The Lives and Work of Wright and Zoe Howes and the Story of U.S.iana
For collectors of a certain age Wright Howes, the Chicago book dealer and author of Howes’ U.S.iana, is a mythic figure. Born in 1882, and devoted to the sale of old and rare Americana for most of his adult life, he lived in what he felt was the decline of the golden age of collectible bookselling, a conclusion drawn from an article in 1953 in the Library Quarterly in which he wrote:
“survival of the antiquarian branch is principally due to … the shift which most of its members have made, within the last 25 years, from high-rent street shops to office, home or other inexpensive quarters.” Working themselves from home beginning in 1939, he and Zoe would keep a hand in the game for the next 31 years, living and working from an apartment on Chicago Avenue until 1951, and then at Irving Apartments until 1970. Their story is one to savor.
He comes back to life under the encouraging hand of John Blew, himself a Chicago man and collector who pieced together Howes’ story from his family and company records, many of which are in the safe keeping of the Newberry Library. In this well-told story his partner and wife Zoe adds substance to his public life and reminds us that a close and enduring marriage is often vital to professional success. They would both pass away in 1978, she at 90 and he a few months later at 95.
Toward the end of his career in 1954 he published U.S.iana and eight years later, an enlarged edition. It could not have been completed sooner for these efforts reflected his entire career as a bookseller and until he was well along such an effort was premature for he was still encountering material for the first time. After the publication of the second, and enlarged, edition, he and Zoe would live on for another 16 years. They would never have children but would seed the book collecting field with hundreds, if not thousands, of serious collectors whose vocations and avocations would be shaped by this fastidious bibliographer who combined his academic approach and business experience to provide a priced grading system that every collector with a beating heart relied upon, in that era, to buy or bid. It was an act of genius in a field of eccentrics.
For the next 25 years his easy to carry volume was required reading for all those visiting dealers, antique shops, auctions and garage sales. He empowered collecting and collectors who identified millions of dollars of material using his metrics.
The pre-internet world now dims in the bright lights of immense databases that summon the researcher’s inner genius simply to search effectively. In his time he had to figure out what to choose and how to concisely present information on more than 10,000 books and other printed items in a format that would be easy to carry. And he succeeded by basing U.S.iana on decades of his business records. Books that appeared often were sent into the kindergarten of collecting – the category “a”. Books of somewhat greater importance that appeared less often were “aa”. Books in the “b” category were decidedly uncommon and important and such material rarely fell into your lap. In the 1950’s a “c” would pay the down payment on a house, and a “dd”, pay for the house. In this way he connected the randomness of reappearance to his personally derived statistics to create an understandable approach to collecting the printed word.
If he was a giant he was also human and Mr. Blew through words and photography restores the human Howes to life. His story and accomplishments encourage the reader to consider his background and so it’s useful to fill in the details, he the unreconstructed southerner, born In Macon, Georgia, who moved away at 18 to live most of his life in northern cities before returning to Augusta, near Macon in his final years. It gives the impression of a highly compartmentalized life, a logical way to buy and sell where there was what he could pay and how much. It was this formula that, once transcribed from his business notes, became US.iana. It is beautiful intellectual symmetry and all the more unusual in that it’s his original creation.
Mr. Blew’s account is far more detailed than this brief review suggests. Wright Howes was never one to use three words if two would suffice. For they who know nothing about him, adding anything further is unnecessary. But to they who used US.iana in its heyday and realize they know next to nothing about him there is a wonderful discovery at hand because he has been part of your life mostly unnoticed for decades and his story is probably also somewhat yours.
So, if your collecting perspective is American and more particularly Americana then you’ll obtain a copy of this book because Wright Howes is your intellectual forbearer. And, if you’ll go a little further, as they do in China, create a small alter and burn incense and paper money at least once a year to remember him – knowing that the path you follow today is the path he illuminated more than 70 years ago.
The full text of the 1962 edition and Sabin’s Bibliotheca Americana, were the first two sources added to what has become over the past 16 years, the RBH Transaction Database; today a database 800 times the number of records in Howes’ first release.
This edition consists of 150 copies, of which 125 are for sale at $50.00 net (the actual cost $92.00). They can be purchased from George S. MacManus Co. 12 Water Street, Bryn Mawr, PA 19010. Shipping is extra.
The George MacManus Co.
Run, don’t walk.