As a typophile who had only recently discovered the pleasure and joy of a finely printed letterpress book, I was naturally in a hurry to pursue (if not always successfully acquire) beautiful examples of contemporary fine press books that appealed to me deeply.
Book hunting assiduously, I would often still end up arriving a little too late – the fine press party would be over, and the lights turned out. The edition had been so small – not more than 50 copies printed! – that the book had been snapped up, or sold out almost before publication. But sometimes my luck would hold, I’d get my timing right, and the bibliophile goddess would smile down on me.
One such fine bargain coup I managed – a true fine press rarity – was a book done in a tiny edition of just 31 copies, none for sale – yet I acquired it, and that too (in retrospect!) at a magical price. Titled Henry &, it was a fine press book no one had probably seen in the market until then, since it was privately printed for just four people. The subject of the book was Henry Morris, the accomplished and (sometimes) satirical printer of the Bird and Bull (B&B) Press.
Four people who had worked or collaborated with Morris offer affectionate reminisces about working with him. The copies were divided between them, while Morris was presented with a finely bound copy. A little note on Henry Morris and his press would be relevant here before I say more about how I came to acquire this scarce private press book – not just to embellish my find, but to also illustrate the large part they played in shaping my collecting focus.
I was lucky to stumble on Henry Morris’s Bird and Bull Press early in my initiation into fine press books – here was a prolific, ambitious private press printer who was completely focused on making fine press productionswith book arts as the sole theme of the press. Because Morris chose subjects that are close to a collector’s heart, you could immerse yourself in the text as well as its myriad fine press qualities.
I stumbled on my first B&B book by chance. One day, using a university’s Interlibrary Loan service, I requested a copy of Dr Rosenbach and Mr Lilly, an enjoyable true tale by Joel Silver of the transactions between a rare book dealer and a rich collector. Instead of sending me the trade edition, they sent me the finely printed letterpress Bird and Bull edition! I relished everything about it, and if I recall correctly, I held on to it as long as I could, using up my two renewals. I returned it reluctantly. I felt as if an exotic, strange and exciting creature had flown away from me. Could I get one for myself? No. Even the lowest priced copy on the antiquarian market was well beyond me at $450. I now own a copy of that B&B title, but the purchase would come after nearly two years of dreaming and saving up for it.
I can’t think of a single other fine press who has published so many finely printed books on bibliophily and the book arts. Morris covered them all – papermaking, marbling, wood engraving, book collecting, bookselling, booksellers trade tokens, emblem books, bookbinding, intaglio printing, biblio spoofs, bibliography as well as a vast deal of commentary on fine press printers and fine printing. And then there was the attractiveness of his books: the early titles from the press were printed on handmade paper (in many cases, paper he had made himself), the text printed from a fine metal type with satisfying impression, appropriately or beautifully bound (often quarter leather and marbled boards) and – this is perhaps the most remarked upon element in his luxurious productions – including tipped in or mounted samples of whatever the book at hand was dealing with. If on paper marbling or a paper marbler, then several original samples of beautiful marbled paper mounted on a full page were included, if on a famous hand papermaker like Dard Hunter, then specimens of various papers made by Hunter over the years.
Morris and his books kept me happily preoccupied in my early collecting years, negotiating with dealers on prices, hunting for bargains, and chasing after scarcer titles. And that’s how I found myself one day contemplating having to make a fairly expensive purchase of a book about this printer, and not one printed by him.
When the scintillating collection of fine press books and material related to the book arts belonging to the noted bookbinder Gregor R Campbell came into the market, there were about a dozen things in there that were highly desirable, scarce, and even singular. While the dealer who bought the collection priced them according to their value and scarcity in the market, there was one item that (at least temporarily) slipped through the cracks and was underpriced at $275.
Though Henry & was a book I desired, I felt for a slim book of some 20 odd pages printed in just black and white, it was priced rather high. But after only hesitating a little I bought it, not fully realising the price was more than fair. I – as well as the bookseller – recognised its real value perhaps a week or so later when he listed a second copy at the more marked up price of $850. Even at that price this second copy was bought up quickly. No third copy has turned up so far.
Campbell had been one of the four people associated with the book and had got his share of the copies, and in making a move to sell his collection, had given up a few copies (probably just the two which sold out) of this book. The other three contributors here on Morris were: Sidney E Berger, scholar-collector and bibliographer, the late Robert D Fleck, bookdealer, and Wesley Bates, the wood engraver; all had personal reflections to offer combined with some juicy details about what it was like to work with Morris over the years.
When I bought Henry &, I had recognised that it was an unusual item as a book on Henry Morris had never been done before. And given the very limited edition and my own desire to collect all things related to fine press printers, and in particular, Henry Morris – an interesting, ingenious, and funny character – I found I could not resist the temptation to get it. So, a week later when a second copy of this book showed up at a higher price, I had to learn why.
And I was able to find out directly from the source. Coincidentally, around the time Campbell’s books got listed at Rulon-Miller Books, I had been corresponding with Sidney Berger. I had been a fan of Mr Berger for all his bibliophilic writing, as well as for his ardent book collecting over decades, resulting in a vast collection of book arts material, notable for its famed collection of decorative papers. Just a few weeks before I ended up buying Henry &, I had written a fan mail to him, and he had responded warmly.
Imagine then my excitement at seeing this in the colophon for Henry &: “This book was initiated by Sid Berger”. Rather than sending him one more email, I called him up and told him I had just bought Henry &. He began in surprise with “Where the devil did you find –” and stopped himself short, laughed, and finished with, “oh, okay, I know...”
He then went on to share with me how the price of that second copy was raised significantly after he had provided the dealer with the background to the origins of the book, as well as how those 31 copies were distributed. Berger had worked closely with Morris on several B&B books, including that magnum opus, The Handmade Papers of Japan. (My own favourite Berger-Morris book is The Anatomy of a Literary Hoax.)
They would keep in touch often, even when not working on a project, but after Morris closed his press, Sidney found him often (and quite naturally) in low spirits. That’s when he decided he had to do something to cheer his old friend up, the kind of bibliophilic project Henry Morris himself might think up of, and hit upon Henry &. The background to the making of this book was eventually added to the description of the second copy by the bookshop as a note from Sidney.
Excerpted with permission from The Book Beautiful: A Memoir of Collecting Rare and Fine Books, Pradeep Sebastian.