More about the photo at the end of this week's entry.
There was a front page article in the Gloucester Daily Times this week about the closing of Peter Smith Publisher. That name may not mean much to you, but he was an innovator in the publishing world, and the history of his business provides an interesting commentary on the dynamics of the book trade.
At the age of fourteen Peter Smith left an orphanage in New York City to work as a page boy in the periodical room at Columbia University. Subsequently he found work as a runner for a used book firm - probably one of the shops on 4th Avenue, the famed “Booksellers Row” – then used the knowledge he gained there to start his own book search service, mostly filling institutional requests for scholarly titles.
In the course of his work Smith noticed there were certain books much in demand and impossible to locate. Finding a niche that had eluded almost everyone in the business up to this time, he scraped his limited capital together and began reprinting hard-to-find titles, starting in 1929 with “Slave Songs of the United States.”
He moved to Gloucester in 1952. In the 1960s, as a part of the Great Society, the federal government dumped millions of dollars into publishers, colleges, and universities for the purpose of reprinting rare texts, or disseminating same. Smith’s business burgeoned. At its high point he was sending catalogs to 25,000 libraries around the world.
Some titles he simply reprinted because he liked them or thought they were important. Others, he’d list in his catalog and, when sufficient demand arose, print a run. He had a proprietary arrangement with the venerable Murray Printing Co., and they’d print short runs for him – 500 to 1000 copies – bound in that distinctive Peter Smith green or orange buckram. They weren’t pretty, but they were solid copies of otherwise unobtainable texts. When the paperback revolution came along, Smith adapted. He formed a close relationship with Dover and began repackaging their paperback reprint titles into hardbacks for libraries.
He was an old man when I met him, but still a fiercely independent – almost eccentric – thinker. He was also a kindly person with a gentle sense of humor. He loved dogs, and fed every stray dog in town at his office door. He detested Nixon and Agnew, and the war in Vietnam, and for its duration he would ship, gratis, any package anyone wanted to send to a serviceman over there. I painted his building, did bad carpentry jobs at his house, and generally hung around like one of his stray dogs. He gave me work and, more importantly, books, including classic reference works like Evans and Church - invaluable Peter Smith reprints that I still use today.
He died in 1982 and his daughter took over the business. She had a distinguished background in publishing, and was a hard-nosed businesswoman, but in the end the prevalence of internet used book services and Print On Demand did her in.
There's a punch line to this story, and it makes me a queasy even as I write it. As a part of shutting the business down, the daughter made some inquiries, but could find no one who wanted to purchase her stock – 45,000 copies of Peter Smith’s great reprints. She wound up donating them – giving them away – to a company named GOTBOOKS, a huge Internet penny bookseller. They take donations like hers and sell sell them on the web at bottom dollar, making their money on postage and their net profit through huge volume.
So POD and the Internet ate the company of the man who pioneered the modern scholarly reprint.
Here's a bonus item I picked up recently. I thought it was an album of snapshots of Bermuda. When I got it home I discovered it was an album of snapshots of Bermuda and Nantucket. A lucky double for me. It will probably not be reprinted, though it's a good bet some of the images will eventually be digitized and made available over the you-know-what.
Photographs. ALBUM OF BERMUDA AND NANTUCKET SNAPSHOTS. Circa. 1900. Hamilton Harbor, vessels therein, local scenes, donkeys, “View taken on day of burial of Queen Victoria,” St. George’s, Ireland Island, and an icebound “NY Harbor on arriving” at the end of the Bermuda voyage. A total of 92 albumen photos of Bermuda, each measuring roughly 4 x 3 inches. Followed by 45 similar snapshots of Nantucket, mostly domestic architecture. A wonderful, very personal, album. $850