The Mysterious Bookbinder Who Roamed Hollywood Blvd Looking For Tattered Tomes.

Robert G. Cowan:  An Extraordinary Life in the Shadows of History

by

Paul Hunt

The Mysterious Book Binder

Hanging around the old Atlantis Book Shop in Hollywood in the 1970s was the first time I heard about an old bookbinder who came into Hollywood once a week and made the rounds to the book shops and picked up books that needed repair and dropped off the finished books from the previous week. “ Doc” Burroughs, the owner of Atlantis, told me his name was “old man Cowan.” He repaired a lot of books for Atlantis. The repair jobs were always distinctive because Cowan often used wallpaper for end-paper, which was colorful but looked down upon by the rare book dealers who pointed out that wallpaper was usually made from wood pulp and highly acidic.

The reason Cowan had so much business was that he was really reasonable and his repairs were sturdy and lasting. Because he was around doing this he saved thousands of books from being tossed out. Every book dealer runs across books that have a detached cover, or weak hinges, or a missing end paper. A normal book bindery or hand bindery would charge something like $75 on up at that time to do a proper repair. Cowan would do it for $3-$5 dollars on average. He had his own methods to tackle some of the jobs that needed to be completely re-sewn. His technique was similar to that of William Hawley, the orientalist who published “Culture Charts” on Samurai Swords and Japanese language and dealt in books on Japan and China. Hawley lived in a house on a hill in the Silverlake district and it had about 100 steps to get up to it. I went there many times to buy his “Culture Charts” that I sold at the swap meets and military shows. In the basement of the house was a bindery, and he explained how he repaired books without using a sewing frame. I will save the general reader boredom and not go into detail on this.

Mr. Cowan used a similar technique to avoid actually having to sew the books. Between the time that I met Hawley in the early 1970s and the time I met Cowan in the 1980s I had been to UCLA’s bookbinding school for a couple semesters and learned the proper way to bind books. The teacher was the great Margaret Leckie, an internationally recognized rare book binder. Any thoughts I had of becoming a book binder vanished while taking that course. It requires so much time to sew and rebind a book that making a living at it seemed impossible to me. A few of the students were sent to the school by the Getty to learn how to bind and repair books because they had the income to hire and train folks to maintain their massive collections. Unless one can become a master book binder in order to work only on rare and expensive books, it is impossible to make a living repairing $10 and $20 dollar books for book dealers. Although I decided not to pursue the trade of binding, I learned a lot, and by the time I finally met Cowan I had a grateful respect for what he was doing, although at times wincing at the wallpaper he used for end paper.

 

Bill Chase, Manager of Gilbert’s Book Shop

Robert G. Cowan was really a character, a one of a kind man who had done many things in life. I greatly admired him and was very fond of him. I finally met him in the mid-1980’s. I got his phone number from Bill Chase, who was working for me at that time. The glory days of Hollywood Boulevard were almost gone, and shops were closing up or moving to Westwood. Bill Chase had run Gilbert’s Book Shop at Hollywood and Vine. This was formerly known as Satyr books, and was around the corner on Vine Street and I think this was run by Stanley Rose. When Rose moved to Hollywood Blvd next to Musso and Franks, Mr. Gilbert took over the store and later moved around the corner on to Hollywood Blvd. just east of Vine Street.

Gilbert was married to one of Edgar Rice Burroughts daughters, and had an extensive collection of rare Tarzan books. Unfortunately a fire at his home did a lot of damage to his books, including the Tarzan books, and he sent boxes of them to Cowan to repair. Cowan had by then (mid-1980s) stopped his weekly trips to Hollywood Blvd to pick up and drop off books. He was doing that in his 80s, but as he approached 90 years old he would no longer drive, so if you wanted some books repaired you had to find him in his house in the steep hills of Silverlake. When I finally connected with him he was still repairing the damaged books for Gilbert, a time consuming job because many of the books were really badly damaged from the fire and the water used to put out the fire. I could see trying to save some of the rare Burroughs titles but many of the books Gilbert had sent to Cowan were very common books, and not worth fixing. However, it was job security for Cowan, who had a nice bindery set up in the basement of his hillside home.

