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"There will never be another antiquarian bookseller like Peter Howard" - A Wake For The Still Alive: Peter B. Howard

Part 1


“his generosity is boundless...”


By Dan Adams

A Los Angeles rare book dealer named Roy Bleiweiss first acquainted me with the notion of owning first editions. This was back in the mid-seventies when I was working at the venerable Westwood Bookstore, an institution established 1936. I had always been an avid reader long before meeting Roy, though never a collector. This changed in the course of several visits to his well appointed shop on Westwood Boulevard. After acquiring a small lot of Paul Bowles’ titles, the quest for firsts became my preoccupation.

Though Roy had inspired me, it was Peter Howard who grounded me in this peculiar vocation. For this to happen, I had the good fortune of working with a gentleman named Robert Sheldon. After a stint working for North Point Press and Capra Press, Robert took over the job of managing the Westwood Bookstore. One day he presented me with a small stack of rare book catalogues. Chief among these was an unprepossessing plain white booklet from the Berkeley firm of Serendipity Books. The cover indicated the contents dealt exclusively with writers of the 1960s. Having come to my maturity during this era, I was drawn to the author’s represented. Some like Pynchon, Kesey, Wolfe, hold their own today, while a great many others hardly rate a footnote. What appealed to me most was that I could afford to purchase many of these books on my meager salary.

The Hemingways, Fitzgeralds, and Faulkners, were already escalating in prices beyond my means. My workplace, though confined in scope to retail sales was, in the best tradition of eccentric operations, inclined not to ever return stock, assuming it was meant to sell and would eventually. Soon I was pouring over the inventory adding first edition copies of “Another Roadside Attraction” and “Killer Angels” to my budding collection. Assisted by the information provided in Mr. Howard’s ephemeral little booklet, I was beginning to forge a direction to pursue my passion.

It wasn’t long before I determined to pay Serendipity Books a visit. In those days the store was located on Shattuck Avenue in Berkeley. In the company of my wife, I paid the first of many visits to Mr. Howard’s shop and, in short order, became familiar with the controlled chaos which is the hallmark of this remarkable destination.

My first impression of Mr. Howard was that of a keenly focused, and earnest individual who, when engaged by someone in matters pertaining to books would speak directly to the issue, often imparting some insight or acerbic observation. He could also be dismissive if so inclined. Before introducing myself, I took ample time to study this tall, self assured person who was clearly the nexus of authority in the establishment. This tentative approach has served me best in all my dealings with Peter over the ensuing years.

Apart from a friendly “Hi” upon arrival, I constrain myself from barging into a discussion with a man who always seemed preoccupied with some weighty matter at hand; I bide my time for that perfect opportunity to invite myself into his world. That golden moment might often involve the subject of baseball, and certainly when it concerned his beloved San Francisco Giants. On occasion, I would remind Peter that I was a die-hard Atlanta Braves fan, and each time I would be left with the impression that he could only just grudgingly forgive me that folly.

There were moments of discovery and even adventure over the years. Once, while still at his Shattuck location, Peter took me to a warren of rooms serving as an annex around the corner from his shop. Another time, after the store moved down to University Avenue, I was shuttled to a warehouse on San Pablo containing a horde of boxes sequestered from the light of day, bringing to mind the final scene in “Indiana Jones.”

Many have commented on the complexities of Peter’s codes for distinguishing the provenance of the vast accumulation of stock. Despite the fact that he has encouraged me to study it, I remain ignorant to this day of its arcane structure. However, I marvel at the quiet workmanlike way he will ponder repricing a stack of books at check-out time. There was the penciled price, and then there would be Peter’s special price.

Once he suggested I take a look at some new arrivals. This resulted in my obtaining a lovely copy in dust jacket of Thorne Smith’s “Topper.” I sensed at the time he wished for me to have it, and had I not bought it then and there, he’d have frowned on my lack of proper judgement. Another time, early in my bookselling career, I mentioned to Peter how a certain book dealer, known throughout the trade for being reluctant to pay his bills, had been deadbeating me for many months. My chances of ever being paid seemed bleak. A little more than a week passed, and the remittance arrived in my mailbox. Bad professional character was something Peter would not abide. His generosity is boundless and seeks no recompense. However, a contribution to the ABAA’s benevolent fund was always deemed appropriate.

