Peter B. Howard by Sheila Newbery

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.)

Frances Dinkelspiel

Frances Dinkelspiel (co-founder) is a journalist and author. Her first book, Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman Created California,...

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  1. My condolences to Peter’s family.  I bought many books from Peter when I was the director of operations for Bookman’s Used Books in Arizona . . . he taught me a great deal.  This is a great loss to the antiquarian book community . . .

  2. My condolences to Peter’s family.  I bought many books from Peter when I was the director of operations for Bookman’s Used Books in Arizona . . . he taught me a great deal.  This is a great loss to the antiquarian book community . . .

  3. I spent many hours at Serendipity Books and bought many treasures from Peter for my DH Lawrence collection. This includes the jewel of the collection, a rare signed Lawrence. Until I checked out this website (actually hoping to contact Peter for his opinion on an appraisal of said book), I did not know of his illness. Both my husband &I are so saddened by the news.
    C&C R.

  4. Peter Howard had the best bookstore for poets ever. I had loved Grolier Books in Camb,MA since 1960. in 1970 i met Serendipity in Berkeley,CA and Peter Howard. He in California and Louisa Solano in Cambridge,MA are the greatest literary/poetry bookpersons in the only world I know. Now i know the Bolerium in San Francisco and Jeff Maser in Berkeley. I know I am limited in my knowledge but that is because I am speaking through my experience. Peter Howard also had the best new original fine crafted wood furniture and pieces I have run across.
    When Peter Howard is gone there will be an emply place left. And it won’t get filled. edward mycue

  5. I’ve known Peter since I wandered into that first store in the late 60s and bought a copy of an early 20th century poet — he gave me a discount.. While it’s true that he can be at times irascible, I have also been witness to, and the recipient of, acts of enormous generosity, both spontaneous and long lasting. It may seen a simpering trope at this juncture, but underneath that gruff exterior beats a heart of gold.

  6. I’ve known Peter since we were undergraduates together, and we began graduate study on the same day at Berkeley. I’ve bought and sold books at Serendipity, know his family, been his guest and his host. Of course he can be grumpy. I’ve irritated him myself. But his legacy isn’t about his pettishness. I’m sorry that “s z underwood” was rankled — indeed that he put himself in the way of being rankled, since he obviously lingered so stubbornly to make himself a target — but he polishes the experience of ‘some years ago’so lovingly that one wonders if he didn’t relish it. In any case, to take the occasion of Peter’s death, and the loss of his collection (to which some of my own books have been consigned),to publish his own self-serving justification seems very odd, not to say spiteful.

    The fact is Peter Howard is a world-class distributor and conservator of precious texts. That is his legacy, and it’s very significant. In the balance, he’s more important than most of us.

    Fred See

  7. Peter Howard and Serendipity were one of the joys of my first visit to Berkeley. Imagine my delight pawing through some back bins to find a nearly complete collection of 1885-1920 exhibition catalogs and ephemera of the Grolier Club, America’s most distinguished bibliophile club. Peter was irascible and cagey until I pulled forth book after book and described the item, or author or … well, whatever! I’m a librarian by training and he warmed up. (One of the hardest things in operating any kind of public store is to suffer theft or fools–so I’m understanding of any dealer’s curmudgeonliness.) Peter, you’ll be missed.

  8. Peter is both irascible and an absolute treasure. I have learned more over the years about how to approach true bibliophilia from him than most other teachers (Fred Cody and Ian Ballantine are in the same ballpark). He isn’t a friendly man, overall — but the places where I felt he respected me, as a bookseller and a book lover, are moments that I’ll cherish for a long time.

    Pancreatic cancer is a real horror. I think that if anyone can make it sit down and go away, it’s Peter. As the previous commenter implies, he can be a bit of a horror himself. And in my experience — he’s been worth it. I feel better for having the chance to say it now, while he’s still around and might actually read it: thank you, Peter, for the mentoring you’ve done both consciously and unconsciously for an entire generation of collectors and book lovers. Good learning isn’t cheap.

  9. I wish Mr. Howard all the best with his health. Indeed, Serendipity is a fantastic repository of many rare books and some collectible first or early editions of many classic works. I only wish I had read Mr. Jackson’s key to buying books at Serendipity before I entered his store!

    Some years back, when we entered his treasure trove with a child in tow he seemed to take an immediate disliking to us (at first sight). Typecasting us as Barnes and Noble shoppers, he strongly tried to discourage us from even entering, browsing or looking around at all. Not to be discouraged by his blatantly rude affronts, we decided to have look around the store since we are in fact avid in fact book collectors. He followed us around very anxiously, making more rude and demeaning comments without any cause or provocation. When I tried to query him about his rather eclectic and idiosyncratic organizational scheme to find areas of greater interest to us, he became increasingly agitated, more rude, then downright enraged. Despite his best attempts at being unpleasant and driving away a possible new regular customer, I did manage to find one or two books of interest by happenstance (again, the collection was a nightmarish mess). I asked him for a quote on the books and he gave me a sarcastic astronomical price (these were not particularly rare or special volumes) merely to be spiteful.

    Over the years, we have encountered our share of rude store employees or owners the world over. But I cannot think of any experience to equal the treatment we received at Serendipity. In the ensuing years, we have spent many thousands of dollars collecting rare and out of print books in several fields, but not one cent has gone to a store in our very own community which is so unfortunate. We would have liked nothing better than to support a local merchant and establish a personal and cordial relationship. That’s how community is built.

    When I was in Serendipity, I had the very strong sense that the owner had a poor understanding that the pleasure and joy of dealing in older and rarer books should be to see them find new homes in which the books will be treasured, read and appreciated anew. Yes, the proprietor may have temporary stewardship over these volumes (they are not really “his” books), but in the long term these books belong to our common culture and civilization. I would rate the success of a book merchant by how successfully they make their treasures accessible to a wider public, how many new converts to older literature they help mentor and foster and finally how many books they pass on to individual collectors and even casual buyers. The tens of thousands of wonderful old books waiting to be reread and rediscovered moldering for many years in an obscure storefront in West Berkeley or in his warehouse, hardly accessible to anyone, is more of a tragedy than a triumph.

  10. Thanks for letting us know about Howard’s illness. His store was the resource for much of my graduate studies. If the business cannot sell, wouldn’t it be wonderful if the inventory was bought by, say, black oak books? or another local independent book dealer….

  11. Thank you for a fantastic story — to think I’ve lived a few blocks from this place and never seen this place.