A Real Page-Turner : Maurice Neville Had a Passion for Books, and Impulsively Bought a $200,000 Collection. Eleven Years Later, His Gamble Has Paid Off.

Jean Vallely is a Los Angeles Times Magazine contributing editor.

THEY SURE DON'T HAVE mornings like this in Indiana, thought Maurie Nevilleas he maneuvered his light brown Mercedes sedan onto the 101 Freeway and headed south. He watched the hot rays of the yellow sun glint on the blue of the Pacific. As he pulled into the right-hand lane, Neville also thought about how he really should be back in his office in Santa Barbara selling real estate. Instead, on this glorious day, Maurie and his wife, Marcia, were driving to Los Angeles and the Heritage Book Shop, which had just acquired the 9,000-volume collection of the late Norman Unger.

Although real estate was Neville's bread and butter, books were his passion and had been since he was a small child. There were about 200 books that Neville wanted out of the Unger collection, including signed limited editions of "The Magic Mountain" by Thomas Mann,"Finnegans Wake" by James Joyce and "A Farewell to Arms" by Ernest Hemingway.

As Neville drove through Ventura, Camarillo and Thousand Oaks, he thought about Norman Unger. Now there was a man who had been truly able to indulge his passion. Unger's bread and butter was the rag trade, but he collected books obsessively for more than 30 years.In New York book-dealing circles, Unger was known for his generosity, good taste and persistence.

Long before anyone took Tennessee Williams seriously, Unger was a devotee. Included in the collection was a copy of "A Streetcar Named Desire" signed by the entire Broadway cast: Marlon Brando, Kim Hunter, Karl Malden; and an inscription from Williams himself: "To Norman Unger, my first collector."

Long before anyone had ever heard of Dylan Thomas, Norman Unger was not only at his poetry readings, but also waiting, book in hand, for an inscription. In the collection was a copy of "Twenty-five Poems," inscribed, "To Norman Unger, my only collector, Dylan Thomas."

Unger also befriended writers such as W. Somerset Maugham, who had written him a note telling him his shirt size, and Thomas Mann, who wrote him a letter thanking him for a pair of gloves, and Welsh author James Hanley ("Men in Darkness," "Boy"), to whom, during World War II, Unger sent "care" packages, including a typewriter. Hanley was so grateful that he dedicated a book to Unger.

As Neville exited the 101 in Los Angeles he thought about how eccentric Unger was. As the story goes, Unger hired a carpenter to build bookcases for his burgeoning collection. Unger claimed that the shelves weren't to his specifications, sued, and while he awaited the outcome of the litigation, he carefully wrapped all his books in tissue paper, put them in boxes and sealed them.

The litigation was eventually settled, but Unger never used the bookcases. He kept acquiring books, carefully wrapping them in tissue paper, putting them in boxes and sealing them. By the time he died, no one was quite sure what he had, except that they were in mint condition and numbered about 9,000. To get some sense of what the collection was worth, a few boxes were opened, and in addition to the above mentioned, the books ranged from 40 signed limited editions by William Faulkner to 40 copies of "The Wall" by John Hersey.

As Neville pulled up in front of the Heritage Book Shop and parked next to the huge van that had transported the 9,000 books from Unger's home in New York City, his pulse beat faster. Bookstore employees, like excited 5-year-olds gone amok on some Christmas morning, tore through the boxes, pulling out the books and ripping off paper. "Look," squealed one, "10 signed copies of 'From Here to Eternity.' " "Look," yelped another, "10 signed copies of 'The Naked and the Dead.' "

Neville tried to buy the books that he wanted, but Heritage was reluctant to sell. Its No. 1 collector was due in the next day, and they had already heard from a library that wanted to buy the whole lot.

"What price did you quote the library?" Neville heard himself ask.

"$200,000."

"You'd give a dealer's discount off that?" he heard this same voice inquire.

"Sure, 10%."

Neville started calculating: 9,000 books into $180,000--that's $20 a book. There were sure to be books that no one would pay two cents for, but Neville knew that the 40 signed Faulkner limited editions would go for close to $300 each, and he could probably get that for "From Here to Eternity," and there were the 200 books he wanted anyway.

Neville thought about how he was spending more and more time in the rare-book world, traveling to book fairs and auctions, studying catalogues, trading books with friends--dealing, really--albeit on a very moderate level, but dealing nonetheless. He thought about how bored he was selling real estate. And he thought about how he envied Norman Unger.

"$180,000," he heard the voice inside him say to his wife, who by this time was watching her husband as if he had just stepped off the moon.

