Silence, more anticipatory than uncomfortable, replaced the susurrous swirl of conversation, that tentative tête-à-tête among those who may or may not be acquainted but have a certain thing in common. A semi-circle formed, as is normal in such conclaves, some people boldly choosing the couch up front, others settling in rows of chairs on each side, a few opting for the low profile found in the hallway or crouching along the stairwell.
Most knew the opening routine: State your name, your reason for attending and relate the barest outline of your personal history.
They went clockwise around the room.
“My name’s Bert,” a man in a blue flannel shirt, said, to murmurs of assent, denoting that Bert is a regular. “And I collect pop-up books.”
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“My name’s Gloria,” said a woman in a red sweater and matching knit hat, “and I collect – and read – children’s books. It keeps my mind clearer.”
“My name’s Maya, and I collect African American history books …”
“My name’s David, and I collect Edgar Rice Burroughs …”
On and on it went in the parlor of a stately 1910 Craftsman home in midtown at the monthly meeting of the Sacramento Book Collectors Club, for 76 years a safe and welcoming place for people to share their bibliophilic addictions – be it the man collecting William Shakespeare’s complete works, to a woman sheepishly admitting to her scores of “The Count of Monte Cristo,” to a physician whose interest runs more toward publisher’s bindings from the 1880s and 1920s, as well as woodcuts in pristine condition.
And there was William Berg, a Sacramento historian and author of six nonfiction books, crouched on the stairs and copping to his collection of comics.
“The way I justify the unjustifiable,” Berg said, to knowing chuckles, “is, when I finish writing a book, I go and read comic books and play with trains for a few weeks to let my brain rest.”
Right, pal, we’ve heard that excuse before. It’s almost as common as this lament, echoed by no fewer than three attendees: “I don’t collect anything as much as I don’t throw anything away.”
Varied as their tastes may be, the two dozen people who spent a recent Friday night at the home of Leo Dabaghian and Maryellen Burns Dabaghian, club president, are bound by not just of a love of literature but an abiding interest in the many vagaries of collection, the minutiae of signed first editions and small-press discoveries. The club also has published 18 books since 1942, and is working on a new tome, to be called “Spreading the Word: A Booklover’s Guide to Sacramento.”
These people’s lives, to be sure, are an open book – at least on these monthly (second Fridays) occasions when they gather to display and discuss their collections. Meetings are open to the public; newcomers are welcome.
On this night, the subject was Jack Kerouac, the Beat icon who still fascinates 46 years after his death. Specifically, the group drilled down to Kerouac’s 22 posthumous publications, the little-known prose and poetry his estate has released in dribs and drabs over the years, failing, of course, to make the splash of “On the Road,” but nonetheless a delight for ardent Kerouacians and collectors of the Beat genre.
Holding court was Jay Zil, psychiatrist by profession and book collector by passion, whose complete collection of posthumous Kerouac was spread out on a table in the living room, some apparently so rare and fragile they were encased in protective covering.
He was joined by Nicholas Bruce Sanders, the club’s collegiate representative who has read and studied all things Kerouac since high school buddies tipped him off to the experience that is “On the Road.”
The two made an interesting contrast: a young man on the cusp of his reading and scholarly journey, and a man ensconced in middle age, for whom books fill his heart and many, many shelves of his 10,000-square-foot home. They spoke of Kerouac’s mercurial rise from humble origins, the infamous “scroll” on which he composed “On the Road” in a widely believed amphetamine daze, his relationship with other Beat legends and his sad demise amid alcoholism and depression.
Others in the group added context and color. Lawrence Fox recounted the wild scene at Six Gallery in San Francisco in 1955, when Allen Ginsberg first read the poem “Howl,” Kerouac and comrade Neal Cassady “in the back rows passing around jugs of wine.” Ken Higgins told of Kerouac’s late-in-life turn to the right and infatuation with William F. Buckley. Rick Castro recited lines of Walt Whitman, showing the influence on the young Kerouac. And Burns Dabaghian, the evening’s host, related an anecdote that perhaps only a hard-core collector could fully appreciate.
