Dan Munoz waits on tables in a West Hollywood restaurant, yet last year he plunked down $900 to become the proud owner of an 1888 directory of Los Angeles residents.
Dr. Irwin (Jack) Pincus of Beverly Hills, a retired gastroenterologist, owns more than 1,700 rare volumes, including strikingly illustrated and beautifully preserved medical treatises from the 16th Century or earlier. His collection, assembled over a quarter of a century, is considered one of the best of its kind.
And then there is the anonymous buyer who spent $400,000 in a matter of days to put together what his dealer calls “absolutely the finest collection of detective fiction in private hands.”
All three are part of a growing subculture of Southern California book collectors. Once thought of as a pastime for the clubby set--for the “kind of people who go fox-hunting,” as collector Priscilla Martin Tamkin put it--"bibliomania” has spread to schoolteachers, postal workers and students as well as corporate executives, physicians and movie moguls.
While it may be true that Southern California homes are more likely to have swimming pools than libraries, the pursuit of fine books has long been a tradition that defies stereotypes about the region’s lack of high culture. And it appears to be an avocation on the rise. Some experts, such as Kenneth Karmiole, owner of a rare bookstore in Santa Monica, say the Los Angeles area is second only to New York when it comes to book collecting. One Orange County rare bookseller said his business over the last year is up by 30%.
The lower end of the market has been stimulated by local antiquarian book fairs, where attendance has far outstripped similar events in other cities. The California International Antiquarian Book Fair set an attendance record of 9,700 last year in Los Angeles, a 50% increase over 1988 and a 29% increase over 1989, when the event was held in San Francisco. About 4,000 people turned out in April for a different, semiannual book fair in Glendale.
Today, the Southern California chapter of the Antiquarian Booksellers Assn. of America lists more than 50 book purveyors from San Diego to Solvang. As rents have soared, many have taken to operating out of their homes. Without walk-in business, they find it more profitable to handle only specialized categories--cookery, for example, or big-game hunting and exploring. Much of their business is conducted through the mail.
In an unusual setup in Ventura, more than two dozen dealers from all over the region rent space at one location--the Book Mall on Main Street--sharing window display space and allowing each to exhibit as many as 700 books.
At UCLA and USC, librarians have organized contests for student collectors, who are as likely to collect contemporary writers such as Stephen King in lower-priced editions as older works of proven literary value.
At the upper end of the market, wildly escalating auction bids for paintings have spurred a heightened interest in rare books among the region’s many big spenders, especially from the entertainment industry. As a result, prices for certain sought-after works are skyrocketing.
Said Jay Dillon, assistant director of rare books and manuscripts for Sotheby’s in New York, “If you were making a list of the 20 most important collectors today, a disproportionate number would be in Southern California.”
The motivations behind book collecting are nearly as diverse as the collectors themselves. Some do it for the thrill of the chase; others do it for the aesthetic pleasure they get from fine graphics, typography and bindings; still others may simply be smitten by a particular author or era. Or they may be looking for a hedge against inflation, to the dismay of many booksellers, who disdainfully say they are not in the investment business. Whatever the reason, few collectors go about it halfheartedly.
“I don’t know what it is about the lure of books,” said Myra Cohn Livingston, a poet who had to wait 20 years to find one particular children’s book she was seeking. “Wherever I go, I go to bookstores. Some people have it for furniture; I have it for books.”
For more than a century, bookcollecting has played an important role in the cultural development of this region. The great collections amassed by Henry Edwards Huntington, William Andrews Clark and Estelle Doheny represented “an effort to bring the world into Southern California, to seek out the symbols and artifacts of older civilizations so as to possess and re-express them locally,” California historian Kevin Starr writes in his latest book, “Material Dreams.”
By the 1920s, when the first local bibliophile organization, the Zamorano Club, was founded, book collecting had already achieved “a special intensity in Los Angeles as a ritual of cultural identity,” especially because of the “thinness” of other cultural institutions, according to Starr.
