Skip to main content
Tribute, Part 5 | | Tribute, Part 5

Tribute, Part 5

Published on 09 Sept. 2010

Part 5

"unlimited service to the ABAA..."

By Michael Thompson

This little memory is for Peter, whom I have known, admired, respected, and feared all of my career:

It was 1967 and I was just three months an employee of Jake Zeitlin's "Big Red Barn” bookstore, Zeitlin and Ver Brugge, and knew nothing. I guess that we received a list or catalogue offering books for sale (computers and the internet hadn't been thought of, at least not in the book business) and I had ordered (for all of $40 if memory serves correctly) an Advance Proof Copy of Bertrand Russell's Satan in the Suburbs. I was just beginning to collect Russell and, of course, had no idea what an Advance Proof Copy of anything looked like! It turned out to be not unlike an ordinary small paperback, but it was an Advance Proof Copy, and it impressed me beyond measure!

When I was told that it had arrived in Jake's packing room, I went to claim it. I don't know what I expected, but imagine my amazement upon seeing this extremely well packed, maybe over-packed little parcel that took me what seemed to be forever to open. What a great job of packing! I had never experienced anything like it. Remember, those were the days when English dealers like Blackwell's wrapped everything in a layer or two of cardboard, tied up VERY tightly with string, and sent them on. I was very impressed.

And then, even more surprise: typed at the bottom of the invoice were the words "Serendipity Charges No Postage"!!! I have always wanted to emulate that very wise business policy and have sometimes done so, but with postage going up and up, and my partners offering more and more resistance I haven’t always gotten away with it. But I wish that I had!

Peter has gone on to a long career of great bookselling and unlimited service to the ABAA but those thoughts are what I remember most.

Thank you, Peter.


“there has never been, nor will there ever be another”

By Jeff Towns

I first saw Peter Howard in the mid seventies at the first A.B.A. bookfair I ever visited at the plush Grosvenor Hotel in London's Park Lane. Up from the country and hardly wet behind my bookselling ears , I was  over-awed by the whole affair but I do remember very clearly the stand marked 'Serendipity Books  Berkeley CA'.

The proprietor looked somewhat ill at ease. He was tall, bespectacled, had little hair and was dressed in a mossy tweed jacket, shirt, tie; he looked ill at ease in these clothes, too. His discomfort showed in his face and I was too timid to speak with him but I remember his stock: He had none of the great vellum bound anatomies and herbals  that the European dealers  displayed, nor was his stand the wall to wall gleaming calf of the British; his books were modern. And his case was full of bits of paper with text - some typed, some scrawled. But what words! Malcolm Lowry writing from Mexico, Kerouac from the desert, and Nabokov in Russian, together with proof copies, inscribed copies and gleaming firsts. That display had a profound effect on me.

I first met Peter at the first ever North American book fair I attended as an exhibitor, at the King Edward Hotel in Toronto. He was taciturn and laconic - his staff Nancy and Burton were more fun. But, in concert with years of visits to Berkeley, first to the Shattuck store and then to the great University location, and Peter’s expeditions to the UK with side trips into Wales and book fairs all over, I came to understand and respect this great bookseller and we became friends

On his first visit to my home in Swansea Peter came down to breakfast possessively clutching a Victorian, painted, cast-iron toy money-box. It was one of my prized possessions. It was shaped as a baseball tableau.

It had a remarkable mechanical movement - you loaded a small coin into the pitcher’s hand, cocked his arm, pressed a lever, he pitched, the batter swung, missed, and the catcher deflected the coin down into the money box. It was quite wonderful and it was no longer mine. I learned a valuable lesson: to show Peter something (or even let him glimpse it) is seen as an irrefutable offer to trade!

Fast forward twenty years. Scene: Serendipity Books, late afternoon:

I entered the shop straight from the airport after a tiring fifteen hour journey and climbed my way through the boxes to say hello to Peter. He looked up from his computer when I said hello.  I was met with a scowl and growl.

"What are you doing here?!" he barked

I was shocked and bemused

"I came straight -”

"Why aren’t you at my house?" he barked again.

" I just got in, thought I would - ”

"Get to my house . There are fifty boxes of Dylan Thomas for you to go through!"

I immediately went. Allison's greeting was altogether more gentle.

The 50 boxes of books were stacked in the room I was to stay in. And they were wonderful.

Fast forward another five years. Cut to:  Serendipity Books during one of Peter's great bi-annual 'clean for a day' book fair party/extravaganzas.

Peter drags a harassed customer clutching a book over towards me. The book is one of many I have left on consignment over the years. Peter demands that I inform the customer what my best price will be. It is marked $650. I say $500. Peter loudly instructs the man to give me a cheque for $500 but to be sure to give Nancy a dollar and wanders off mumbling about how if Serendipity makes one dollar on every book....

There has never been, nor will there ever be another  bookseller quite like Peter Howard.

“a long shadow...”

By Vic Zoschak

Peter Howard.   A bookseller's name which evokes strong feelings in the trade.  For me, it's primarily admiration.  Peter is/was a mentor, of sorts, that certainly has strongly influenced my career as a bookseller.  And I readily acknowledge the debt I owe him.  Of the many, many memories I have, one stands out...

In the early 1990s, as I was contemplating a second career in bookselling (I was in the Coast Guard at the time, facing mandatory retirement in a few years) he said something to the effect of "Do something else.  You're twenty years behind."  He was, of course, correct.  There is no way anyone can make up the actual experience of handling a myriad of books over the course of two decades.  I, every day, regret not finding this calling until my late 30s.

But I'm a contrary sort, so I persevered, and Peter, initially shaking his head, willing, and actively, supported my 1994 application to the ABAA.  Without such, I suspect my membership would have been delayed a number of years, as I was, at the time, in-between, not full time, and a bit shy of the financial levels desired by the ABAA for 'part-timers'.  Nevertheless, with his advocacy, I was accepted for ABAA membership in February 1995.  Which brings me, in my opinion, to one of Peter's most admirable traits-  he supports the trade, those that comprise the trade, and especially those new to the trade.  I hope I've learned this lesson, and apply it in my daily bookselling activities.

Further, following in the same vein, one other lesson taught to me has been to 'pay it forward'.  Peter has done me, as well as many booksellers, a wealth of courtesies over the years, for which he rarely asked for 'payback'.  As such, I try to do the same.  When a young bookseller inquires of me about 'payback' for a professional courtesy, I say, thinking of Peter's example, "Pay it forward."

Finally, as Michael Thompson has long advocated, "The best thing about the trade, is the trade."  To me, Peter Howard epitomizes the best aspects of the trade. Peter constantly, and routinely, 'got' great books.  He placed them were they should be placed.  He is acquianted with most 'movers & shakers' in all the divers book communities.  He encouraged new booksellers.  He's generous.  He knows books.  He knows how to sell books.  In summary, he casts a large shadow.  And when that shadow fades, he will be sorely missed.  Especially by me.  Especially by me.

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

Michael Thompson is proprietor of Michael R. Thompson Booksellers in Los Angeles, CA.  Jeff Towns is proprietor of Dylans Bookstore in Swansea, U.K. Vic Zoschak is the proprietor of Tavistock Books in Alameda, CA.

  • share