Saturday, April 2, 2011

Peter Howard, requiescat in pace

Peter Howard (July 1, 1938 - March 31, 2011), at Serendipity Books, Berkeley, California

I met Peter Howard sometime just before 1995. I was looking for a book of poetry, Langston Hughes’ translation of Gabriela Mistral. Why exactly that book, I can’t really remember (so much poetry, so many years), but somebody told me to check with Peter Howard, at Serendipity Books on University Avenue in Berkeley, and I did. He had the book, I bought it, and that was, as the movie puts it, the beginning of a beautiful friendship, one that centered on his store full of poetry.

Today, Peter Howard’s gone. Pancreatic cancer, diagnosed about a year ago, got him two days ago, and the world of poetry is now much diminished, and I’m out a friend.

Peter Howard was the proprietor of Serendipity Books in Berkeley, a rare book concern that ran for close to 50 years, first out of his home, then on Shattuck Avenue and for the last almost thirty years out of a big building on University Avenue.

Peter Howard by any measure was the major domo – the engine that powered – the Bay Area rare book trade. Even that doesn’t indicate the measure of his reach. Sometimes, as when he’d broker or harvest the taking in of a huge collection (e.g., that of the fabled New York collector Carter Burden or that of Sir Joseph Gold, each of which had deep and rich assortments, thousands of books worth, of poetry), the entire cadre of the nation’s antiquarian dealers would come a-calling.

Peter Howard had an incredible if simple philosophy regarding poetry: no matter what, he’d take it in and put it on a shelf. His store had hundreds of shelf-feet of alphabetized-by-author poetry books. There were well-known poets, the obscure, and the completely and totally forgotten; big publishers and the smallest of the small.

Serendipity had special sections for many poets, including for example (and these hardly scratch the surface) Duncan, Spicer, Eigner, McClure, and Stein, plus many other special sections (one example: a half-shelf of nothing but the 8.5" x 11" mimeoed titles published in the 1970s by Adventures in Poetry). There was also a closet for assorted additional good poetry (supplemented by a locked safe), huge file cabinets filled with broadsides, and at least one “secret” section where even more “good poetry” would be shelved. All this plus huge amounts of modern fiction, sci fi, and other first edition literature, and the new and not-so-new arrivals, piled or bagged on the store’s floors and tables.

Although Serendipity lists approximately 20,000 volumes on the internet, Howard and his staff (including the amazing Nancy Kosenka) actually possessed probably twenty times that amount (i.e., in excess of 400,000 items). Living across the Bay in San Francisco and (at least for the first approximately fifteen years after first discovering the store) working in San Rafael, I spent a lot of hours – and a lot of money – at Serendipity, happily so. Somewhat miraculously, about three years ago the office in which I work moved to within an easy lunch-time walk of the store. Sometimes even us fools get lucky.

As indicated above, I’ve also been lucky in that I’ve been able to buy books at Serendipity, including at times on time, with Peter insisting that interest was totally out of the question, even when he carried the amount due for months. The poetry I received in return amazes me to this day, including for example (to do the alphabet thing best I can here) the first books of Helen Adam and Bruce Andrews to those of Lew Welch and Phil Whalen, and all kinds of poets (and all kinds of books) in between.

For reasons not entirely clear, and although he had a well-earned reputation as a catankerous, arrogant son-of-a-bitch, Peter and I became close. After learning early on of my particular love for the poetry of Philip Lamantia, he offered me each and every thing he had or henceforth received related to Philip, and told me (before the internet search engines changed the game) what other booksellers to contact to find publications he did not have. Serendipity is a major reason I’ve been able over the last 20 years to put together a comprehensive chronological checklist of Lamantia’s books and other appearances in print.

Plus, and maybe because he liked me a little, via Peter Howard I came to many once-in-a-lifetime books. Things like Mina Loy’s first book (Lunar Baedecker, Contact Editions, 1923). One of the thirteen special copies of Caesar’s Gate (Divers Press, 1955) with a holographic (and otherwise unpublished) poem by Robert Duncan and full-page, full-color one-of-a-kind original paste-up (collage) by Jess. Harry Crosby’s Aphrodite in Flight (Black Sun Press, 1929), an impossibly rare collection of poetic aphorisms conjoining flying and seduction. And Elsa Gidlow’s On A Grey Thread (W. Ransom, 1923), the first book of openly lesbian poetry published in this country. You get the idea.

But just in case, how about the mimeographed program, featuring on the cover a reproduction of one of Bruce Conner’s felt-tip pen mandala-like drawings, for the very first Trips Festival, held in January, 1966 at Longshoreman’s Hall in San Francisco? I found that impossible rarity one Saturday a decade or more ago, in a nondescript pile of ephemera and old magazines on some random shelf, and Peter insisted on selling it to me for three dollars (or was it one?). He’d do that once in awhile when a particular item was unearthed from a book-buy for which he’d long before turned what he considered a decent profit.

Peter Howard loved baseball, in particular the San Francisco Giants. He held season tickets for so long (from somewhere in the mid-1960s) that the ballclub itself didn’t even know how long he’d had them. He kept score the old-fashioned way, and his eternal optimism for the Giants, no matter how grim the prospects, was most instructive and helpful. I loved going to games with him. He was very smart, widely traveled and well read, and could mix it up, conversationally or argumentatively, with anybody. Nine innings at the yard with Peter was a mighty fine time.

