Bill Barlow and his Beautiful Addiction
Bill Barlow: An interesting man, a complex mind
By Bruce McKinney
Combustion is random. Most matches fall spent. Once in a great while a single spark transforms a life. For Bill Barlow that moment came in 1953 when he purchased his first Baskerville - a Milton in Pasadena. He was 19 then and today at 72 is still building his Baskerville collection of 18th century fine printing as well as other collections he coaxed to life over the decades. Mr. Barlow is a collector with a need to receive.
Some collectors need only occasionally graze their shelves to staunch the collecting urge. It can be enough to compare a copy owned to one offered or upcoming. For them the single copy suffices, the idea of multiple copies an unnecessary excess, to them an idea foreign as whiskey on Mars. Mr. Barlow is not the average collector. For him collecting is more a process than a goal so before he bought his first Baskerville he bought his first press. He might logically have bought a linotype and the makings if not a maker of ink.
Most entering the hallowed halls of collecting embrace the noun rather than the verb and so make a collection their ambition. For a few the goal is collecting, the difference between buying a cone in every flavor and laying siege to ice cream factories. On the small and discreet side are the French with their cabinet collections. The quality is high, the selection narrow and after a decade or two it occupies only a few shelves. On the other side are such book collectors of the 19th century as Brinley, Rice and Field, and in the 20th century Pennypacker, Jones, Huntington, Littell, Hogan and Streeter who all acquired masses of material because they could. Of these men only Streeter acquired seriously in the post World War II era, the period in which Mr. Barlow came of age. Mr. Barlow does not belong in either group although he more fits the second category. He is in fact a transitional figure.
The past fifty years have seen accelerating change and for those who pursue the verb more than the noun, an even faster rate of change. In the modern era two names come to mind: Michael Zinman and Bill Barlow. Both have embraced collecting more than possession. In fact, such perspective leads to ownership of many objects. In their acquisition careers great collectors have always pushed the possible to its limits. The difference in the past twenty-five years is that the definition, range and scope of collecting has more quickly evolved, the very definition of possible ever more rapidly changing - carrying the skill set needed from arithmetic to calculus. How would Frank Siebert collect today? No doubt differently than he did. It's a new game and Mr. Barlow plays it very well.
Every era is different. What is peculiarly unique today is how short the eras have become. Generations for collectors now co-opt the term's meaning in software development: five years at the outside and the field always leaning forward into an imaginary 100 mile an hour wind. In the 19th century you could collect for twenty years and see only the players and material change. In the final five decades of the 20th century the very display, offer, sale and collecting have undergone and continue to undergo rapid revision and enhancement. Today change is so constant only process thinkers can really anticipate its direction. Terry Halliday says of such individuals, "they themselves are the rarities." In war there are generals, once or twice in a generation a MacArther at Inchon. Mr. Barlow is one of these.
Bill Barlow and his Beautiful Addiction
Collecting as passion.
Recently I asked Mr. Barlow what he is collecting today and true to form he is leaning into the future collecting in many ways many things. He continues to pursue Baskerville imprints in the traditional way: through dealers who know the material only half as well as he but know he is a motivated buyer. He also collects stamps and the more esoteric substrata - machine cancels. On eBay he collects Duncan Hines, the salesman turned food critic, who through his books became an authority on quality food. Mr. Hines published four categories of books, each distinguishable by their colors -- red, blue, green and yellow to the cognoscenti and Adventures in Good Eating [restaurants], Lodging for a Night [accomodations], Vacation Guide [Good Places to Spend an Enjoyable Vacation] and Adventures in Good Cooking [cookbooks] to the uninitiated. It is the perfect eBay project --material widely distributed that bubbles to the surface every day. As we speak there are 264 Duncan Hines lots available. No doubt Mr. Barlow knows this material better than Duncan did.
He also collects the post cards of restaurants whose post card mug shots are part of the collecting world of Duncan Hines. He has a meaningful collection of the 10,000 or so issued between 1936 and 1962. He also acquires the printed menus of these restaurants and their "top marked" china when he finds it.
In support of his Baskerville collection he has collected book auction catalogues. He has about 30,000, his American sales very complete back to 1900 and reasonably complete from there to 1850. He uses them to track appearances, the denier of his collecting twill apparent in these numbers and approach.
He has also collected honors. In 1989 he received the Thomas More Medal for Book Collecting and in 2004 the Hubert Howe Bancroft Award. He is currently president of the Machine Cancel Society, honorary consultant to the American Antiquarian Society, past Council member of the Grolier Club and past president of the Bibliographical Society of America and the Book Club of California. During summers he teaches at the Rare Book School.
He tells the story of tracking down Hines signs to a place back east where they all were sent to die, each of them leased, not owned by restaurants and always required to be returned. They are today the rarissima of this particular obsession so if Mr. Barlow disappears for a few days to points unknown the chances are good he's discovered these dinosaur bones in some old warehouse and, hard hat on tight, is stepping through debris, brushing away dirt hoping to be able to then say "Yes, I think that's one. I'd like to buy it."
In San Francisco it's now 2:00 pm and the postman and UPS drivers have come and gone. A few packages, the day's arrivals, wait quietly their cues to trundle into view. For a few moments they are the prize, the day's communion wafers of postcards, menus, stamps, cancels and books. For tomorrow to be blessed these delivery men must again return and chances are they will.