When I think of Serendipity it is not just Peter Howard I think of with fondness, it’s also of dear Nancy the most genial of book people, who has never failed to greet me or my wife Edda upon arrival with anything less than genuine warmth and enthusiasm. To be sure, everyone associated with this landmark operation has reflected the highest level of Collegiality. Many times Edda would pop her head through the door to ask me “How much longer do you need?” To which, I would reply- “Oh, maybe another hour or two.” Then she’d be off to shop, assured I was in good company in her absence. In perfect truth, there was never enough time in Peter’s House to find that elusive item you knew was there, but had not yet found.

“’my rhyme. my reason...'"


By John Baxter

Driving into Berkeley with my wife in 1986, I had no expectation of meeting anyone like Peter Howard. Though my experience of book-dealers was limited, most had been diffident, reticent individuals, given neither to flamboyance nor open-handedness. My horizons were about to be widened.

In those days, Serendipity Books was situated in cramped quarters on Shattuck. In fact, by ill-chance, we had arrived on the very day the business was transferring to the former wine warehouse on University which it occupies to this day. Workmen hauled crates through the front door, supervised by a man in a sweat-soaked t-shirt whom I took to be their foreman, until he turned his attention to us and asked what kind of books interested us.

I picked up a volume lying on a disordered tabletop. It was the first edition of Raymond Chandler’s The Little Sister, in that memorable Boris Artzybashef dust-wrapper; the one with the curtain delicately supported by an ice pick.

“Like this,” I said.

“No problem,” said Howard, brushing aside the question of price. “But look around.” He waved towards narrow, book-choked corridors receding into the shadows. “Maybe you’ll find something else.”

We did as we were told, occasionally stumbling over items that had spilled from the shelves. I picked up one, a thick sheaf of photocopies in a card portfolio. It was Dashiell Hammett’s FBI file. Clearly I’d come to the right place. Over the next hour I scooped up a first of William Gaddis’s doorstop novel The Recognitions, a copy of I, Libertine by Frederick R. Ewing, alias science fiction writer Theodore Sturgeon, and, for my wife, a photographer, Naked City by Arthur Felig, aka Weegee the Famous. None were priced, nor had they been arranged in any order, except that which existed in the head of the proprietor. As Peter snapped at a visitor who complained that his stock lacked rhyme or reason, “My rhyme, my reason!”

At the front door, cartons continued to flow out. Glancing at our finds, Peter said “Why don’t you go have lunch? The place across the road is good. Tell them I sent you. Try the crisp skin chicken.”  The chicken was, indeed, superior, but when we tried to pay, the waitress waved aside our money. “It’s on Peter.”

None of this is by way of showing Peter Howard as amiable and avuncular. Rather it speaks to the contradictions in his character. Only later, for instance, did I discover that, following a car accident, he had lost all sense of taste. His appreciation of the crisp-skin chicken was, like that of any other food, entirely intellectual.

Nor did his casual attitude to pricing indicate an indifference to profit. Rather, he saw what the market would bear in any given situation, and set the rate accordingly. On my last visit, he asked “Do you have Peter Jackson’s email address?”

“I can probably lay my hands on it.”

“I’ll pay you $1250 for it.”

“Why?”

Silently he led me to the back room where locked safes held his treasures. From one, he extracted a yellowing typescript in card covers. The Beast by Edgar Wallace - the embryo of what became King Kong, the remake of which Jackson was about to direct. If he paid $1250 for the address, what did he ask for the typescript. Two zeros more, at least.

On my first visit in 1986, he waved aside payment for the books we’d chosen. “I’ll invoice you,” he said. “Pay me when you get back home.”

Partly this trust was due to the computer being down until he could re-connect it in the new premises, but he was also delighted to find that my wife had photographed the wedding of our mutual friend Martin Stone. It put us on a slightly higher plane; not friends, but something more than clients. Peter immediately commissioned a full set of large-size prints. When Martin next visited Serendipity, he was taken aback to see them displayed at every corner of the shop.

