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William Reese (1955-2018): A Personal Homage

Booksellers and collectors from across the globe mourn the loss of William Reese, antiquarian bookseller of New Haven, CT, and owner of the William Reese Company. A titan of the rare book trade who will be deeply missed.

Published on 12 June 2018

Bill Reese Obituary

William Reese (1955-2018): A Personal Homage by book collector Kurt Zimmerman

Bookseller William Reese stood with my wife and me in his private room / biblio-lair at his shop at 409 Temple Street, New Haven, Connecticut.  It was a beautiful fall day in 2015.  The juxtaposition of large, blue exercise ball upon a bed surrounded by bookcases of bibliographic delights was momentarily disconcerting.  Reese gave a hearty laugh as we discussed the importance of keeping one’s back and “core” in good shape.  The tall, lanky Reese had been a long-distance runner in his younger days and was no stranger to exercise.  Today however it was all about the sentimental library that surrounded us.  For he and I both shared a love for the history of book collecting, particularly copies with interesting associations.  And this was his private stash.  And he had granted me unfettered access to browse at will.  Nicole said later that it was the only time she’d seen me star struck.  And I was.

We all talked briefly, too briefly, Bill pointing out a few things, then he excused himself for a doctor’s appointment.  Stay as long as you want, he said, as he exited.  It was my first visit to his shop and the last time I saw Bill Reese.   Unknown to us at the time, the doctor’s visit was one of many in a long battle with cancer that would eventually take his life last week on June 4th.  Few knew his condition or how sick he'd become.

I suspected, though. In the last couple of years, he wrote and published a flurry of five bibliographic works and a collection of essays.  He was running his last race and wanted to make it a good one.  These final publications round out a career of rare bookselling matched by few in the long history of the American book trade.  Reese assumes his place in the pantheon among Henry Stevens, A.S.W. Rosenbach, Lathrop Harper, and the Eberstadts.

Reese specialized in Americana of all periods, spanning the arrival of Columbus to the settling of the West and beyond.  He was a bookselling prodigy as a teen, beginning his career while an undergraduate at Yale, and cutting his teeth in Texas working briefly for bookseller Fred White, Jr, before venturing out on his own in 1979.  His friendly nature, wit, raw intelligence, and acumen at buying and selling, let him command the Americana market for almost forty years. The best material passed through his hands both at auction and privately.  The best collections bear his influential stamp.  But I’m not here to list his professional accomplishments in detail.  Others will certainly do that. I want to share something more personal in my homage to Bill Reese.

Bill given his stature in his field, could have been arrogant, dismissive, pretentious, or unresponsive.  But he was not. His interaction with yours truly is certainly as good example as any.

While in graduate school, ca. 1990, I took Michael Winship’s bibliography class. Winship noted my already incubating interest in the history of the rare book world and loaned me a copy of Bill Reese’s senior thesis, Winnowers of the Past: The Americanist Tradition in the Nineteenth Century (1977).  Reese details the history of 19th century Americana collecting with a focus on the famous collectors and dealers of the period.  This still unpublished thesis blew me away. I dove right in and when I surfaced I was one inspired book hunter.  So, this serendipitous read is foundational to my own collecting and by extension provided much of the related joy I’ve experienced over the years.

Bill Reese had gotten my attention, although it would be awhile before I returned the favor. I worked for bookseller Dorothy Sloan who knew Bill well. I was present when she spoke with Bill on the phone – always an interesting exchange of book minutia, trade talk, and occasional gossip. I recall talking to him directly, but it was punctual and of no great import. I had heard his voice though, exchanged pleasantries and the connection was established. I also began reading the William Reese catalogues, marveling at the material offered and descriptions within.  Ironically, I purchased from the Reese literary catalogues, not the Americana. My impecunious budget (and interest) led me to the literary side managed by Terry Halladay, a symbiotic bookselling match with Reese, the two working together for four decades. I should note here that Bill Reese was not confined to Americana. His personal collecting interests were wide: for example, he assembled over many years an impressive library of color plate books and what is certainly the best collection of Herman Melville in private hands.

By the mid-1990s, I was a cataloguer and then director of the rare book department at Butterfield’s & Butterfield’s (now Bonham’s) auction house on the West Coast. Bill Reese was an important buyer of Americana at our sales. I would send advance copies of our catalogues and personal emails to market them. We began to interact formally. He bid and was highly successful. Sometimes he and dealer Graham Arader, another major figure, would unwittingly butt heads via phone bidding to the delight of our department. If Bill lost an item, he was a gracious loser (unlike some others), although it personally bothered me because by now I was a member of the Reese fan club.

I was fortunate to be present several times when he bid in person at auction. The most memorable was our Los Angeles sale of February 14, 1996 in conjunction with the ABAA Book Fair.  A rare copy of Smith’s The Generall Historie of Virginia (1632) with maps of New England and Virginia was being offered. Reese entered the room and soon had a big smile, shaking hands and talking with colleagues, towering over them literally (at about 6’ 4”) and figuratively.  But then the action began, and he calmly, quietly and relentlessly bid against E. Forbes Smiley III for the book.  Smiley was a big man, heavy set, sweating, and nervous as he raised his paddle.  They went back and forth tennis match style until the book hammered at $41,400.  I savored the moment.  Many years later, the competing bidder would be found guilty of stealing millions of dollars’ worth of maps from libraries and sent to prison.   

