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.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Whatever Happened to all those Book Gems? - Gotham Book Mart

      Andy Brown sold all the contents of the Gotham Book Mart to the University of New Mexico in 1974.  What contents that was!  We spent three 24-hour days packing up signed first editions, beautiful books, literary classics, literary mavericks, experimental fiction, poetry of all sorts, previously banned books, and high-quality non-fiction.
     At the end of each day John, the librarian representing New Mexico in this mammoth transfer of books, performed the ritual of sealing the huge box-filled truck.  Then that truck drove away and the all-night crew began packing and piling up more boxes for the next day's truck.
     Some of the most priceless items were too physically slight to go into a box.  A thousand broadsides and countless pamphlets and other ephemera were carefully tucked into a wooden case for extra protection.  That case was the last thing packed onto the last truck.  It wasn't easy getting it on either because that last truck was packed tight.  We all watched.  It was the ending ceremony. 
     A short time later the NY Times quoted Jim Dyke, head librarian in NM, from a telephone interview.  Dr. Dyke said that he liked to think they had moved the Gotham Book Mart from the shores of the Hudson River to the shores of the Rio Grande.  I like rivers and I like books.  The quote particularly appealed to me.  But was it entirely true?   Did young scholars in New Mexico have access to those truckloads from NY?
     No.  Not all of them.  The wooden case was the first loss.  It didn't make it to New Mexico.  John's seal was more than broken.   That truck didn't even get there.  It broke down in Kansas City and the cargo  had to be completely unloaded and reloaded onto a new truck.  The stuff in the wooden case was irreplaceable.  Chris went slightly berserk.  He wanted New Mexico to sue the  trucking company.  The missing case accounted for about 10% of the total value.   Chris was sure that someone associated with the trucking company stole those treasures.  It didn't have to happen that way, but I know why Chris is so sure.  The idea of theft is so much more palatable than the idea of all that collectible ephemera being carelessly destroyed.  Even now, 35 years later, Chris fantasizes about those broadsides and pamphlets surfacing.

     The terms of the bond issue with which NM bought Gotham stipulated that the money must go for material, not accessioning costs.   This meant there wasn't money available to process the books.  Years later almost half the boxes were still unpacked.  That information whetted Chris interest.
     "Well Jim, if you aren't using them, why don't I buy them back from you?" Chris suggested.  I admired James Dyke.  He was intelligent and competent, self assured and upright.
     "No.  Can't do that," Jim explained.  "Those books are assets that belong to the people of New Mexico.    Legally and morally I'm prevented from selling those assets unless the people pass a referendum to condemn them."
     So the boxes remained as they were until Dyke retired.  His replacement was, no doubt, every bit as upright but he interpreted things differently.  He sold all those boxes to the respected and knowledgeable Peter Howard of Serendipity Bookstore in Berkeley, California. 

     So in the end the Frances Steloff/Andreas Brown Gotham Book Mart stock was scattered.  It didn't settle as a collection on any riverbank.

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