Robert G. Cowan at work in his bindery, 1985. Photo by Paul Hunt

I was at the Book Castle at the time, and we got in an enormous amount of books. A fair amount of older books would need some of Cowan’s repair expertise, and I tried to take him a box of books every other week. I had solved the “wallpaper” problem, at least for myself. Back in the 1970s I had an antique store with another guy down in the old Ramparts section of Los Angeles. One day I heard about an old bindery that was going out of business, down near 11th and Rampart, and I went over and bought a fair amount of equipment and tools. I also got a few big rolls of printed end papers with a couple of different designs but mainly blue background with tiny little gold fleur de lis, so I dug these out of storage and gave Cowan a bunch of rolls so that he could put on decent end papers on my books. No more wallpaper for me! The drawback, however was that all my repaired books screamed Vive la France!

Robert Cowan with Ted Miller, Manager of Avon Book Shop, Burbank, CA.

Cowan was reasonable in his pricing. He saved a lot of good books that we could sell that would have otherwise been thrown out. I often took my manager Ted Miller with me to see Cowan, he enjoyed talking to a “living legend” as Ted called him. On other occasions I brought along Western Americana collector John Riordan and also Janet Jarvits who had worked at the Arthur Clarke Company, publishers and booksellers of fine Western Americana. Cowan had been one of the authors of the authoritative “Bibliography of California with his father Robert E. Cowan. There is so much that could be said of Robert E., a famous book man who had a book shop in San Francisco before the terrible earthquake and fire of April 1906. Cowan worked with libraries and books all his life, and his son Robert G. followed much of that. The family lived for years on the William Andrews Clark estate, which later became part of U.C.L.A. The Cowans cataloged the books that Clark had purchased, and were actually private librarians.

William Andrews Clark, Jr

On occasion I was RGC’s guest at meetings of the Los Angeles Corral of the Westerners, a fine group of historians, authors, scholars, educators, and collectors of Western Americana and Californiana. These meetings were held at the famous French restaurant on Sunset Blvd., Taix, established in 1927.

At one point in the late-1980s, Mr. Cowan fell down the outside staircase on his way down to work in his bindery. He was in the hospital for a few weeks, and he was sadly confined to a wheel chair after that. Most people in their 90s would just give up and head for the old folks home. Not Cowan. He was a survivor. He hired a lady to come in a few times a week and help him with household chores. The nice lady was from Belize, and she would often fix a great meal for Mr. Cowan and some house guests he would have over for dinner, drinks, and a lot of fascinating book talk. I was privileged to be invited to a few of those dinners and listen to the stories of his legendary father Robert E. Cowan and his pursuit of rare books around the State.

RGC getting award at the Lummis house in L.A.

I went with Cowan to an event at the Lummis house in downtown Los Angeles. Cowan was in a wheel chair then, but he had a great time. He was given an award by a local history organization, and he showed me around the old adobe house. He later gave me a receipt that his father had written up when Lummis purchased $15 worth of books around 1898. The receipt is signed by Lummis (see photo).

 

Above:  Receipt for books sold to Charles Lummis,  1898.

Robert G. Cowan had a life full of fun and excitement. He was born in San Francisco on December 14, 1895. His father’s side was Scotch. His middle name was Granniss, not a name from Scotland, but interesting as to how he got it. His father, Robert E. Cowan, was acquainted with a Col. George Granniss, who worked for Gen. Grant’s Chief of Staff Maj. Gen. Henry Halleck. It seems Halleck had been a partner in one of California’s premier law firms, Halleck, Peachy & Billings. They had handled most of the old land cases in early California days. The firm also did business with the Army. So Halleck ordered Col. Granniss out to San Francisco to close up the law firm, send the appropriate papers to the Army, and dispose of the “civilian” papers that the law firm had accumulated. At one of the dinner parties, Mr. Cowan told me that the files were primary source material for many of the important land transactions of the early days. Col. Granniss gave all these files to Cowan’s father, who later sold them to Collis P. Huntington on behalf of the University of California for something like $3,000. This gave Robert E. Cowan enough money to plunge into the book business, and he gratefully put Col. Granniss’ name on his son. In his book, Foibles, Fun, Flukes and Facts, Mr. Cowan referred to himself as “RGC” to differentiate himself from his famous father, Robert E. Cowan.

