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    Adventures of a rare book dealer (and former small bookshop owner).

Theodore Hittell

Written on February 11, 2007

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Thinking more about the purpose and goals I have for this blog, I realize I also want just a simple record of some of the more interesting materials I handle. Much of what I sell never makes it into a catalog or onto the Internet, and even those items that are listed on the various databases, the record of their existence is largely wiped away once they are sold. For most books, this doesn’t matter. But for unique materials, having a more lasting record can be quite useful. Catalogs used to serve this purpose (and still should and do), but with fewer booksellers issuing them, there is a sense in which much of the bibliographic history that used to have hard-copy records, are being lost. For example, ABPC continues, but eBay’s auction records disappear completely after a few months.Picture of Theodore Hittell

A case in point. I recently acquired a collection of documents relating to the important California historian, Theodore Hittell: letters to his wife, drafts of unpublished work, photographs. Hittell is perhaps best know to most people as the writer who brought us Grizzly Adams, later turned into a popular 1970’s TV series. But he also wrote one of the most important histories of California, was member of the infamous San Francisco Vigilance Committees (from whence we get the term vigilante), and was one of the earliest instructors for The Sierra Club. He’s also one of only two writers (the other is Mark Twain) to land two books on the famed Zamorano 80 list.

I may sell this to another dealer (and if there’s one aspect of this business that outsiders find difficult to understand, it’s the purpose/need of dealer-to-dealer transactions; but that’s a topic for another post), it may go to an institution (where it could linger unprocessed for years). And should it subsequently go to a private collector, even the barest knowledge of this collection would likely be lost for years.

And so, some highlights:

letter1.jpgletter2.jpgAn incredibly tender and moving letter from Hittell on the death of his wife: “[S]he was the most reliable woman I ever met. I distinctly remember using the expression ‘She is true as steel’; and during all our married life of upwards of forty-two years I never had cause to change my opinion then expressed; nor did I ever change it. [...] She was made of heroic stuff – much more than any other woman of my acquaintance. There is no act of female heroism recorded [...] she would not have been capable of recording.”

Does anyone write letters like this anymore? Will anyone ever take the trouble to be this eloquent in an email?

brands.jpgpoemhittell.jpgA fascinating little note documenting the cattle brands California vaqueros used on their herds and an original and unpublished typescript poem in ode of John Muir and The Sierra Club.

There’s more — other letters (including ones from Charles S. Lummis and Lincoln Steffans to Hittell’s sons), notes and drafts — but this seems enough to get the sense of the collection (those wishing more details can read the complete cataloged description here). And it’s these kind of items that make this business so exciting. First because often for items like this one needs to research, learn, and process so much new information (I’ve spent the better part of a month on this collection). But more importantly, at its best, this is a business less about slogging books and more about preserving history.

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