thought).

I am not sure that I spell Mr. Boeson's name correctly after all these years, but he took me under his wing. One day he invited me to attend the dinner meetings of the Book Club of Detroit. Meetings were held in a private dining room across from the Detroit Public Library. So off I went, in khakis, blue button down, string tie, and a very over used corduroy jacket, to my first meeting. The table was set with fine china and the wine flowed. I barely knew which utensil to use. The room was filled with about 25 distinguished and very rich looking gentlemen, and as I would find out later they were the captains of Detroit industry. I was stupefied, but carried on. It was the custom that at each monthly meeting a member would provide after dinner remarks in his specialty. One poor old sod, had more money than taste, would talk about bindings and seemed to care less that the books he bought had any content. Another that I enjoyed listening to, talked about his collection of western Americana and his recent acquisitions. Still another was Ben Donaldson who had been Henry Ford's public relations man in the early days. He used to delight us with stories of how he and Henry would scour the countryside and bargain with poor farmers for rare farm implements Ford wanted to place in his new museum, Greenfield Village.

But the most startling and gratifying BCD meeting I attended was when Norm Strouse ( a former J. Walter Thompson advertising executive, as I recall), a member of Grolier Club as well as the BCD, gave us his address, "The Lengthened Shadow," originally given to the Grolier Club and later published by Philip Duschnes (NY, 1960). I had no idea of what was coming, but I sat there engrossed as he talked about significant contributions to modern fine printing. He talked about Ashendene, William Morris, Cobden-Sanderson, John Henry Nash, Grabhorn and others. He talked about Daniel Berkeley Updike and the Merrymount Press. He talked about all the important presses. Then, suddenly, near the end of his address he spoke magic words - magic to me, at least.

"So if I have talked about a few of the presses and not the others, it is simply because some have captured my fancy, for one reason or another, and others have not - at least as yet. At one time I had a complete collection of Elbert Hubbard's Little Journeys, all in ooze-calf and all 'illuminated' - at least that is the word Fra Elbertus used - precisely limited in number of copies, and signed both by Elbert Hubbard and the illuminator." (My ears jerked to attention, what did he say?) He went on and on in this vein, finally concluding, "But if we become too critical of Hubbard, we may find ourselves guilty of intellectual snobbishness. (The hair was beginning to stand on the back of my neck at this point.) Even Dard Hunter, who spent the first years of his brilliant career at the Roycrofters...had this to say in the January 1948, issue of the New Colophon, 'It is difficult to evaluate the influence Elbert Hubbard's Roycroft Shop had upon this country. Hubbard certainly stimulated America's interest in printing and in books...Even if we do look upon the Roycroft publications as bizarre and lacking in craftsmanship, they had a place in the development of American printing and they should not be lightly dismissed as having served no useful purpose.' So if I take some small note of Elbert Hubbard in the closing paragraphs of this talk, we must not begrudge it to a man...who opened the minds of millions of something that certainly looked like better printing than had come to their attention before."

You can not begin to imagine what effect hearing all these words had on my impressionable young soul that night. I felt redeemed and justified. I beamed such a broad grin as he spoke that the more staid members of the BCD must have thought me mad. It was at that point in my book collecting career that I learned to trust my own instincts, that it was not necessary to rely on so called experts. I say that respectfully, because there is much to be learned from experts and non experts alike. The important thing that I am trying to emphasize is that it seems to me that "instinct" is a major part of book collecting "luck," and one should learn to trust that instinct. I feel that I am living proof that instinct can lead to a lifetime of learning and the enjoyment of even greater riches.

To this day, I find the discovery of that little book to be the most momentous thing that ever happened to me in my life. (With apologies to two wives and four beautiful grown children.) It shaped my entire destiny. It led me down paths I never dreamed existed. It led me to an education in literature and the fine arts.

I believe that I do not exaggerate. My little Roycroft treasure begat many things: Night school; "The History of the Book;" the Book Club of Detroit; buying type and printing our own Christmas cards; the purchase of incunabula for a dollar a page (in 1957); Norm Strouse; more Roycroft, the study of William Morris-Kelmscott-the Pre-Raphaelites-Whistler; buying from Swann Galleries when they were just starting and when prices were sometimes extraordinarily cheap; the purchase of my one Kelmscott, Child Christopher, for $25 (I know - I should have bought more, but I could not afford it); residencies in Brussels, Boston, London, and now Phoenix; travels in Europe; studying art in Brussels, a house in Church Row Hampstead next to the very house that Wilkie Collins wrote The Woman in White and a stone's throw from the Church cemetery wherein Constable is buried; Charing Cross Road and Cecil Court; so many bookstores; the Tate, the Dahlem, and so many other museums; a Masters degree from the American Graduate School of International Management and the study of French; and the purchase of antiques, mission furniture, art, and so many books (mostly Books about Books and the History of Golf) at bargain prices that I cannot begin to list them.

Today, I am retired on social security and a small pension dreaming still of owning my own bookshop. As I look up to the autographed photo of Elbert Hubbard (bought for 2 pounds sterling in an antique shop outside of Ely) hanging near that little Roycroft book, I can only wonder if it will happen. I have been filling tubs of books carefully purchased at estate sales and they now fill my garage. I am still buying required reference books. I have joined the ABA and will take their class for Prospective Booksellers in February. Later in the year, I will go to Colorado for AB Bookman's week of seminars. But still the means to acquire space and open a shop eludes me, but I still have faith that it is somehow predestined.

One little postscript. One day, twenty years after its purchase, I picked up that little Roycroft book to ponder its effect on my life, and noticed for the first time the possible significance of the previous owner's signature written on the inside of the free endpaper. "E. Newton." Could it be the signature of a young A. E. Newton? I believe he called himself "Eddie" in his youth. It boggles my mind still. I really do not want to know the answer to this question. It is much too much fun to fantasize that it might be.

Well, that's about it - for now. It is an unfinished story after all. (Who started this thread, anyhow? I apologize to all for telling you more than you wanted to know.)

Floyd Johnson
Still Just-A-Collector

(I reluctantly and somewhat self consciously claim copyright to this little story, because I tell it from time to time in talks to high school students and at book club meetings when asked, and I always bring my little Roycroft book along with the Kelmscott and some incunabula.)

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