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Much as he might have wanted to, when Book Soup owner Glenn Goldman died of pancreatic cancer last year, he couldn't take his impressive 20th-century literature collection with him. Parts of it are being auctioned off as we speak.
"When you get a call about books, you hope to hear two things," says Catherine Williamson, director of fine books and manuscripts at Bonhams & Butterfields, the house that is running the sale. "That the collection belonged to someone who follows the rare-book trade, or that it belonged to someone well-connected. Glenn was both."
Known for high-profile signings that wrapped crowds around the block of its Sunset Boulevard digs, Goldman turned Book Soup into a model of a modern, major independent bookstore. Literary (and actual) rock stars sign there, as do artists, politicians, actors and porn stars.
While he certainly had a soft spot for the flashy guest author, Goldman did not mess around when it came to collecting. There are first editions, and then there are first editions. He owned, for instance, a first edition of James Joyce's Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. It went up for auction in New York last month along with the choicest bits from his collection, including a first edition, first issue of Steinbeck's first book, Cup of Gold.
The single most coveted book in the July L.A. sale was a signed copy of photographer Richard Avedon's Observations, with commentary by Truman Capote. Williamson believes it will attract more interest than even the signed, first edition copy of Raymond Carver's What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.
Unlocking the glass bookcase in the Bonhams & Butterfields showroom, Williamson notes that Goldman also acquired quite a few uncorrected advance proofs, or "galleys," as they're known in the trade. "Now, this is an interesting area of collecting," she says. "You want as close to the first copy that rolls off the printing press. That's copy No. 1. These are very close to copy No. 1. In fact, they precede it."
Her slim hand rests lightly on a shrink-wrapped galley of Infinite Jest. Its author, David Foster Wallace, hanged himself two years ago. "Foster Wallace is pretty collectible these days," she murmurs.
Those close to Goldman knew that he bought what he loved, but was drawn to what was unique. "I know he favored misprintings and had a special fondness for rare galleys," says Tyson Cornell, Book Soup's former general manager, who left soon after Goldman's death to start his own literary publicity firm, Rare Bird Lit. "He referred to his galley collection on almost a daily basis. Books were clearly art objects to him." But they were art "without the provenance," Cornell remembers his boss saying once when they were looking at an 1851 edition of Harper & Brothers' Moby-Dick; or, The Whale.
What Goldman might have meant, Cornell isn't sure. Perhaps he meant that books don't need provenance documentation in the same way a painting might, Williamson suggests. A book's origins are spelled out in the title page.
"I bet that Avedon book does very well, and probably the Carver," she adds. "Those are the two I like best, and that's usually a good indication." She's not always right. She estimated, conservatively, that Goldman's copy of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas — autographed by author Hunter S. Thompson and illustrator Ralph Steadman — would sell for $500.
It went for almost $4,000.
When a loved one dies, survivors tend to want to hold on to their stuff. But as a collector, Goldman would have understood the value of letting go, of allowing others to participate in the process. When a great collection goes on the market, the next generation is able to experience the thrill of the hunt. The cycle continues.
Goldman had so many books that the sale is being spread over several months. This month, people will have a chance to bid on an Ed Ruscha coffee-table monograph inscribed, in the artist's sprawling script, "Glenn you Rascal."
But they're way too late for the five signed volumes of Timothy Leary psychedelia. A buyer already snapped them up for $1,098. "To Glenn," Leary wrote on one volume, prescient as ever, "keep the product moving!!"