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Vienna – Munich and Back

"Two Steinbach's at the same place would not have worked out": Michael Steinbach grew up in a rare bookselling family, but instead of taking over his father's business he moved from Vienna to Los Angeles, then to Munich, established his own firm, and travelled around the world. Now, after 40 years he has returned to his hometown, and he will certainly not hesitate to catch one of the next airplanes to Tokyo. Or Hong Kong? New York? Paris? Barcelona?
Published on 07 Sept. 2011

By Michael Steinbach

In the late 1920ies my grandmother and her twin sister opened a bookshop with a library in Vienna’s 19th district. There you could buy new books, but also borrow a novel for a week for 1 Schilling, read it and return it. This was popular during the economic crises, because people could not always afford to buy a book, but wanted to have the pleasure of reading without spending the money they urgently needed for their living. When my father joint his mother in the book business, he soon had the idea to deal with antiquarian books, too. He opened a small section with antiquarian books in the same shop. Growing up in a world of books, old and new, my interest in books and the business grew steadily. Little by little it became obvious that this was what I wanted to do as an adult. After finishing school I made an apprenticeship in my fathers business for two years.


During those years the 18th ILAB Congress was held in Vienna in 1966. My father and I took part, and especially for me, it was very exciting. I got to know some of the most important dealers of that time, among them Glen Dawson from Los Angeles. One day Glen Dawson visited us at our house in Vienna and I thought to myself that this was my chance. I asked him whether I could volunteer in Dawson’s Bookshop. He said yes right away, and a few months later I was sitting in a plane of Icelandic Airlines which took me to New York. From there I travelled by Greyhound Bus through the United States to Los Angeles. To tell all the adventures and experiences I made in the States would lead to far. Sadly, after a year and a half I had to leave, because otherwise I would have been drafted to the U.S. Army, which was fighting in Vietnam. That was a place I really did not want to go to.



In the late 1960ies, back home in Vienna, the world seemed to small for me. The iron curtain was still in existence and Vienna seemed to me like the end of the world.

With the help of my father I had the chance to go to Munich to work at the auction house Karl & Faber (later: Hartung & Karl, today: Hartung & Hartung). Another exciting period full of new experiences and challenges. I was introduced to many German dealers such as Helmuth Domizlaff, Rolf Kistner, Dr. Maria Conradt, and Dr. Lotte Roth-Woelfle. And I learned a lot from Karl Hartung. Auctions were held twice a year. Many books went through my hands, which otherwise I would have never seen.

After four and a half years in the trade and at the age of 27, the time had come to start my own business in Eglharting, near Munich. I had collected a couple of books, enough for a first catalogue.

In autumn 1972 Catalogue I was published and sent to the customers. It was a general catalogue, with emphasis on illustrated books. Reactions were positive. I could sell almost 75 per cent of the items offered. And then, the fear well-known to almost all rare book dealers arose: Where could I get new material? I managed to find enough for a second and third catalogue. Then, the first oil crisis caused by the Arab Oil Embargo affected even the rare book trade. The sales went down dramatically and sometimes I thought that I might have to close my business. Finally things were getting better. In the 1970s there were still many open bookshops in Munich, so I thought it would not make sense to open another one and decided to work from home, to keep costs low and to travel more, which was and still is one of my personal passions.


I became a member of the German Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association (VDA) and therefore could participate in ILAB sponsored fairs. My first fair was the Stuttgart Antiquarian Book Fair In the late 1970ies where I was lucky to have a stand near Fritz Eckert, who gave me helpful advice. The Stuttgart Fair was an El Dorado. People came, saw, bought and paid. In the late 1980ies and early 1990ies I served as a member of the board of the VDA. We organized the 31st Congress and 14th International Book Fair in Cologne, with over 400 delegates and over 220 exhibitors. These figures have never been reached again. I kept on publishing catalogues, but less than before, because the fairs became more and more important for my business. I extended my fair activities and started to exhibit in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Tokyo, London, and Paris.


In 2000 I was asked to join the committee of the International League of Antiquarian Booksellers (ILAB). I served for eight years, at the end as the President of the League from 2006 to 2008.

During all these years I kept thinking of returning to my home town Vienna, but my father was still in business until the mid 1980ies, and two Steinbach’s at the same place would not have worked out. So I stayed in Munich, and still travelled a lot. Our business has changed. With the Internet and the emerging global markets, especially in Asia, it is no longer important, where exactly your business is located. All this strengthened my wish to move back to Vienna, and to look for new ways in the antiquarian book trade.


It was a kind of destiny that a colleague and friend from Tokyo asked me if I would like to help him to establish a new place and a new way of international bookselling in Tokyo. Almost at the same time another colleague asked me, more laughing then believing, since I had said so many times that I would come back to Vienna:


“Do you still plan to move to Vienna?”

When I answered “yes”, he said:

"Come at 6 p.m. I have a flat for you.”

I came, saw the flat, and rented it.

Finally, after more than 40 years I moved back from Munich to Vienna, with new plans in my suitcase.

The pictures were taken at the ILAB Congress in Cologne 1992, at the ILAB Congress in Melbourne 2004, at the ribbon cutting ceremony during the International Antiquarian Book Fair in Tokyo 2004, and at the Paris International Antiquarian Book Fair 2011.

The German version of the article will be published in the September issue of Aus dem Antiquariat.

>>> ILAB Congresses, Fairs, and Presidents' Meetings

>>> ILAB Booksellers: interviews, videos, history


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