By Stephen Gertz
I saw Robinson Crusoe at the 2007 California Antiquarian Book Fair in San Francisco.
He was standing in one of the aisles around twenty-five yards away from my vantage point and looked like an aged, unkempt and unshaven derelict marooned far too long, surviving on a diet far too short on calories. He was wearing a sarong-like thing wrapped around his waist, sandals, a rumpled shirt and a knit cap with earflaps. It seemed as if he had just come off a three day binge on arrack, the liquor made from coconut sap. It was Peter Howard, proprietor of the legendary Serendipity Books in Berkeley, California, who appeared to be shipwrecked on Book Island.
In a business bursting with vivid personalities, Peter flies off the color wheel. His brilliant white light enters a prism and emerges in wild hues rarely seen in nature; Pantone is rumored to want him as the subject of a major chromatics R&D project. He’s a singleton, and not to every one’s taste; what is savory to some is sour to others.
That’s their problem – as Peter will be the first to declare.
For the uninitiated, some background on Serendipity Books, courtesy of a few online wags:
“This is one of the oddest cultural institutions in the U.S. It's like a psychotic, literary Xanadu where one wanders through the cluttered mind of a cranky, highly literate old man where it's perpetually 1978, wondering whether this is actually a bookstore or an epically vast warehouse/museum of books where everything is for sale...
"You are practically assaulted by the seemingly total lack of regard for the potential book buyer the minute you walk through the door. The misanthropic, wheat-from-the-chaff-separating feng shui of the main room says ‘Are you *sure* you want to come in here? Are you *really* sure? Well, then, brave book and/or poetry lover, enter and.................good luck!’ followed by crusty laughter, which echoes through the 38 rooms and hallways of this cryptic yet surprisingly undusty warehouse (and I mean warehouse) of books and printed stuff...
"There are books all the way up to the ceiling, so absurdly far up (like 27 feet or something) that they are almost guaranteed to never come down. In addition to the shelves, both fixed and (apparently) movable, there are piles of books. Everywhere. There are paper bags and paper bags and paper bags filled with books, on the floor and in the aisles, and there are cabinets filled with prints and folios and ephemera and beetles and god knows what else...”
“This is the single most amazing place I have ever been! When I dream about getting lost in a maze of forgotten books... this is what it looks like.”
“Do not utter the words ‘amazon dot com’ here. I'm also not sure what comes first with the Serendipity experience, the vertigo or hairline fractures from stumbles & falls.”
“I'm agnostic, but if there is a heaven, I imagine it's just like Serendipity Books.”
And on Peter:
“Imagine paper bags stuffed with unshelved books lining narrow walkways and the sounds of a cranky, querulous old man barking orders to his assistant.”
“This bookstore could rival all the antiquarian bookstores on the East Coast if the owner wasn't such an ass...If you go there do it for browsing only and avoid the owner at all costs.”
"I think the owner is perfectly curmudgeonly and almost intimidating, as any antiquarian book owner should be. However, when you buy an interesting book, he lights up with questions for you about why you selected it and what you think, and it turns out he is quite nice!"
Yes, indeed. The rind is tough but the pulp is sweet.
I am not a friend of Peter; I am, at best, an acquaintance drawn to him by reports of his countless acts of kindness and generosity to many over forty years that have filtered down to me. Our mutual friend, Brian Kirby, who is one of Peter’s closest friends and associates, vouches for him, Jim Pepper, this one, that one; a long list. That’s good enough for me.
Many owe their entry into the trade to Peter. I don’t; blame Bill Dailey for that. But I owe Peter something, I believe, more valuable.
He forced me to confront my prejudices. I could have – and did, for the first few years I was in the trade – write him off as a Class-A jerk, a snap-judgment amongst many I was prone to make as a younger man. As people I knew and respected began to tell me more and more about him I realized that I could continue to remain secure in my superficial appraisal or do the difficult thing and force myself to make the effort to get to know and understand him.
It ain’t easy. Is there a firm, unwavering opinion this often brusque and cantankerous (yet supremely sensitive) individual doesn’t have?
I only see him at book fairs. On the prowl for Kirby, I routinely stop by Serendipity’s booth, and just as routinely Peter tells me that Brian isn’t around and I wind up contenting myself with brief, often awkward (on my part) sit-downs with him who, I’ve discovered, has a highly attenuated sense of right and wrong, and a keen ethical and moral code. Once, Peter pretty much ran off the rails when he learned that I once worked for somebody who didn’t provide health insurance. “Why would you want to work for someone like that?” Uh, food, clothing and shelter. “No! You can’t do that! It’s wrong.”
Suffice it to say, at a time when employers are cutting benefits, Peter continues to offer a very generous and enviable health insurance package to his employees.
Over years of observation, I have come to appreciate this highly complex man, who can elicit the entire spectrum of emotions from others, as one of the great characters in literature - though there’s not a fictional bone in his body. He’s All-True, all the time. His truth. It’s often difficult to bear but worth the weight.
Reader’s Digest used to publish an ongoing series, The Most Unforgettable Character I Ever Met. Had they run a piece on Peter that would have been it, end of story; can’t top this individual.
Peter is not, by any standard, a saint yet he is one whose entire life has been, in some way, in service to books with a firm regard of their essential cultural sacredness; he has a philosophy of books and bookselling, and a strong view of the role and responsibility of the rare book dealer within culture as torchbearer and tastemaker, as a mediator between the past and present, and oracle of the future. These facts, for me, provided the path toward acceptance, admiration, respect and, ultimately, affection for one I have little standing with; while I’m sure he’d recognize me, I’d be surprised if he remembered my name without prompting.
At last February’s L.A. Book Fair, having learned that Peter and Thanatos were becoming a bit too chummy, I stopped by to say hello and pay my respects.
During our brief interchange I told him that his complete and utter lack of charm was, to me, his most charming attribute. He smiled. I then asked if there was anything I could do for him. He could have responded in any one of many justifiably self-interested ways. Instead:
“Just be a good bookseller.”
The guy’s inching toward death and what he wants from me – and, tacitly, everyone else – is to be a good bookseller and, by extension, a credit to the profession.
That just about tore me up.
Peter was born to be and will end a consummate book seller and an idealist who never quit. His epitaph should read: He Died With His Books On.
A Wake For The Still Alive – The tribute to Peter B. Howard of Serendipity Books
was posted by Stephen J. Gertz on Booktryst, in August 2010. All five parts are presented on ILAB.org by permission of Stephen J. Gertz. Thank you very much.
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A print issue is available in a limited edition of 200 copies for sale, at $20 postpaid. All proceeds will be donated to the Antiquarian Booksellers Association of America's (ABAA) Benevolent Fund. Payment by check only, payable to: Antiquarian Booksellers' Benevolent Fund. Mail to:
Stephen J. Gertz
c/o David Brass Rare Books, 23901 Calabasas Road, suite 2060, Calabasas, CA 91302.