Two decades later, the region had established itself as a major international center of book collecting thanks to the development of several world-class libraries (including the Clark at UCLA and the Huntington in San Marino) and the influence of the late Jake Zeitlin, a major force in the area’s literary life and the mentor for many of his fellow booksellers.
Inspired by the venerable Grolier Club in New York, the Zamorano Club continues to be prestigious and important in the book-collecting world. Its bibliography, the Zamorano 80, is regarded as the authoritative guide to the most important books on California history. But the club, which historically restricted its membership to 80 men, underwent trauma last spring after two women nominees were denied admission and three prominent members resigned in protest. Bowing to pressure, the Zamorano board recently invited five women to join.
Another club for male collectors only--Los Compadres Con Libros--meets on 10 Saturday mornings a year at the Sherman Library and Gardens in Corona del Mar.
A decade ago The Book Collectors of Los Angeles was instituted as an inexpensive and non-exclusive alternative to Zamorano. Membership fluctuates between 80 and 150, according to its president, Joanne Bernstein. As a sign of its maturity, The Book Collectors recently published a list of 100 of “the best and most representative” books on California food and wine--culled from more than 4,000 works.
Although collectors and sellers often speak of “antiquarian” books--at least 100 years old--not all rare books are old; nor are old books considered rare. Price is dictated by demand and right now even certain living authors are hot; Mark Hime, who runs Biblioctopus out of his home in Idyllwild, priced a signed first edition of Stephen King’s “Cujo” (1981) at $1,250--$250 more than he asked for an unsigned first edition of George Eliot’s “Middlemarch” (1871), one of the masterpieces of English literature.
Condition, as well as scarcity, dictates the value of a book--ironically enough, because the more a book has been thumbed through, read or even studied, the more worn it is likely to be. Missing pages, notes in the margins (unless done by a famous hand), browning paper--almost always reduce the price. Since dust jackets in good condition are increasingly hard to locate, they tremendously enhance a book’s value. A first edition of Dashiell Hammett’s “The Maltese Falcon” that would go for $50 to $100 without the dust jacket would bring $15,000 with one, according to Franklin V. Spellman, owner of the Krown & Spellman shop in Santa Monica.
Hime and Heritage Book Shop in West Hollywood, an elegantly appointed store in a building that originally housed a mortuary, cater to the very top layer of the market, the people who can afford to spend $225,000 for a paper-wrapped pre-hardcover edition of Poe’s “Tales.”
The man who bought “Tales"--Hime will not reveal his name--paid a total of $400,000 for seven books, including an advance copy of Raymond Chandler’s first book, “The Big Sleep.” “In one fell swoop, he went from zero detective books to absolutely the finest collection of detective fiction in private hands,” the dealer said.
Hime believes that the very finest editions of the very rarest books--the ones with what he describes as “charisma"--are a great investment, still priced at a level that does not reflect their scarcity. Other dealers, however, say they try to discourage talk about investment value. “Collectors should buy what they really love,” said Apple Valley bookseller Gail Klemm.
Many of the richest collectors work in the entertainment industry and have remarkably similar “want lists” in American and English literature, according to Hime and Heritage’s Ben Weinstein. Charles Dickens, Lewis Carroll and Mark Twain are among the particular favorites. Heritage will build collections for its customers, delivering them in handmade slipcases produced at its on-site bindery. These collectors, Weinstein said, “are mostly business people who . . . don’t have time to visit bookstores, people whose time is very valuable . . . who don’t want booksellers calling them up.”
Less patient customers can of course buy right off the shelf. Heritage carries hundreds of sets of leather-bound reprints of famous works, many of them worth thousands of dollars. Still, buying books for “decorating” as opposed to collecting is frowned on. “Someone came in recently from Australia,” Weinstein said. “He bought enough sets to fill up his library. We’ll never hear from him again.”
