I clean my office once or twice a year, whether it needs cleaning or not. Usually, this Herculean stable sweep takes place in preparation for the beginning of a new catalog. I discover, to my immense distress, that the place is such a disordered mess that I can’t tell the already-cataloged from the need-to-be-cataloged items.I move piles from one place to another, which releases drifts of book dust and pollen, which are then sucked up with a porta-vac, or smeared around with a feather duster, or wiped up with spray cleaner and paper towels. This activity never fails to turn up marvels that I’d long since forgotten I owned
Ian Jackson’s dazzling tribute to Bernie Rosenthal (and himself) is one such wonder – unearthed yesterday afternoon – and studied by me as if it were an artifact that had arrived by meteorite from a distant, highly advanced civilization. Which, in a way, it had.But the real prize of yesterday’s cleanup was the rediscovery of the file card catalog bequeathed to me by my friend, mentor, and sometime business partner, Ed Lefkowicz.Like so many other East Coast dealers of the last generation, Ed was a graduate of the Canner/Western Hemisphere book operation, where he learned the skills that would see him become the major American specialist in maritime books. (Is it just my imagination, or did more dealers tend to specialize back then?)
Once I’d decided to become a maritime specialist myself, I followed Ed around like a puppy, and he was kind enough to accommodate me. Eventually, we settled into a routine where, if there was stuff to be bought together, he’d handle the rares, and I’d sell the chowder – the good, cheap, standard books. Then, when he retired from the business to pursue other interests, he sold me some of his stock and gifted me with a lot more, including those boxes of index cards, which lived in storage areas for a decade or more, and were lived in by generations of mice, squirrels and chipmunks.
Upon this latest rediscovery, I took them out of their original boxes, cleaned up the acorns and mouse mess, and reboxed them. Then, for the first time, I began to look through them carefully, and discovered a trove of bibliographic information, perhaps without equal, as it pertains to the trade in maritime books and ephemera.
Basically, each card is a typewritten, full catalog entry. This was a labor saving device back in the pre-computer days. When we got another copy of a book we’d already cataloged and sold, we just copied the description from the card, and considered ourselves quite clever.
But Ed’s cards are more than that. They contain coded information regarding provenance, price, and sale, as well as additional bibliographic information, added in manuscript over the years, as he deepened his knowledge base. It all went into those boxes of cards – about 5500 of them by my estimate – representing each title Ed had sold in his career, and everything there was to know about it from marketing and historical points of view.
I emailed Ed about my discovery, and he responded with a key to the mysteries coded on his cards:
I used the system I inherited from Western Hemisphere when I worked there. Basic catalog description, collation, references, condition. At one corner (can’t remember which one) is a penciled code for my cost. (Western Hemisphere’s was Silvertown + X for the 10th digit; mine, I think, was MobyDick. (I know there aren’t 10 letters; I can’t recall what the last placeholders were, but I’m guessing an X figures into it. See if it works.) I also can’t recall whether I included the purchase date in there somewhere. Might have. And then I noted the catalog or bulletin in was listed in, whether I quoted it and who I quoted it to, who bought it. As I say, not much magic to it, but it did help me keep track of the history of any given title, so if I saw a copy one up in someone’s catalog I could quickly look it up and see if it might be worth buying. It also kept me from redoing research.
Fascinating stuff! As much for what he didn’t say as what he did.
What he didn’t say was how much physical work went into creating and maintaining those cards. Like just about every other dealer on the planet, my own “card catalog” these days is a BookHound database of books I’ve cataloged and offered for sale. But it’s ONLY that.
And it’s the physicality of maintaining such a card file that makes the delivery of the information different as well.
I’m not sure people today can grasp what it feels like to find a card, pull it, hold its place, make an entry, and reinsert it. A lot more work, sure, but it also gives the user a deeper relationship with the information than digital handling could. Like people saying they get more aural information from analog recordings… I did the Bibliography of Cape Ann Literature in an artist’s wooden paint box that held two rows of 3 x 5 cards. Anyone from then knows what it took to create an analog database, not so much anymore.
Dates on the cards are predominantly 1970s and 80s, with a few later notes from the 1990s, but Ed notes that, probably in the late 1980s, he switched over to Marc Younger’s Book Ease program, one of the first database programs designed for book dealers on the PC. The card catalog went into the closet, where it remained until yesterday. (Maybe those were Ed’s mice.) But it’s in my office now, and I intend to use it – along with Barbara’s Johnson’s card file, which I copied when I appraised her collection – when I catalog my books. These cards are different tools from another era, offering information of a different sort. After I’m finished with them, they’re headed for the Grolier Club.
And finally, in answer to a question I’m often asked by people who know I’m a friend of Ed’s – He moved to New York and became a professional photographer. We have lunch every time there’s a book fair in New York.
He’s got a splendid website at
Check it out!