A Letter from America XXVII: The Memoirs of Charles Everitt (August/Sept.)

From the Rare Book Review

Bookseller’s memoirs are a variegated and somewhat suspect form of literature. It is hard to find the right balance between anecdote and the nitty-gritty of prices, between tales out of school and platitudes. It helps, of course, if the autobiographer outlived most of his contemporaries, and so felt less constrained in what he has to say about them. Perhaps the safest course is to write the book and seal it up until everybody mentioned is gone- but this would take much of the fun out of process.

I recently dug out and re-read one of my favorite bookselling memoirs, The Adventures of a Treasure Hunter: A Rare Bookman in Search of American History, by Charles P. Everitt, published, at least partially, by Little, Brown in 1951. As the reader will quickly discover, it is doubtful that Charlie Everitt gave a damn what anybody thought about what he had to say about them, but Little, Brown did, and asked Everitt’s long-time friend and colleague, Michael Walsh of Goodspeed’s, to edit the text of potential libels. Mike told me that this cut the length of the book in half. It also delayed publication long enough that Everitt died while it was still in press, thus effectively sidestepping displeased comment. I have long wondered what ever became of the original manuscript; I would certainly be willing to pay handsomely if it were ever to turn up. Given what made it through the censor’s cut, one can only imagine what was blue-lined.

Charlie Everitt came to antiquarian bookselling the old-fashioned way, a farmer’s boy who fled rural boredom, happened to get a job as a delivery boy ("it made no difference to me whether it was a grocery store or a bookstore"), and assembled his knowledge by osmosis and experience. His autobiography spans a golden era of Americana, from the 1890s to the 1940s, an era when the primary sources of supply for the early history of the United States were still attics and small local dealers in second-hand books. Much of the narrative consists of this kind of book tale; adventures out in the boondocks acquiring the material, hauling it home to Manhattan ("anyone who lives in Manhattan naturally dreads like the plague having to go to Brooklyn"), and selling it at a magnificent markup to parties who were either grateful or who have no choice because the piece is so key to their collections. Everitt was frank about the arbitrary nature of his pricing and how he felt about some customers ("He made the inexcusable mistake of letting his eyes light up at the sight. He didn’t like me, and I didn’t like him, so instead of asking two dollars I said, "Max, that will cost you three hundred and fifty.").

Reading much of the Adventures, one would suppose that Everitt must have died rich, but, in his words, "Every dealer who does not die broke (say one in five hundred) makes occasional big killings. Like me in these pages, he remembers and tells about the jackpots. Averaged over a business lifetime, the killings melt down to a living wage." In fact his business career was a checkered one. He opened his own storefront in 1898, but had a hard time making ends meet, and for most of his life worked for firms run by people with better business sense then he, most notable the Cadmus Book Shop and Dauber & Pine, two landmarks of New York bookselling. His habit of telling people exactly what he thought of them, gleefully recounted in the Adventures, no doubt made his fiscal life more difficult, but clearly gave him measures of satisfaction denied more diplomatic souls.

But I shouldn’t give the impression that the Adventures is all bluster and prices. There are many thumbnail portraits of the great book figures of the era in the United States, ranging from the dealer George D. Smith (who Everitt, like many smaller dealers in the trade, idolized) to the collector Owen D. Young (who got his copy of Murders in the Rue Morgue from Everitt). Many, many others trot through the pages with a telling anecdote; the dealer Gabriel Wells trying to use Everitt to return some forgeries he had purchased because he was embarrassed to do it himself, the great Franklin collector William Mason demanding a book in original boards be rebound in full morocco, and ceasing to do business with Everitt when he would not, the collector and library benefactor Tracy McGregor buying whole catalogues for the institutions he supported. It’s a wonderful excursion through a different age of the book world. Get it and read it!

– William S. Reese