As you may recall Bob, a talented but troubled book and ephemera dealer, was the subject of my 2008 book, Hubert’s Freaks
The book dealt with Bob’s discovery of an incredible archive of papers kept by the African American manager of a Times Square flea circus and freak show in the 1950s and 60s. Included in this archive were original prints of photographs – previously unknown – taken by legendary photographer Diane Arbus.
This was all fun and exciting, if I do say so myself. Bob was able to keep the collection intact and, ultimately, to sell it to a major New York institution.
But an important sub-theme, and one that is of particular interest in light of the most recent news about Bob, is the manner in which he worked with that Times Square freak show archive.
Bob poured over the material – cross referencing, arranging, researching, rearranging – until the large and enigmatic collection revealed its own story. He found the internal evidence that proved Arbus had been photographing at the freak show, and he used documents in the collection to shed light on the subjects of Arbus’ striking photographs. Then he set about tracking down other bits of the original archive, until his the collection was as complete as was humanly possible. Phillips Gallery in New York produced a catalog of the collection, based on Bob’s work, that has become a collector’s item itself.
While this difficult business was transpiring Bob sought refuge and solace in his own private collection of photographs documenting African American life in the 19th and 20th centuries. Several scenes in Hubert’s Freaks document this behavior. Philadelphia, his home city, was a goldmine for African American ephemera, and eBay, especially in its early days, yielded similar treasures. When Bob was feeling blue, or when the world was besieging him, he’d retreat to his private workroom and contemplate his rapidly mounting piles of African American photographs.
He liked to buy big, junky lots and arrange and sort them until they yielded some kind of order, to see what kind of story they told. A good deal of this material he consigned to Swann’s African Americana auctions – at one time he was their biggest single consignor – and this gave him money to pay the bills and to acquire new material. But he kept a substantial portion of the best material for himself. His collection grew apace.
Last year I received a remarkable present from Bob. It was a beautifully produced catalog, a survey of his collection – An Historical Photographic Archive of African American Culture.
He says in his introduction to the catalog, “My intention in acquiring these pictures was to form a laboratory or study-collection that would be an accurate representation of African American culture… Each picture represents a tale unexplored – sometimes familiar, but mostly a mystery… I did not take these pictures. One by one they were ‘discovered’ by me as much as I was by them.”
Then, on July 8, came the news that Bob had sold his collection of over 7000 photos and documents to Emory University. The headline in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution began, “Emory Lands Treasure Trove…” and an expert quoted in the article referred to it as “an extraordinary find. ”
Of course, both these takes are completely wrong. Emory didn’t “land” the collection; Bob placed it carefully in Emory’s lap, accompanied by an enormous amount of preparatory work. (Make no mistake – Bob’s preliminary curation of the collection represented tremendous “value added.”) Nor was the collection an extraordinary “find.” Bob did not come across it on a sidewalk on trash day. He spent thirty years of his life assembling it bit by bit.
I called Bob to congratulate him, and we talked about how he worked with his collection, coaxing the story out of a picture or series of pictures. Sometimes, he told me, he’d search for the original document in which a photo had appeared – as the frontispiece for a volume of poetry, or the illustration of a record sleeve – and then put the two together, each informing the other, imparting extra meaning to the story.
This reflection put me in mind of the contrast between Bob and me; indeed, between Bob and most of us in the trade.
I’m like a small creature of the field. I have to keep eating or I’ll starve to death. I buy a book or manuscript, extract what story it has to tell, and try to sell it. When I issue catalogs they tend to be serial assemblages of material related only by subject area.
Bob, on the other hand, is a gatherer. He seems to have difficulty parting with anything he acquires. I used to think this was because he was a hoarder, like one of those strange people on reality TV. I now understand that Bob is reluctant to sell because he wants to see how each piece he acquires fits into the larger story of the collection he is assembling – whether it’s Arbus and freak shows, or African American life.
In fact you could say that, in the past five years, Bob has sold only two items. Both of them just happened to be monumental in conception and scale.
That’s what I’d call extreme book selling.
It may not be the “future” of our trade, but I think the example of Bob’s methodology gives us another way to think about what we do as book sellers.