Peter’s seats, both at Candlestick and (for the last decade) at the waterfront park, were primo: about ten rows up from the visiting club’s on-deck circle (Peter liked to see the other teams’ players since he saw the Giants’ all the time). When he couldn’t make it to a game, he’d offer up his tickets gratis to a wide circle of folks, including for example his UPS delivery guy. He would even give away tickets in advance if you asked, and he’d always throw in his “Lot A” parking pass too, for a total per game value (given the price of a pair of field level seats) of about $150. In this way, and thanks to Peter, my wife and I enjoyed a half-dozen or so Giants games every year.

Peter met his wife, Alison (who also died within the past year), when the two were doing field work for the Quakers in Alaska. The two taught me how easy it was to make pasta from scratch, and showed me the fun of entertaining with a touch of extravagance. Every couple of years, the Howards would hire an accomplished piano player to perform a concert in their North Berkeley house, and invite a small group to hear Mozart and Liszt in their small living room.

Best and most stupendous of all, every two years, coinciding with the big February antiquarian book fair in San Francisco, the Howards would throw an enormous all-day party at Serendipity. The last few times – including this past February – the main parking lot would be tented over, the side lot give over to the caterers, and oh god what a feast: breakfast, lunch, and dinner, with just about everything you might imagine, including whole roasted pigs and dried figs crusted with fresh ground pepper.

But I must return to the poetry. As I look around at the shelves tonight typing this, I remain in awe of the books that came from Serendipity. Even in the last few months, after years of unfettered access and countless sessions scouring the store’s shelves book-by-book, unbelievable treasures could be and were found. Among the items I bought there in the last few months were the first books of Joseph Ceravolo, Juliana Spahr, and Andrew Joron (the latter in the hardcover version), plus wonderful oddities such as a pre-publicaton flyer, with selections, for Tom Raworth’s Writing and a beautiful hardcover and dust-jacketed first edition Modern Czech Poetry, an anthology from 1945. All these books, save the last-named volume, are essentially impossible to find currently, including on-line, and yet there they were, at Serendipity.

Rest in peace, Peter. I miss you already, miss you more than words can say. Miss you more than words arranged in a poem can convey. Even, or especially, those in the poems in the hundreds of poem-books you brought my way.



Prasanna Choudhary/प्रसन्न कुमार चौधरी said...

'Rest in peace, Peter. I miss you already, miss you more than words can say. Miss you more than words arranged in a poem can convey. Even, or especially, those in the poems in the hundreds of poem-books you brought my way.' So authentic, so intimate a tribute ....

mongibeddu said...

Thanks for writing this up, Steven. It's Peter Howard from a side I never had the fortune to see--I knew the cantankerous side. But his store certainly gave me an education, and I'm grateful for that. A necessary supplement--with the Bancroft--to the poetry put forth by Berkeley's English Department. My condolences.

Ben F.

Steven Fama said...

Thanks Prasanna and Ben, for stopping by, and for your kind words.

Bob Arnold / Longhouse said...


Perfect. Including the b & w photograph. Ever thanks.


Jenny Lowe said...

Hi Steven. What a beautiful and fitting tribute to Peter. I remember our lunches together fondly and hope you're doing well.

jeff towns said...

a fine tribute to a great bookseller
jeff towns - Dylans Bookstore
swansea uk

Steven Fama said...

Thank you Bob Arnold, Jeff Towns, and Jenny Lowe, for stopping in.

And Jenny, thanks so much for mentioning the lunches! There were long stretches over the years during which Peter would spring for lunch, offering food to whoever happened to be in the store, staff and customers. Often it would be take-out food from Cafe Poulet, a great "little" Berkeley deli that I am pretty sure also did the catering for the big party Peter threw every two years.

And Jenny, hello likewise to you, and here's wishing that you and yours are doing great there in the Land of Ong !!!

Anonymous said...

"that's the last of them" said Peter as he priced up the last of Gary Snyder's Pine Nuts (by the unfeasible Zephyrus Image) and handed them over. And it was. I will miss him.

Unknown said...

Peter and I were colleagues for more than forty years. We exhibited together at fairs, we went book-hunting together, and we shared the greatest of all pleasures -- Peter selling me books. I contributed to the small tribute published in his honor about six or seven months ago, and bought my last book from him at the San Francisco Fair this past February. He was indeed a major force in the antiquarian books trade despite his own modesty, and he freely taught everybody about the special people he knew to collect, respect and appreciate. I own a Jess painting because of Peter, though he was not the one who sold it to me. I saw it at his shop for many years and always wanted it, but the price seemed astronomical. Then, one day, it was gone. "You should have bought it" shouted Peter, who told me who he sold it to. Years went by and then by chance I met the person Peter had mentioned. Yes, he still had the Jess painting but had never offered it for sale up till then. Was I interested? Yes, of course. And so it was done. I think of Peter every time I look at this painting. I will never forget him.

Steven Fama said...

Thanks Carl (re: the Zephyrus Image item) and Professor (re: the Jess painting (!)). I appreciate both of you sharing these recollections with me and others here at the glade.

Unknown said...

Peter Howatd = Books. He was one of a kind.

na said...

A lovely life. A lovely homage. Thanks for putting this gem of a tribute in the world,

Anonymous said...

My, time flies. Nicely done, hat off. Recall brokering Sir Joseph Gold to Peter…we did a huge amount of trading back and forth…at the end, so I thought, Peter bought the some 40,000 mags and books and papers that formed Am Here Books in 2000. 6 years later I came out of retirement and am still going on. Now in Kansas and back online in a few months. I always enjoyed hearing from you in past and hooe you are well.