Robert E. Cowan, Bookseller and Bibliographer. RGC’s esteemed father.

 

RGC’s aforementioned book goes into great detail about his life in San Francisco at the turn of the 20th Century, including the horrible 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire. He spins tales of his life in the bay area during the teens, his experiences at school, at work, and outdoors camping with friends. How different things were in those days. Also included in his autobiography is his diary of his days in World War 1, kept in secret against orders. He served overseas in France with a unit that transported artillery shells to the artillery units during many of the crucial battles that led to the end of the war.

RGC’s Autobiography

After the war, RGC returned to the bay area and worked at several jobs, including the Southern Pacific Railroad. His father, meanwhile, was spending half his time in Southern California, working for William Andrews Clark, Jr as a librarian. In 1926, the Clark Memorial Library was finished and Clark wanted Robert E. Cowan full time. He hired his son, our RGC to move down to Los Angeles and work on the library, so the Cowan family moved all their belongings, including Robert E.’s massive collection of books (2 Bekins Vans full) down to the Clark property, where Robert E. had been assigned a house to live in. RGC and his wife found a small house nearby, and this started his odyssey in Los Angeles.

I have jammed this little article with photos, there is not much on the internet about the life and adventures of Robert G. Cowan, and his wide range of interests. How many folks today would start a new business when they are in their 80s? You have to admire him, scurrying up and down Hollywood Blvd. and building a stable business binding and repairing books for all the Hollywood book dealers. He was an authentic California pioneer of the 20th Century. The first person to shake hands with him when he was a child was the flamboyant Emperor Norton. I was probably one of the last to shake Mr. Cowan’s hand before he passed, age about 98.

Using his autobiography and other material as a guide, I compiled a list of all the houses that RGB build or lived in. What I didn’t know during the time that I personally knew him was that he was the architect on several of his houses, and also the contractor on at least two. He also on one occasion showed me photos of a sailboat that he built in his backyard, he still had all the plans and blueprints neatly rolled up in a cupboard. He built the boat entirely by hand, over a period of years, going through an elaborate process to bend the long pieces of lumber to fit the design. This was done by wetting the boards and bending them a little at a time, until just the right bend angle occurred. He said the Cowan family spent many pleasant hours sailing in the Pacific.

Above:  Paul Hunt and Robert Cowan at the Lummis House in the Mid-1980s.

Out of curiosity, I started a google map search, and much to my surprise, most of the houses in Los Angeles and two of the Victorians in San Francisco, were still standing, although slightly altered in some cases. With my partner Julie Webster, and armed with cameras, we set out on a “RGC House Hunting Safari” to find and photograph the existing houses that Cowan occupied. The results are given below, including the San Francisco Houses that are still standing according to Google maps.

Above:  Robert E. Cowan’s house, 321 (now 3229) 20th St., San Francisco, CA.  This is where Robert G. Cowan was born.  These Victorians are still standing.

Above:  867 Treat Ave., San Francisco.  This became father Robert E. Cowan’s residence around 1899 and also the book shop, which was on the ground floor, (known as the basement in those days.).

Above:  1321 South Redondo Blvd., Los Angeles. Robert G. Cowan lived here from 1927-1942.  RGC was the architect.  Note he used the attic for his books and the skylights are visible on the right hand side of the roof.  This house had 3 bedrooms and one bath.  Current value on Zillo is $1,278,000.

Above:  2151 W. 20th St., Los  Angeles, CA.   This is in the Jefferson Park area.  This is where RGC’s father Robert E. Cowan lived after leaving the Andrews Clark Library.  When he died in 1942, RGC sold the Redondo Blvd. house and moved in here.  The house was packed with books.  His father had the habit of buying books and leaving them wrapped up in the original packaging, so RGC had the fun of opening hundreds of these, finding great treasures.  The house was a huge old craftsman (circa 1911) and RGC lived there until 1950.  It has 5 bedrooms and 3 baths.  Zillo value is over $1,200,000.  It is used by studios for filming often.

Above:  5522 Harcross Drive,  Los Angeles, CA.  Windsor Hills area.  RGC was both architect and contractor.  The large attic was for his books. He built this house in 1949 but was only here for a short time, as he and his wife Georgia separated in 1951.  2 bedrooms, 2 baths, current Zillo value  is above $822,000.

