Book pile holds hidden gems

A vast collection of more than 1,000 old books that once cluttered the Lanterman House could be a lot more interesting — and valuable — than anyone previously imagined.

A first-edition copy of Mark Twain’s “Adventures of Tom Sawyer” and a book autographed by former President Richard Nixon were only the beginning.

Boxes and boxes of books that had belonged to former state Assemblyman Frank Lanterman, his brother Lloyd Lanterman and their parents, Dr. Roy and Emily Lanterman, sat piled in the home’s basement or at an off-site storage locker for years after Lloyd bequeathed the house and its contents to City Hall upon his death in 1987.

At that time, the 1915 concrete bungalow needed so much repair and restoration work that the Lanterman Historical Foundation’s imperative was to simply catalogue the books, protect them from the elements and get them out of the way, said Executive Director Melissa Patton.

The books were recently moved to a secure, climate-controlled storage facility. Their existence popped up in public discussion last week when City Council members approved the storage facility expense, which for $100 per month includes storing additional papers from the vast Lanterman archive.

But were these books really worth saving, questioned Councilwoman Laura Olhasso.

For the most part, answered Patton, the collection was believed to contain antique, leather-bound books that appeared to serve a purpose more decorative than informative, and likely retained little interest for collectors today.

“That’s what you did in those days — show people you had a library and lined it with books. They belong to the city, and so it’s not our decision what to do with them,” Patton said.

That was enough to pique the interest of local rare book expert John Horrall, a former San Francisco newspaper editor who runs the online bookseller Bee Jay’s Treasures and Rare Books out of his La Cañada Flintridge home.

Horrall, 89, soon went to work reviewing a list of the titles in storage.

“At first glance, I thought it was just a bunch of stuff. There was a little bit of everything,” said Horrall, finding not only decorative volumes but treasured works of literature and non-fiction tomes on medicine, mathematics, government, gardening, card playing — even the oil business.

But, he said, “I certainly wouldn’t dismiss this as junk.”

Though unable to view the books directly, the opportunity to view detailed archivist’s notes about the condition of some of the books was enough for Horrall to spot a few probable gems.

Unfortunately, the first-edition Twain is missing a few pages, vastly scaling back the $4,800 a mint condition copy could fetch.

But it appears that an original two-volume set of explorer Henry Morton Stanley’s “In Darkest Africa” might be intact, and a collector could be willing to pay up to $1,800 for it.

There’s also a first-edition printing of a book by President Theodore Roosevelt, worth hundreds, or even thousands, if found in excellent shape, and possibly a very rare first edition copy of Edgar Lee Masters’ “Spoon River Anthology.”

Handfuls of other titles could fetch $20 to $200 from collectors, according to Horrall, who also found two books — “Six Crises” by Nixon and “A Coach’s Story” by John McKay — signed personally for Frank Lanterman, which Patton now plans to display at the house.

Horrall also stumbled upon another accidental find while touring the house — five leather-bound, color-illustrated volumes of a 1914 Audubon Society series signed by editor Nathanial Moore Banta. Only 250 of such specially signed sets were created and, unlike damaged copies that have sold for $150 each, these appear to be in perfect shape.

Despite their age, most of the volumes that remain in the house look, feel and even smell like new — hardly a sign of voracious readers.

“A lot of these look like they’ve never even been opened,” said Horrall.

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