Friday, April 1, 2011

Let us now praise the life of Peter Howard

Peter Howard, the mastermind behind Serendipity Books in Berkeley, California, died quietly on Thursday evening, March 31. Peter was and will continue to be a giant--a superhero--in the antiquarian book field. Browsing the seemingly unorganized stacks at Serendipity was a rite of passage. The poetry section alone contained nearly half a million books (on crank-driven, mobile shelving). And God only knows how many nooks, crannies, and warehouses of poetry Peter had in addition to the poetry titles at the book store. I once asked Peter what, as a bookseller, had been the most interesting poetry book he'd had the pleasure of selling. He said something like, "I hope you're not really asking me that! How could I choose!? Maybe some ephemera signed from Whitman to Emerson? This is an impossible and pointless question..." Peter was gruff, humorous, enigmatic, and ridiculously passionate. His encyclopedic knowledge and historical grasp of printed culture was astounding, to say the very least. Scanning my shelves and framed broadsides, I can spot some great gems that I picked up from Peter over the past four years. Among them are three copies of a Robert Bly and Tomas Tranströmer broadside (signed by both authors) called "Along the Lines." I never knew Peter as a friend, I knew him as a bookseller and a fellow book nut. I never left Serendipity without a book or some piece of random poetry ephemera. And I never paid for a book without Peter glancing over his glasses, grumbling in my general direction, then crossing out the listed price only to replace it with something far lower. I mourn his passing, celebrate his legacy, and raise my glass.

--Michael McGriff