A Book Lover’s Haven Turns 100 | Modern Society of USA

A Book Lover’s Haven Turns 100

A Book Lover’s Haven Turns 100

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.

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).

Source link