“When Leo and I got married in ’83, we honeymooned in Highland Park, and we went to a garage sale,” she said. “A woman had her husband’s collection out, including a first-edition, signed, pristine ‘On the Road.’ And she had a dollar price tag on it.
“Leo and I actually said to her, ‘Would you like to stay married?’ She said, ‘Yes.’ We said, ‘Then please put this book back in your collection.’ We went though this collection of books that we knew were rare and told her we couldn’t take advantage of her.
“Leo and I are ethical collectors.”
What separates the book collectors club from just another book club that picks a title each month is the level of discourse and the intensity of purpose. These are no mere dabblers in books. These are serious bibliophiles who, in some cases, have dropped serious coin for their collections. To label them “hobbyists” would be akin to calling Itzhak Perlman a “fiddler.”
Zil’s Kerouac collection pales compared to his interest in James Joyce’s seminal modernist masterpiece, “Ulysses.” Not only does Zil possess a first edition of the original Shakespeare & Co. pressing in Paris in 1922, he has the serialized version that appeared in “The Little Review” starting in 1918 and resulted in a landmark censorship trial. He also has a 1935 edition illustrated by Henri Matisse.
The Joycean bounty extends well beyond “Ulysses,” to the source and inspiration: Homer’s “Odyssey.” Space precludes a full accounting of Zil’s cache of Homer, but one highlight is a 1567 translation of the epic from Greek to Latin and a 1707 French edition with etchings by the Dutch old master Petrus Balthazar Boultats.
Lest you think Zil’s interests run only to the highest of highbrow and rarest of rare, he also collects works by Ernest Hemingway, Norman Mailer and Tom Clancy.
Afterward, as club members milled and Zil held court, he is asked what drives him. Monetary gains? The thrill of the hunt? Barely contained hoarding?
No, it’s personal.
“It will maybe sound trite,” he said, “but my parents really read to us, me and my two sisters, very early. Twenty minutes a day each, one to one. You don’t forget that.”
Yet, there also is an interest in acquisition, as Zil illustrated via the animated story of how he came to possess many “true” first editions of Russian novelist Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s books.
“Solzhenitsyn’s works were published first in Paris by the YMCA Press,” he said. “A student of mine went to Paris and asked if he could pick something up for me. People ask people that all the time, but I, of course, send him to the YMCA Press, which is no longer there. It was a different press and there was a whole bookshelf of first editions – the true first edition of Solzhenitsyn. (The seller) was asking just the sticker price from when it first came out. So (the student) bought everything and schlepped back 35 volumes, actually carried them on the plane. Oh, that was so wonderful. My goodness.”
Not everyone in the club is so comprehensive and exacting in collecting. Burns Dabaghian, a food and travel writer, calls herself more an “accumulator” than collector. That spacious home she and Leo share holds 10,000 “or so” books. She says she has read, on average, 75 books in a year “in their entirety” and has often bought 30 to 50 books in month “on the mistaken belief that I’ll read them all eventually.” It’s her brother Keith who is the collector in the family. She and her other brother, Scott – the Burns siblings all are club members – are more into reading anything they can get their hands on.
As with Zil, the genesis of their ardor dates to childhood, she said.
“Our father, Harry Burns … claims to have been in jail for vagrancy during the Depression and wrote 25,000 words on a toilet role without repeating a word,” Burns Dabaghian said. “… We couldn’t afford books when we were young (but) … our dad had a way of ‘borrowing’ books from grocery and drugstore racks.”
Burt Thompson, the pop-up books collector, really could not put his finger on what has drawn him to his rising genre. His library of more than 2,000 pop-up books ranges from “medieval times to early medical books to naughty ones, too.” Asked to explain his motivation, he shrugged, “Just interested.”
An answer, perhaps, was provided by Gloria Cedillo, the children’s book collector.
“Books,” she enthused. “You learn so much from them.”
And so much about the people who own them.
Call The Bee’s Sam McManis, (916) 321-1145. Follow him on Twitter @SamMcManis.
SACRAMENTO BOOK COLLECTORS CLUB
The Sacramento Book Collectors Club meets the second Friday of each month, most of the time at the Arden Arcade Library. For information about joining the club or attending a meeting, go to www.sacramentobookcollectors.org