Peter B. Howard, the owner of Serendipity Books, has been collecting antique tomes for 47 years and the results of his diligence can be seen in the stacks and stacks of books at his store on University Avenue.
A world-renowned book collector who has rescued a number of valuable archives from the Berkeley city dump and gotten them preserved at university libraries, Howard estimates that he owns one million books. Half are crammed into his store, where the piles of books make it tough to move around, and half are stored in his warehouse.
But all that is about to change.
Howard was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer this year and he knows his time – and that of Serendipity Books — is short. He is trying to sell his massive collection, as well as his business, but does not think it will be easy. He predicts that the store will probably close upon his death.
“There’s nothing to say,” Howard said by telephone. “People die. We all die. Businesses end.”
Howard has long been famous for his blunt talk. That, and the quality of his collection, which contains many first editions and rare books.
Ian Jackson, an old friend and fellow antiquarian book dealer, has served as an unofficial interpreter of Howard to the world. He even wrote two books about the store and its owner, one titled, The Key to Serendipity: How to Buy Books in Spite of Peter Howard. (I think the double entendre is intended.)
In an epigraph to that book, Jackson repeats a conversation he overheard at Serendipity:
Puzzled Customer: “Is there any rhyme or reason to this place?”
Peter B. Howard: “Yes! My rhyme! My reason!”
Howard’s collection is huge and covers many areas, including California history and western Americana. He is known for his collection of first editions of American and British literature, and has holdings of Ernest Hemingway, Henry James, Shakespeare, North Point Press, and fiction from countries around the world, according to an interview Nicholas Basbanes published in his 2001 book, Patience and Fortitude: Wherein a Colorful Cast of Determined Book Collectors, Dealers, and Librarians Go About the Quixotic Task of Preserving a Legacy. Serendipity also has large collections of literary manuscripts, screenplays and little magazines.
Howard estimates his book collection is worth between $2.5 million and $3.5 million. So far, he has not found anyone willing to buy it.
“I have made my business so big and so complex that no one in their right mind but me would ever want to take the responsibility for it,” Howard told Basbanes a few years ago.
Wandering through Serendipity Books is like going to Bancroft Library – only one with open shelves. Many first editions and rare books just sit there waiting to be perused. It’s a bibliophile’s dream.
Debra Williams, the executive editor of Pearson Education Publishing in New York, makes a point of stopping by Serendipity Books every time she is in the Bay Area.
“It’s like being able to witness the breadth and depth of modern literature over the last 300 years,” said Williams. “It’s such a special place. It’s a very enchanted place in the book world. It will be sad to see that pass.”
Howard started collecting the books of D.H. Lawrence when he was a junior at Haverford College, he told the New York Times. He came to Berkeley to study English, spent eight years in graduate school, but discovered he liked collecting books more. By 1967 his collection had outgrown his house and he opened a store on Shattuck Avenue. When he outgrew that space in 1986, he bought an old wine processing facility on University Avenue. An old wooden cask still hangs at the front of the ivy-covered store, but now it has “Books” painted across it.
Howard has made some notable purchases in his lengthy career as a bookseller.
In the late 1990s, Howard bought the 18,000-volume collection of Carter Burden, a descendent of Cornelius Vanderbilt and a progressive New York politician and businessman. The size of the collection prompted Howard to install compact shelving, making Serendipity the only bookstore in the world to have such shelving.
In 1991, Howard was offered the archives of Thomas M. Jackson, an Oakland grocer who had served as secretary for the California chapter of the NAACP from 1910 and 1940. After Jackson died in 1963, someone took his papers to the Berkeley dump. Someone else rescued them and asked Howard to help them find a proper home. Howard sold the papers to the Bancroft Library.
Later in that decade, someone found 946 letters exchanged between two Japanese-American teenagers who met at an internment camp in Utah. Tamaki Tsubokura and David Hisato Yamate were separated for a few years while he fought in the war, and they wrote to one another frequently. These letters were also dumped at the Berkeley landfill and later rescued. Howard brokered their sale to the University of Utah.
With Howard’s love and understanding of antique books and documents, — he also served as president of the Antiquarian Bookseller’s Association of America from 1992 to 1994 — it is not surprising to find that he does not think anyone else will want to take over his business. He thinks it is much more likely that someone will buy his inventory and the store will close.
“The rare book business is another animal,” said Howard. “One doesn’t buy other people’s business. One buys their inventory. ”
But Howard is clearly proud of the books he has discovered and rescued, even as he remains pragmatic about the likelihood of Serendipity Books’ survival.
Howard is philosophical about Serendipity, saying it could close tomorrow, it could close in two years, or another book business could take over, but he is clearly proud of the company he has built up over 47 years.
“This is the greatest fucking bookstore in the world,” said Howard. “This is the best open-premises bookstore.”
(With thanks to Berkeley artist Sheila Newbery for her photograph.)