"$180,000," he heard her reply. "Well, OK."

And in that moment, Maurie Neville did what so many of us dream of doing and never quite dare. He seized the moment. He took his savings and turned his passion into his business. In an instant, book lover became book dealer--and in the process became one of the top dealers in the field of modern literature.

That was 11 years ago.

MAURIE AND MARCIA NEVILLE and I are sitting in the back garden of Casa de Ramirez, the spectacular, landmark adobe built in 1825 that houses Maurice F. Neville Rare Books. Neville sips his lemonade and laughs quietly as he thinks back. A man who always appears to be in need of a nap, Neville, with great energy, set out to learn about the book business.

He had the books loaded back onto the van and transported to his house in Montecito. And there, in his living room, dining room and front hall, the books sat for nearly 12 months. "That year," recalls Marcia Neville, "we had Christmas in the side den. You have no idea how much room 9,000 books take up."

The first thing Neville had to do was find a shop. That took almost a year. "I bought this place to house the books, but then it looked like we weren't going to get it, so I bought another building. I was in escrow on the second piece of property when the owner of this place called and said he wanted to sell--that day."

And, as with the books, Neville took a huge leap of faith and bought both buildings. "They've probably been the best investments I've ever made. And I wouldn't have bought them except for the books. It's kind of like the cattle business in Texas," explains Neville, softly. (Neville always tells one story to illuminate another.) "You don't make money with the cattle, it's the land you buy to put the cattle on. That's kind of what the book business has been to me."

Well, yes and no.

Once he bought Casa de Ramirez and the books were unpacked, Neville needed a staff, the books catalogued, a mailing list, government forms, a course in book dealing, really--and he needed them all at once.

He was controversial from the beginning. Simply by virtue of the scope of the Unger collection, Neville--the new kid on the block--had to be taken seriously. Not only had these particular books not been offered before, but they were also all in mint condition. Neville set new prices and, thought many, inflated ones. "The Naked and the Dead," for example, had previously gone for $50; Neville sold for twice that. Faulkner's "As I Lay Dying" had previously gone for less than $200; Neville jacked it up to $350. "Some quarters reacted with jealousy, others were threatened, others wished me well," says Neville. He pauses. "But we have all prospered nicely."

Over the last 11 years Neville Books has grown into one of the most prestigious and successful rare-book shops in the country. And, although most of Neville's business is done by phone and catalogue, Casa de Ramirez is one of the great places in Southern California to spend the day.

"We pruned back a lot of our 19th-Century literature," explains Neville. "It's been a slow mover for us on the West Coast. We're sticking primarily to 20th-Century modern first editions. We have a major sub-genre in detective mystery fiction. We try to get as much Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett and Ian Fleming as we can get. And keep. And, of course, the Mt. Rushmore of modern American literature: Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Steinbeck. They are all hotly collected and much in demand. The hardest thing is keeping a supply of quality books on the shelf."

"A book like 'The Great Gatsby,' by Fitzgerald, or 'The Sun Also Rises,' by Hemingway," Neville continues, "we probably have 20 or 30 'want' lists filed by people who want the books. Not everyone would want it or be able to afford it, even at the price we might have to pay ourselves to acquire it. (Each book, in fine condition and dust jacket, would retail for around $5,000.) But almost always, you have two or three people in mind, and you do the best you can do to place it with who has been looking the longest and the hardest and who would appreciate it the most."

An appreciation and love of books set the tone of Neville Books. As a child growing up on a farm in Lafayette, Ind. (his father was a gentleman farmer who raised Yorkshire hogs for breeding), Neville collected everything from comic books to baseball cards to rock records.

And he always appreciated books. "What really got me excited about books initially," he recalls, "was inscribed books." His mother would go to Chicago on business (she judged livestock and was once on "What's My Line" as the "lady hog judge") and stop in at Kroch's & Brentano's and buy him an inscribed book of whatever author had been through town the week before. "Growing up on a farm in Indiana, I thought this was all terribly exciting," says Neville.

"When I was 17 or so, when 'Travels With Charley' came out," Neville continues, "I sent off a copy with a very naive note to Steinbeck, asking about Charley and asking him to inscribe the book. I got a letter back from his secretary saying that Mr. Steinbeck didn't do this sort of thing. A week later I got the book back, inscribed with a little note saying that Charley had died a year ago this month. I think my letter was naive enough and I sent a later printing of the book, which most collectors wouldn't have done. That set the hook.