Above:  1650 Redcliffe Drive, Los Angeles CA (Silverlake area).  RGC was the architect and contractor.  He had to raise the roof in order to fit in a massive glass front case that came from the Clark estate.  The bindery was entered on the right at street level.  He lived here from 1952 until his death.  The house was last sold in 1994 for $132,000.  The estimated Zillo value today is over $1,533,000.  This is the house that RGC fell down the front stairs, putting him in a wheelchair.

Above:  The Philharmonic Building.   Demolished 1985.

In 1933 RGC became a partner in a Stamp and Coin business, called La Cal Stamp Co. During the depression years stamp collecting was huge. Within a few months, he was the sole owner. RGC did well, the small shop was near 4th and Main. He later moved into a storefront in the magnificent Philharmonic Building at 5th and Olive. I assume he got that shop because William Andrews Clark, Jr founded the Los Angeles Philharmonic Society and built the building. Sadly, it was demolished around 1985 without much outcry. With the coming of WW2, the country became more affluent, and RGC found it harder to buy collections. His lease on the shop was coming due and because of inflation a large rent increase was coming. He decided wisely that it was time to sell his business, and although he does not give a date in his autobiography, it might have been 1942 around the time his father died. His next business venture was buying up small apartment courts. He eventually had 18 units which he said gave him an adequate income, plus exercise as he did the maintenance himself

.

I have not been able to pin down the exact date of death of RGC. His last house was sold in July of 1994, so I am guessing he died in 1993 or early 1994 (year of the Los Angeles earthquake.) This would make him around 98 years old, a ripe old age. I would note that although I never saw him smoke, he did have a couple of shots or a couple glasses of wine most nights.

He lived to see incredible changes in California. He saw the last of the west, two world wars, and the rise of a modern civilization. He was a down to earth gentleman, and I treasure the time we spent together in his bindery or at his dinner parties. I only wish I had met him much earlier, back in the 1970s when he was a mysterious old guy who roamed Hollywood Blvd. Bookshops looking for tattered books to repair. As I discovered, he was so much more than just an old book binder. He was a Veteran, an Architect, a Contractor, a Bibliographer with his father of the great Bibliography of California, a Bookseller, an Author of several books, a Stamp and Coin Dealer, a Real Estate apartment landlord, a Boat Builder, a Sailor, and an owner of a Model T Ford. The most fascinating man I have ever had the pleasure to meet.

Above:  Robert G.  Cowan at about 90 years old.  Photo by Paul Hunt.

Hollywood Boulevard Bookstore Follies Part 3

Continuing the Survey of Hollywood Bookshops in 1976

by Paul Hunt

Photos by Wayne Braby unless otherwise noted.

A note about the photos.  About the time I originally wrote this article, my friend Wayne Braby offered me his glorious photos of the Hollywood Bookshops you will see in this article, never before published to my knowledge.  Wayne was in contact with Muir Dawson of Dawson’s Book Shop, and I have a letter from Muir discussing the possibility of Wayne writing a book for Dawson on the subject of the Hollywood book stores.  I don’t think this project was ever completed, hence Wayne gave me his photos. Wayne Braby was a bookseller, specializing in Military History.  When I knew him, he was working out of his house in Santa Monica.  His wife was a librarian in Santa Monica, a very literary family! I hope you greatly enjoy these wonderful photographs showing a long-lost world.

Getting back to the subject at hand, all the shops on Hollywood Boulevard have the same problem to a greater or lesser degree, so I would like to propose a solution to this over-crowding phenomenon.  It can only be met by an aggressive policy of continuous expansion, i.e., get more books then get more space then get more books and so on.  The bookshops will slowly expand until they are adjoining one another, and the future will bring the glorious scene of Hollywood Boulevard becoming one giant bookstore, all connected with interior passageways.  You could enter at, say La Brea, and not surface again until a week later at Argyle.  Pack a snack.

(Note how wrong I was on that prediction.  Wishful thinking to the max.  There’s now only one bookstore left on Hollywood Blvd., Larry Edmunds, specializing in motion picture history.  All others gone, a near complete wipe-out of our past cultural repositories.)

