Endpaper Literary Review

The man behind the books

A fine William Anthony-bound book.  

One of my favourite antiquarian bookshops is Entropy Books, owned and run by Frederic Shearer, a scholarly dealer and classy gentleman. I have bought many fine press books from him over the years and, more recently, I have had the pleasure of swapping books with him. I give him something nice from my collection and he allows me to pick a book from his inventory for that sum. We’ve had fun and, in Shearer’s words, “mutual satisfaction” in this.

Entropy Books is a class act, something you notice with every purchase or transaction you make: Shearer does not crimp when serving you, like so many stingy, penny-pinching, big-name, reputed antiquarian booksellers I know. I assumed this largesse must stem from a high-flying bookselling career or from having turned his personal collection of fine press books into stock, and was startled to learn from him that his life as a rare bookseller has not been easy at all; it has been hard-won with a continued edginess to it. He told his story:

“When I first got started — sometime in the late 1970s in Ann Arbor — I used to frequent a Borders Bookshop, then at its original and only location, that would put out tables of remainders. Across the street was a used bookshop I was fond of, and I noticed they displayed a copy of a recent fiction title as a first edition at $15. I had just seen a stack of the same book at Borders at $1.98. I asked the owner about this and he shrugged it off. I went back across the street and bought five at $1.98. This really got my interest.”

“In the meantime, I was buying inexpensive first editions and was on the lookout for unusual fine press books. In 1981, I was able to issue my first catalogue. Another early find was in Kalamazoo at the Bicentennial Bookshop where I found The Tower of Babel by Thomas Merton. This was published by New Directions and printed in Germany, with woodcuts by Gerhard Marcks, designed by Richard von Sichowsky and bound by Christian Zwang. This book was another eye-opener, and I bought it on my return trip for $200, easily my most expensive purchase then. Several years later when I was unemployed and pressed for cash, I had to sell it to a used books store with a stack of other nice books. I don’t think I got $100 for it.”

“The book store listed it for $2,000 and eventually sold it. I can’t find a copy on the market today. One more early book-buying/ selling experience comes to mind. At the Detroit Institute of Arts, I happened upon an exhibition of fine presses. One that made a great impression on me was Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett; only 40 copies signed by him, printed and illustrated by Dellas Hencke. I bought an unbound copy for $1,000. A few years later, the Iowa Center for the Book published its near companion, Company, this one bound by William Anthony and also for $1,000, and I felt compelled to get that also.”

“At this time, as I was falling deeper into debt, I happened to meet a legendary Ann Arbor dealer who was renowned for his unscrupulous dealings. Still, he was near my house and was willing to spend, and I was desperate. He came over, and I watched carefully as it was rumoured that he stole books. As soon as he saw the Beckett books, he agreed to buy them for my asking price of $2,000, and insisted on buying another book that I didn’t want to sell. He had the advantage, and I had a good cash infusion.”

“Years later, I saw those two books listed on the Net: He had bound them uniformly into three volumes (the third containing extra etchings and correspondence between me and the artist) in the most amateurish manner in what looked like purple padded leather. He had destroyed the exquisite William Anthony binding. He was asking around $9,000 for them. Another forced sale gone bad. From the first, I have never been a book collector. I could never afford to be.”

Shearer narrated many such stories to me, letting me see what a battle it had been to make his antiquarian bookshop a good, viable business; the struggle to sustain work you are passionate about and squeeze a living out of it. It was typical of this extraordinary bookman’s modesty to recount the stories of books that got away rather than his most successful deals. There were many of those too, of course, but they will have to keep for another column.

Pradeep Sebastian is a bibliophile, columnist and critic.

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Printable version | Jan 26, 2022 10:25:06 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/books/literary-review/The-man-behind-the-books/article14621830.ece

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