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