The Grolier Club, a redoubt of bibliophiles on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, has no shortage of stately, book-lined interiors that scream — or at least murmur quietly — “serious collectors here.”
But the true spirit of the place might be found in an unassuming closet on the fourth floor containing an alarming, nearly floor-to-ceiling jumble of crumpled papers practically exploding out of weathered wooden crates.
It’s a remnant of the vast private library of the 19th-century British bibliomaniac Thomas Phillipps — and, for the unprepared, a startling reveal akin to the first sight of Norman Bates’s mother in “Psycho.”
“This is what happens when you are a fanatical book collector,” Eric Holzenberg, the club’s director, said on a recent morning.
The Phillipps legend is the kind of lore bibliophiles savor, and which Mr. Holzenberg was eager to share during a recent tour of the Grolier. Founded in 1884, it is the oldest bibliophilic club in the United States and a quiet fixture on the city’s cultural scene. It offers nine free public exhibitions a year, which range from the sweeping (like “French Book Arts: Manuscripts, Books, Bindings, Prints and Documents, 12th-21st Century,” on view through Feb. 2) to the esoteric (Czech pop-up books; miniature bindings).
Last month it celebrated the centennial of its Georgian-style building and the renovation of its ground-floor exhibition hall with a week of events, including a talk by Carla Hayden, the Librarian of Congress.
And starting Jan. 22, the club will offer public lectures and exhibition tours during Bibliography Week, an annual event that attracts collectors, scholars and other bookish people from all over the world for shoptalk and general kibbitzing.
“It’s kind of hard not to go for the Comic-Con comparison,” Mr. Holzenberg said of “Bib Week,” as devotees call it. “It’s a geekfest.”
The club, which has roughly 800 members, is named for Jean Grolier, a 16th-century French high official and book collector known for commissioning exquisite bindings. The Latin motto on his bookplate — “Io. Grolierii et Amicorum,” or “belonging to Jean Grolier and his friends” — represents the ethic of sharing and sociability the club embodies.
Many of the exhibitions are drawn from members’ own collections, which include incunabula (books from the first half-century after the introduction of movable type in Europe around 1455) and fine bindings, but also science fiction, zines, punk rock ephemera, bookmarks, valentines. One member even has a sideline in printed paper sleeves for coffee cups.
“The universe of printed matter is enormous,” Mr. Holzenberg said. “It includes the high and the low, the beautiful and the ugly, the significant and the really, really insignificant. There’s a lot of value in a big enough collection of really, really insignificant objects. It can tell you something really interesting.”
As a collection of people, the club has historically exhibited a distinct pattern: male, older, white, well-heeled, often bowtied.
In recent years, it has pushed to diversify, both in terms of members (though “cultural diversity,” as Mr. Holzenberg put it, remains a work in progress), and what they collect.
Sarah Funke Butler, a private curator, said the number of women and younger people had increased since she joined 13 years ago. “The top hat to high heel ratio has really leveled off,” she said.
The metaphor may be fancy, but members’ tastes often are not. “I think what’s new is a growing realization that a collection does not have to be expensive to be a collection,” Ms. Butler said.
The Grolier was founded at a moment when machine printing and automated type production were degrading the quality of printed books, which in turn fueled an interest in fine printing. The newly renovated exhibition hall, designed by Ann Beha Architects as part of a $4.6 million overhaul, subtly reflects our own era’s similarly mixed feelings about technology and tradition, marrying warm wood paneling with high-tech display cases and, at one end, a large digital display screen. (Mr. Holzenberg confessed initial fear that an older member might see it “and fall over dead, or kill me.”)
Artful illumination gives visitors a better glimpse of the shelves of books lining the (inaccessible) balcony, hinting at the atmosphere of the grand library on the third floor. “It pulls the books right down into the center of the room,” said Bruce Crawford, the club’s current president (and a collector of Dickens and other 19th-century authors).
On the way up to the members-only spaces, Mr. Holzenberg offered me a quick look into the second-floor gallery, where a half-dozen members were installing “Two American Poets: Wallace Stevens and William Carlos Williams,” a new exhibition drawn from the collection of Alan M. Klein, a member and lawyer.
I made the mistake of tsking that no one was wearing gloves.
“Never gloves!” several people exclaimed at once. They compromise the grip, as it turns out, increasing the risk of dropping or tearing something.
Up in the library (open to researchers but not the general public), Meghan Constantinou, the club’s librarian, opened a not-so-secret door concealed in a bookshelf. It opens to a staircase that leads to more shelves holding some of the library’s collection of more than 150,000 bookseller, auction and private library catalogs, as well as over 40,000 books about books.
Ms. Constantinou, a collector of women’s bookplates, had pulled out one of the oldest printed books in the collection: a copy of Flavius Josephus’s “The Jewish War,” published in 1470 by a Rhineland printer named Johann Schüssler (no known relation to this reporter, alas).
George Fletcher, a bowtied former curator at the Morgan Library & Museum and the New York Public Library, stepped out from a nook, as if from central casting, to give a potted history of bookmaking in the 15th-century, when movable type was still new.
In this period, printed and manuscript books coexisted, sometimes bound together in the same volume, Mr. Fletcher explained, showing the place where handwritten pages of another text took over from Schüssler’s printed pages.
One floor up, there was a peek at the “Dutch kitchen,” an ersatz fantasy of a colonial New Amsterdam tavern, built in the Grolier’s previous quarters in the 1890s, when a fad for such interiors swept New York’s clubs.
And then it was on to the Phillipps Room, home to the spectacularly messy closet, as well as a (very neatly kept) collection of material relating to the mad collector, including a lock of his hair.
If generous Jean Grolier is the Dr. Jekyll of book collecting, Phillipps is its Mr. Hyde. The illegitimate son of a rich cloth merchant, he was one of the first manuscript collectors to branch out from fine illuminated manuscripts and collect parish records, family genealogies and other humble but historically important material. (He is a focus of “Bibliomania,” an exhibition that just opened at Yale University’s Beinecke Library.)
Phillipps was also, Mr. Holzenberg said, “a total failure as a human being”: irascible, cheap, scatterbrained, bad at Latin, rabidly anti-Catholic, horrible to his children, and so generally disagreeable that it was hard to get his book-loving friends to cooperate with him.
When he died in 1872, his manor house was so crammed with papers and books that it took a century to sell it all off. The stuff in the closet (carefully preserved behind glass) is a remnant that had floated from private collector to private collector, still in Phillipps’s own crates, until the Grolier bought it in 2003, for about $10,000.
So is the closet meant as a warning? Or an inspiration?
Mr. Holzenberg didn’t miss a beat. “Both!”
French Book Arts: Manuscripts, Books, Bindings, Prints, and Documents, 12th-21st Century (through Feb. 2) and Two Poets: Wallace Stevens and William Carlos Williams (through Feb. 23)
Grolier Club of New York, 47 East 60th Street, Manhattan; 212-838-6690, grolierclub.org.