Christopher P. Stephens, Bookman

Chris Stephens has been a book dealer since 1965 - earlier if you count childhood buying and selling.

Stephens has sold major collections to university libraries all over the world. He has operated appealing bookstores in Mt. Carroll, Illinois, Hastings on Hudson, NY and several in NYC, NY. He is a wholesale dealer to other bookstores all over the world.

Chris loves books.

Stephens now maintains a lively internet operation out of his new home in Scranton, PA.

Monday, June 1, 2009

NM University System - Gotham Book Mart

     Mid 20th century brought rapid population expansion to the American southwest.  Suburban infrastructure was laid down over desert wilds.  In Arizona, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas roads and sewage lines and electricity were brought in.  Schools were built.
     In the 1970s massive bond issues were passed in these states for money to fill new university library shelves.  It was a good decade in the book market for dealers like Christopher Stephens.  Stephens enjoys building subject collections and he is good at it.  He had a solid relationship with university librarians.  They trusted his expertise and his vision.  He sold one collection after another.
     In 1974 one of the New Mexico librarians who had purchased many collections from Chris told him they'd like to buy a really good bookstore crammed full of great books.  Did he know of one that might be available?
     riverrun would have been perfect but it didn't exist yet.   Chris thought of Gotham Book Mart.   Andy Brown's interest was piqued but he wasn't sure.  Maybe.  Probably.
     Jim Dyke flew in from New Mexico. We took him out to eat at a fancy NY restaurant.  The restaurant gate keeper refused to recognize the regional formality of the western braided leather string tie with the turquoise slide that Jim wore.  They made him put on a broad, silk NY tie with stripes.  It was embarrassing.  For me.  Jim Dyke looked mildly amused at the pomposity of it.  He was completely at his ease.
     The dinner was delectable.   Chris talked up Gotham.  The next day Chris and Jim spent the day at the bookstore.  Jim walked slowly past every shelf.  He took photos of the books and spoke notes into a recording device.
     After Jim returned to New Mexico, Chris and I visited Andy to firm up plans.  We met upstairs in a conference room with shelves partway up the walls and very interesting pictures above the shelves.  There were four of us.  A man was with Andy, maybe a lawyer, maybe an employee.  We sat a a long table.  The doors were closed.  Chris Stephens and Andy Brown talked.  The guy with Andy and I listened to them.
      Andy had left strict instructions that he was not to be disturbed.  I found out later from Tim and Sandy Shortt, friends of ours and very dear school friends of Andy's, that they had visited Gotham at the very moment we were cloistered upstairs.   They'd asked to see Andy and were denied.  Their feelings were slightly hurt.  What could be so important that Andy couldn't break away to see old friends?
     Well, working out the emotionally charged details for selling a 50 year old literary treasure trove to a desert state 2000 miles away for lots of money.  That's what was so important.  We couldn't explain to Tim and Sandy because the deal was still in a fluid stage.
     There were a couple of other visits from New Mexico librarians, a few more superb dinners at arrogant NY restaurants.  Chris met with the principals a few more times.  I took one of the librarians to see the Cathedral of St John the Divine.  A deal was finally struck.
     It was basically this:  the university system of the state of New Mexico purchased all stock in the Gotham Book Mart with a single exception.  In the basement there were still many copies of certain titles that Frances Steloff had published.  NM wanted the first and best 6 copies of every state of every edition, but in the few cases where there were more than 6, those would stay in the basement.
     Andy wanted to continue running Gotham after the sale.  Chris and I agreed to get all the books packed and out in 3 days.  He was closed for less than a week.  He covered the front windows with brown paper.  A large sign said "Closed for Inventory"  which was cryptic and somewhat alarming to Gotham's devoted customers.
     We hired 3 shifts of temporary workers to pack and label around the clock.  Chris and I each worked 12 hours  thereby covering all 24.  We oversaw the temporary workers, packed and labeled.    One of the NM librarians stayed to be sure they got everything.  We arranged for 3 of those gigantic 18 or 24 wheel trucks and we packed up one each day.  We hadn't anticipated well.  On one of the days the St. Patrick's Day parade took over New York City and complicated the driving life of the trucker who was trying to drive that load out of the city and out onto our nation's highways.

     In the meantime, Andy had purchased scads of new books from publishers and wholesalers and remainder houses.  They arrived on skids.  As we emptied, Andy's staff filled.

     It was an exhausting but very exciting adventure.  On a personal note, we bought our own wonderful house amongst the trees with our commission.  Chris didn't have time to help look for the perfect house.  He commissioned me for that job.  I couldn't dawdle.  He was a bookman after all.  While I was shopping houses, Chris was busy spending away that commission pretty fast to buy up yet more marvelous collections of books.   

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