But for now you will have to be content to hoof it up and down the street, seeking out the bookshops individually.  To help you with this chore, I will take you on a short guided tour, possibly introducing you to some shops that have until now escaped your attention.  We will start on the north side of Hollywood Boulevard from Highland and go east until we reach Argyle, then return on the south side of the street.  You will probably need several days to accomplish this when you do it for real; it is not a feat that can be performed in one day and also be enjoyed, unless of course, your will power is like unto Superman and you are the only person on earth who can walk into even the smallest bookshop and resist the urge to browse thoroughly through the beckoning stacks.  The mere mention of Superman brings us to our first stop, COLLECTOR’S BOOK STORE, aka BENNETT’S, home of the rare comic book.

The bronzed plaque embedded into the front of the entrance-way carries an odd slogan in Latin that reads, “bene Agimus Vobiscum.”  I am told that this means, “Where the good deals are given.”  Collector’s originally started in business on Wilcox, just north of the Boulevard, about 1965.  The owners are former high school teacher Malcolm Willits, Leonard Brown, and Mark Willoughby. They moved to their present location in 1968, where they now hold forth as one of the great rare comics dealers.  The well organized store also holds an awesome amount of movie memorabilia, including movie stills, posters, scripts and fan magazines.  The more that one million movie photo stills are all categorized for easy reference both by star name and movie title.  The 50,000 or so movie and television scripts are also well categorized  The poster collection even includes one of the very first movie posters, circa 1912, from an obscure movie that was filmed by Edison.

If you happen to be into science fiction,, check out the tremendous collection of back issue science fiction magazines  Since this year is the 59th anniversary for Amazing Stories, you may want to pop in and pick up the first issue, dated April 1926.  Bring a bank loan officer with you.

The old Pickwick Bookshop

The old Pickwick Bookshop

Next we come to PICKWICK BOOK SHOP a store so well known that I can add very little.  It is now owned by B. Dalton, a giant national chain of bookstores.  It is certainly the supermarket of books, for here one can find an enormous selection of new paperbacks, hard cover editions, best sellers and remainders.

But the store was not always like this.  The behemoth of a book store began in a very small way in 1925 when Louis Epstein purchased a tiny bookshop that was actually attached to a gunsmith’s shop in Long Beach.  The man who sold it to Epstein gave him some parting advice on buying used books:  “Don’t ever pay more than 10 cents for any book.”  Epstein used to recall that advice got him thrown out of some of the best homes in Long Beach.

He eventually moved to downtown Los Angeles, calling his store Epstein’s Used Books. His shop was near the old Dawson’s, and Epstein could watch the constant stream of folks going into Dawson’s, with little spill-over into his small shop. Epstein dealt in literature and poetry, but was having a hard time of it, all the while seeing his neighbor Ernest Dawson doing a pretty good business with a lot of the L.A. trade passing through his doors.  Then fortune smiled on Louie.  A movie studio came in and wanted to rent 5,000 books.  When pressed for a rental amount, he blurted out 5 cents a day per book.  The studio folks were happy with that, and Epstein wrote up a rental document, which was to last for 30 days.  Time passed, and the books were never returned. Epstein called a few times but was given the run-around.  About a year later a truck pulled up in front of his shop and dropped off the 5,000 books that had been used by the studio as set props. The studio sent him a check for the rental for 30 days.  After some phone calls, protesting that they owed him $250. per day for 365 days, the studios said “no way, we only needed them for 30 days.  Sorry that we forgot to send them back on time, go pound sand.”  Epstein phoned his lawyer instead.  The attorney extracted the full amount from the Studio, a very substantial figure. Their lax business practice cost them nearly $100,000, big money in the 1930s.  When Epstein called his attorney to collect the money, his lawyer refused to give it to him.  “If I give you this money, you’ll just spend it foolishly buying more books and having a good time.  So here’s the deal:  you go find a building to buy and I will release the money into escrow, that way at least you will own your own store.”  And that is how Louis Epstein ended up owning the building on Hollywood Blvd. that became the mighty Pickwick Bookshop, opened in 1938 and concentrating on selling new books and remainders.  Mr. Epstein sold his interest to B. Dalton a few years ago.

pickwick-inside

A great shot of the inside of Pickwick.  The stairs on the right led up to the top floor which was loaded with stacks of remainders, many from the U.K.

