I love this little book by John Steinbeck. There is so much to like about it. In the first place it gives me a warm and fuzzy feeling because of the experience I enjoyed in buying my first copy of this slender volume. That was back in the late 1970s a couple of years before I entered the rare book business. Like a lot of today’s rare book dealers, I started out as a private collector. I was living in Southern California and just happened to make contact with one of the best booksellers on the planet, Barbara Rootenberg of B. & L. Rootenberg Rare Books in Sherman Oaks. Barbara found a copy and offered it to me for $350. Remember, this was several decades ago. I didn’t have the money and couldn’t afford it, but she knew my passion for John Steinbeck material and said that if I committed to buying the book, she would hold it for me until I raised enough money. Well, about nine months passed, and an old friend repaid me a debt I thought I would never recover. It was like found money, so I called up Barbara and said I was ready to buy the book. At this point it had gone up in value to about $1,100. My price? The original $350 Barbara had quoted me. Can you say integrity?
The book measures just 4X5.25 inches and is only eight pages in length, including the title/copyright pages and the limitation page — not counting its string-tied buff-colored paper covers. By definition it is a book, recorded by the Goldstone & Payne bibliography of Steinbeck as A26a, but in reality it reprints a letter from Steinbeck to a Mr. G. The Mr. G in this case is Arnold Gingrich, then editor of “Esquire.” In it Steinbeck thanks him for the gift of a watch. The letter is filled with Steinbeck’s usual humor, noting that he had expected a watch as a gift for graduating from grammar school, but he had received a signet ring instead. Lack of a watch in high school apparently troubled him. In the book he wrote, “My time sense was so utterly undeveloped that I rarely got to school on time and sometimes left the school long before it was dismissed.” He again expected a watch when he graduated from high school, but instead he received a pen and pencil set. He never did graduate from Stanford University, so no watch was even contemplated.
The book was published in an edition of just 60 numbered copies, plus a few out-of-series copies and one that its famous printer, Ward Ritchie, kept for himself that he numbered as No. 61. The first 10 numbered copies went to Steinbeck. The remainder were retained by the publishers, Marguerite and Louis Henry Cohn of the House of Books, a famous antiquarian book firm in New York, for private distribution. None were for sale. They were issued with a white envelope marked with the same number as the number noted on the limitation page.
The book also reminds me of an episode between my father and me. Just a few years after I acquired my first copy, I had occasion to show my father the book. This would have been in the mid 1980s. Dad liked the idea of me being in business in general, but he wasn’t so sure about the rare and collectible book business in specific. I showed him this book. It had gone up in value rather precipitously, and I was proud of my business acumen (luck).
“Believe it or not, ” I said to him, showing him the almost flimsy book, “this little book is worth $3,500. I bought it a few years ago for $350.”
“Well,” he retorted, almost roaring, “I wouldn’t give you a God-damned dime for it.”
His response was an accurate reflection of the collectible marketplace at work.