"Later I learned that you could actually own a book inscribed by Hemingway, and letters and correspondence. I thought all these things would be in libraries and museums. I was astonished to find you could acquire these things, and later I discovered that you could get them in first edition, when the books first saw the light of day.

"Then I became fascinated with dust-wrapper art, which sometimes can be very boring, but sometimes, particularly in the 1920s, is fascinating. The artwork really captures the time and the period. Several of Fitzgerald's jackets were designed by John Held Jr., a famous cartoonist who captured the period of the Roaring '20s perfectly, so trying to get the book inscribed, in the dust jacket and in first edition, became desirable."

Neville sips his lemonade. "I would rather have a later printing with a great inscription than a first printing that says 'Best wishes, Scott Fitzgerald.' I'd rather have a fifth printing that maybe he spilled a drink on, that had a long, humorous inscription." Pause. "I actually do have a later printing of 'Tender Is the Night' with a long inscription to Zelda's psychiatrist, talking about Zelda's case and the travails of the last years and sort of apologizing for the book, which is typical Fitzgerald." He pauses. "The inscription is the next best thing to sort of touching the man."

Neville's personal pantheon of writers includes Hemingway (he has all of his books, inscribed, and more than 100 of his letters), Fitzgerald, Nathanael West, Chandler, Hammett, Thomas, Williams, Eugene O'Neill, Joseph Conrad. And about 13 years ago he started to collect Charles Bukowski (whose script, "Barfly," has been made into a movie that is now in release). "I enjoyed his work and I thought he was an important writer who perhaps wasn't being taken seriously. Bukowski lives in Southern California. The people he was corresponding with were living around here, most were impoverished fellow poets, and they were only too happy to sell the letters to anyone who would pay anything for them. I was in the right place at the right time. I'm sure if you were in Paris in the '20s, they might have been piling Hemingway letters on your doorstep."

He laughs. "One prominent New York dealer told me that Bukowski material would never be worth anything even if he blew himself up in the middle of Grand Central Station." Neville sold his collection to the Doheny Library at the University of Southern California for $25,000.

"You have to go with your instincts and support authors you like," says Neville. "Of course you can go broke very quickly if you only did that. You have to keep an ear to the ground, hear what the public wants, but you can speculate a bit with your stock."

WE ARE JOINED in the back garden of Casa de Ramirez by a businessman from Pennsylvania, an avid collector who specializes in Western Americana and a few select authors and whose collection numbers about 5,000 books--almost as many as Neville has in his shop. And although he checks in by telephone with the shop about once a week--just to see what's available--this is his first trip to Santa Barbara, and the Nevilles have invited him to lunch.

Book collectors are almost as interesting as the books themselves. Among the many who have made their way to the back garden of Casa de Ramirez are New York socialite Carter Burden, movie directors Paul Bartel ("Eating Raoul") and George P. Cosmatos ("Cobra," "Rambo: First Blood Part II"), author Irving Wallace and former Dodger Wes Parker.

And then there was the guy who became obsessed with putting together the best Joseph Conrad collection in private hands. He called Neville every month looking for Conrad material. After a dry spell, all this great Conrad stuff came up that he had to have. Soon he was buying everything, not just the good stuff, but Polish translations and movie posters for "Lord Jim." Pretty soon he was worried sick about paying his bills. It got to the point where he couldn't stand his library--a library that once brought him great pleasure--because it reminded him of all the money he owed. He took to spending all his time in his garden, trying to forget. He sold his entire Conrad collection and is now collecting gardening books.

And there is the kid who used to work for the Nevilles. In a period of about two years, he put together a terrific Paul Bowles collection. Once it was complete, he sold it to USC's Doheny Library and took the money to finance a round-the-world trip.

"So many young people come in," says Neville, "and want to collect Hemingway or Faulkner or Fitzgerald, and they're obviously of limited means. I point out to them that it will cost them $100,000 just to sit at the table. I recommend that they collect an older writer, who is a little out of fashion, or a contemporary writer they like and whose material is readily available and who, with a little bit of work, could turn up letters and correspondence."

The businessman/collector from Pennsylvania has listened enraptured as Neville tells his stories. It's clear that he wants to stay longer, but he has a plane to catch and, actually, so do the Nevilles. They spend some three months of every year traveling the world looking for books.

It is also clear that the businessman/collector from Pennsylvania envies Neville, just as Neville envied Norman Unger all those years ago. It's just that he hasn't figured out how to make it work--at least not yet. "But you see," says Neville of that moment 11 years ago, "if we had waited a day, it would have been gone."

And therein lies the lesson.

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