Jim Hubler's Partridge Book Shop

Jim Hubler’s Partridge Bookstore.

Nestled right next door to Pickwick is our next stop,PARTRIDGE BOOKSTORE.  For fifteen years Partridge has treated folks quite nicely and become a minor landmark.  A passerby will often notice that around the hour of 3 p.m. a small, growing knot of book buyers begins to line up in front of the store.  The anxious looks on the faces of the patrons reveals some silent prayers (or curses) to the almighty that Jim Hubler, the owner, will be a little earlier today than he was the last time.  Why do all those people wait here rather than go to the obvious elsewhere?  Simple.   Everything in Partridge is discounted, including all the paperbacks.  A large selection of new books, with lots and lots of science fiction paperbacks makes it a pleasant, and thrifty, place to shop.

Dorsett's shop is in the back of the Artisan's Patio

Dorsett’s shop is in the back of the Artisan’s Patio

 Next is FRED DORSETT, BOOKSELLER.  This store is located off the Boulevard inside the Artisan’s Patio, an alley-like mini-craft center containing, among other things, a leather shop, jewelry store, and candle shop.  Dorsett has been there about four years, specializing in used and out-of print books about books, printing history, small press books, metaphysical and occult.

In the olden days about a hundred years ago, bookmen were often publishers and printers as well as booksellers.  Dorsett is helping to carry on this tradition.  An author himself, his great interest in poetry has led to the audacious project of publishing a book of poetry entitled “Gold Coast.”  Working in his spare time with friend Rob Budinger, the book is being produced entirely by hand, using hand-made paper and printed on an ancient Imperial Press that is lodged in one of Rob’s spare rooms.  As was demonstrated to me one evening, the printing is very time consuming, taking anywhere from five minutes to an hour per each individual page, depending on just whose side the gods happen to be on that day.  The book will then be bound entirely by hand and sold in a strictly limited edition.  This type of production is a slow process; the book will take about a year to produce.

Meanwhile, Dorsett has plenty of adventures to occupy his time, including roaring through the scores of estate sales on the week-ends, hitting the hundreds of library sales, and rooting through the books that are brought into the shop by book scouts.  Sometimes, just getting to work is an adventure.  One recent Sunday, Dorsett arrived at the Artisan’s Patio early to get some books priced for sale.  As he put his key into the outside gate a slight movement on the other side of the gate caught his attention.  He stared through the iron bars of the gate in disbelief: a large, fully grown lion was sitting in the shadows looking straight at him!  “I slowly turned the key back to lock the gate and backed away, unnerved and shaking.  I wasn’t prepared to go in there and be lunch for Mr. Lion.”  The owner of the big cat showed up a few minutes later, apologizing. “He probably wouldn’t hurt you, he’s usually pretty mellow” he said, dragging his pet down Hollywood Blvd. to his car.  “Yeah, right” said Dorsett.  “Tell it to the Ringling Brothers”.

book-treasury

Moving on a few doors, we come to THE BOOK TREASURY.  The store has been operated by the present owners about two years.  Jon Gentilman and Bob Weinstein.  A warm, pleasant shop it is richly paneled and neatly organized, the books evenly lining the shelves like the Queen’s guards waiting for marching orders.  The specialties here are science fiction (hardbacks only), modern first editions, Americana and illustrated books.

Certainly the most interesting piece of Americana in the shop at the moment is a handwritten letter from George Wythe, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence.  Dated November 24th, 1763, it is addressed in a clear and beautiful hand to one Henry Tucker of Norfolk, Virginia.  Wythe was seeking to have Tucker post a bond guaranteeing the costs that would occur in a suit brought by an alleged friend of Tucker’s.  Wythe remarks at the end of the letter that if Tucker does not know the man involved, “you will be kind enough to pardon this freedom and let me know who is his friend”  History, as far as I know, does not record Tucker’s answer, but it does record quiet starkly that Wythe himself could have used more friends.  Someone he trusted poisoned him, and he received the dubious distinction of being the only signer of the Declaration of Independence to be murdered!

To be continued….

Map with notes of shop locations referred to in the article.

Map with notes of shop locations referred to in the article.