It just takes money to build a collection of rare literary masterpieces, but wealth alone could not have put together Jack Pincus’ collection. Like many collectors, Pincus, 78, remembers the incident 25 years ago that got him hooked on collecting--in his case, it was a lecture he happened to attend on cookbooks. The lecturer, a bookseller, mentioned he had a copy of a 1543 treatise by Vesalius, a milestone in the development of anatomy and surgery with remarkably accurate drawings made from woodblocks. “This idea of looking things up in the original book seemed exciting. . . . I jumped in with both feet,” said Pincus, who teaches history of medicine at USC.
Today Pincus is “one of the greatest collectors (of medical history books) in the United States,” said Barbara Rootenberg, a Sherman Oaks dealer who specializes in that field. The shelves in his library are lined two and even three rows deep, yet he seems to know where everything is. Among his treasures are both books written by William Harvey, the English physician who discovered how blood is circulated, the first paper by Mendel, the founder of genetics, and first editions of everything Darwin wrote, including an inscribed author’s or “presentation” copy of “On the Origin of Species.” (An uninscribed first edition of Darwin’s pioneering book went for $25,000 at a recent auction, Rootenberg said.)
Collectors with more limited budgets come up with imaginative ways to feed their habit. Thomas V. Lange, a curator at the Huntington Library, has various collections of illustrated material, including the dummies door-to-door book salesmen used to carry and English prospectuses for forthcoming books. “I can become interested in a field in the twinkling of an eye,” said Lange, who earns $27,000 a year and spends $10,000 annually on books.
Book collecting requires some kind of system, said Muir Dawson, co-owner of Dawson’s Book Shop, one of Los Angeles’ oldest rare bookstores. Otherwise, it is merely book accumulation. After the death of postal worker Michael D. Hurley, Dawson’s began selling off the 35,000 volumes he had compulsively amassed.
“He lived in a small rented house in which the main furniture was bookcases,” according to the 1984 catalogue. “One room was abandoned when the piles neared the ceiling, and at some point a subsidence of books blocked the door from the inside, sealing the room off.”
Most sellers have stories about people with eccentric collections--from the woman who only collected books published in 1900 to the man who amassed 17,000 volumes on China but never went there and the customer named Bird who just sought books with his name in the title.
In a sense, all book collectors are eccentric, said The Book Collectors’ Bernstein, who started her buying with turn-of-the-century melodramas. “It takes a special kind of person to stick with it. . . . It’s not a field that’s all laid out for you.”
Like many collectors, Dan Munoz, the West Hollywood waiter, talks of how books serve as a kind of time capsule, transporting him back to his favorite period, the Victorian era.
Munoz, who never went to college, said he has spent about $20,000 on books on Los Angeles, Riverside, San Bernardino and Orange counties, buying most of them at Dawson’s, which is known for its Western Americana.
Why did he pay $900 for an old Los Angeles directory? “It’s strange,” he said, looking at the long columns of names. “You get to know these people.”
Munoz, 41, first became interested in old books while in his 20s. For the most part, however, book collecting is not regarded as a young person’s pursuit.
But there are exceptions--among them the student collectors who participate in competitions sponsored by USC and UCLA. Victoria Steele, who heads USC’s special collections, said it is impressive “to see the kind of creativity the students use.”
Last year’s USC graduate student first-prize winner collects turn-of-the-century children’s literature, but not all students have their eye on the past. At UCLA the winners included collectors of Stephen King and “cyberpunk,” a current science fiction genre for the computer age, said David S. Zeidberg, head of special collections.
For those people--even book lovers--who are not infected by bibliomania, the passion can often seem baffling. Pincus’ wife, Lena, a librarian and avid reader, tried book collecting at her husband’s urging but gave it up after she acquired all of Jane Austen’s six novels.
“I think it has to do with a genetic trait,” said Lena Pincus. “I’m not a collector.”