When I left the trade and assumed “collector only” status, our contact was intermittent. I began to gather material related directly to Reese — books written by him, special catalogues, inscribed material, ephemera. I would see him at the ABAA Book Fairs and visit him briefly at his booth. But he was in work mode and typically didn’t have time to chat much. 

My friend and fellow collector, Douglas Adams, knowing my admiration for Bill, prodded me to have more interaction with him. Look at this, he said, and showed me his copy of The Immense and Distinguished Half-Title Collection Formed by John H. Jenkins III, Esq. of Austin, Texas, Now Elucidated (1980), an elaborate spoof played on Johnny Jenkins in which Reese played a primary role. Only ca. 25 copies were produced.  Douglas had sent his copy to Bill for examination and comment. Bill wrote a full-page inscription in the book outlining the story and his role. 

I listened.  And when I acquired a batch of material from Texas bookseller Ray Walton’s personal library I sent a special item to Reese to peruse. Reese had known Walton well. Walton was a colorful cohort of Johnny Jenkins in the Texas bookselling scene of the 1970s and 80s.  The item was Walton’s heavily annotated copy of Reese’s first book Six Score: The 120 Best Books on the Range Cattle Industry (1976).  Reese not only inscribed it to me but went through the book, writing comments on Walton’s earlier notes both negatively and positively.  This was well beyond the call of duty and I was thrilled.  Another catalyst in our burgeoning friendship was Jeff Dykes, the noted collector and bookseller of Western Americana. I had an 8 x 10 glossy of Dykes dated from the 1960s inscribed to Ray Walton.  A scan of this amused Bill and he recalled his early encounters with Dykes. Walton had what I can only describe as a book dealer photo fetish and other photos of bookmen inscribed to him found their way into my collection, including ones to Jenkins and Texas Senator Ralph Yarborough, a prominent collector. I sent scans of these to Bill, too.  One of my regrets is not printing up an 8x10 of Reese and having him inscribe it to me as an amusing aside.

We were having a little fun now.  And I must thank my wife Nicole for her role in a memorable chat with Reese at a book fair a few years ago that also broke the ice. I’d said hello to Reese earlier in the day but played my usual role of hanging back, not wanting to bother him. Nicole thought this all rather silly. In a quiet moment on a Sunday afternoon of the fair she linked arms with me and literally dragged me to his booth. Fortified by her presence, I relaxed and had an entertaining talk with Bill and Terry Halladay. It wasn’t a lengthy conversation, but it was informal and for the first time I felt that Bill fully recognized me as a kindred spirit with our shared biblio interests.

Momentum built.  The visit to his shop in 2015.  And in July of 2016 I wrote a blog essay about another copy of Bill Reese’s Six Score with a sentimental inscription. I had acquired the book years earlier and only of late discovered the importance of the association. I surprised Bill with the essay and he much enjoyed it. I added his commentary as postscript and we corresponded further.  And I knew it was time. Time to share with him the full extent of my biblio-collection. He would not find it overwhelming.

I realized a personal visit to my home was remote, or at best in the future, so I printed out a copy of my private library catalogue—some 800 pages in 9-point type—bound it in old school stiff red covers and metal clasps (the same as his senior thesis was issued forty years before) and sent it on.  No word for a little while.  Not unexpected, he was a busy man, and sicker than most of us knew, and I’d just dropped a phone book-sized catalogue on him unsolicited.  Then it came. 

Dear Kurt,

Yesterday we had a nice blizzard here in New Haven, and as everybody was exhausted from the Book Fair we just closed for the day, and I spent a pleasant day at home catching up on reading. This gave me a chance to really spend some quality time with your catalogue, which I had not previously been able to do with back-to-back fairs and much going on business-wise. Nothing like a snow day! In any case, I want to congratulate you both on the accomplishment of putting the collection together and on your excellent annotations, which open up a vast trove of bibliographical and bibliopolical lore. I very much enjoyed running across many old friends, both ones I knew personally and ones I had encountered in book history. Also, I'm impressed by your willingness to have multiple copies of the same book!   
All best, Bill Reese

Writing this has become hard now. The memories have me deeply saddened and I’m lamenting the fact there will be no further interactions.  There was so much I wanted to tell him and so much more I wanted to hear.  We were both big admirers of Charles Everitt’s Adventures of a Treasure Hunter (1951), one of the best bookseller memoirs. I prodded Bill to write his own memoirs and he said he was, but I don’t think it happened—fleeting time, illness, and life cruelly short. It would have been the best of them all.  I know it. But I’m grateful for what he did write and gave to the book world and while he was busy building important collections, buying and selling great books, and becoming one of the finest antiquarian booksellers of all, he took time to be my friend.

 

This obituary was first published on Kurt Zimmerman's blog "American Book Collecting" and is reposted here with permission of the author. 

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