The marriage barely outlasted that trip. And I never paid for the books. Instead, in the maelstrom of divorce, I boxed up some of my first editions and consigned them, ill-addressed, to Peter, not so much in payment as in abject expression of my inability to deal with anything so quotidian as a debt. Years later, back in San Francisco, I made a somewhat shame-faced return visit to Serendipity. Peter greeted me with, if not affability, then a gruff cordiality. “Got something for you,” he said, and handed me an envelope. It contained an invoice itemising how much the books fetched, and a cheque for the balance after deducting what I owed. Of the delay and the unconventional method of payment, nothing was said.

"there will never be another bookseller like Peter Howard..."


By Taylor Bowie

I can't even remember a time when I didn't know Peter, when I was either having fun with him, being pissed off at him, exchanging strong words, doing business, talking about books and writers - or sometimes a combination of all of those. One funny snapshot I keep in my mind about Peter dates back to the mid-1980s, at the first Vancouver Book Fair. Our booths were next to each other, and Peter was in rare form the whole time. I noticed an older woman enter his booth and pick a book off the shelf, which she started to leaf through while holding onto a shopping bag with one hand.

When Peter saw this from his chair across the room, I heard him bellow "BOTH HANDS!" And when the woman paid no attention he started repeating "BOTH HANDS! BOTH HANDS! BOTH HANDS!" until she realized that Peter was addressing her! She was so flustered I'm surprised she didn't drop the book on the floor as she hastily left the booth. But my favorite memory and my favorite day with Peter is one  I can pinpoint to an exact date: Sunday, October 20, 1991. I was finishing up a happy little trip to the Bay Area and had made arrangements to arrive at Serendipity in the late morning, some eight hours before my flight back to Seattle.

When I arrived around eleven in the morning, Peter was there and I was actually pleased that he and I were alone. Everybody knows the public persona of Peter, and how he is when he's in front of a large audience or when he's being distracted by ten things at once. But this Sunday, he was quite relaxed, and as I scouted the shop in my usual unorganized fashion, we chatted about anything and everything under the sun, from books to food to politics and real estate.

Around one, we took a little break to go outside for a breath of fresh air. And that's when I saw, up in the hills, a small fire burning very brightly. We both remarked that it should be put out shortly, and went back inside for more work and scouting. But I was left with an uneasy feeling and around three I went outside and immediately summoned Peter. The fire had quintupled in size, as this was the beginning of the tragic Oakland Hills Firestorm, which killed some twenty-five people and destroyed millions of dollars worth of property.

Now, my original plan had been to take a cab to the airport but Peter insisted that given the spreading fire it would be difficult (he was right). So we piled my suitcase and ourselves into Peter's van and headed for SFO. By this time, ashes were raining down in Berkeley and for a moment I imagined what it might have been like to be In Pompeii in 79 AD! Peter was at his best as we navigated the side streets and stayed off the freeways, which were already becoming jammed. He got me to the airport in plenty of time, stuck around to make sure my flight would be taking off, and away he went. An hour or so later, the plane did depart and we flew through a huge cloud of ashes - and only then did it really hit me that this was a huge disaster.

I treasure the memory of that day, not only for Peter's kindness but also for the rare chance to spend time with him on a totally one-on-one basis. After that day and in years since, we had a couple of quarrels but our bond remained secure. I am very glad to be able to call Peter Howard a friend of longstanding, as well as a veritable force of nature in the book trade. The most obvious cliché is to say that "There will never be another bookseller like Peter Howard," but it's true. Thank you, PBH!

Booktryst thanks Dan Adams, John Baxter, Taylor Bowie, John Crichton, Mary Giliam, Ed Glaser, Eric Korn, John Martin, David Mason, James Pepper, Ken Sanders, Charles Seluzicki, Ralph Sipper, Martin Stone, Michael R. Thompson, Jeff Towns, and Vic Zoschak for their contributions.

A special thank you to James Pepper and John Crichton for their assistance with getting this project off the ground. Very special thanks to James Pepper and Ralph Sipper for their ongoing encouragement and support.

Part 1 of A Wake For The Still Alive was posted on Booktryst, in August 2010, and is presented by permission of Stephen J. Gertz. 

Dan Adams is the proprietor of Waverly Books in Santa Monica, CA. John Baxter is a film critic,  novelist, and author of A Pound of Paper: Confessions of a Book Addict. Taylor Bowie is a rare bookseller and bon vivant Seattle, WA.

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