Passing of an Era: Mary Ann Malkin of AB Bookman's at 92
A copy of AB Bookman's Weekly from the Malkin era.
By Michael Stillman
It was surely the passing of an other area in the rare book trade when Mary Ann Malkin died on August 1 at the age of 92. During the third quarter of the 20th century, Mrs. Malkin was on the pulse of the book trade perhaps as much as any other person alive. For the past three decades, she has lived a bit more quietly, a collector of books on dance.
For two decades, Mary Ann Malkin and her husband, Sol., ran AB Bookman's Weekly. It was the most important publication in the rare book trade. In the 1940s, Mrs. Malkin worked for R.R. Bowker, publisher of Publisher's Weekly. That magazine had a column known as the Antiquarian Bookman. A separate publication based on this column, known as Antiquarian Bookman, was spun off from Publisher's Weekly in 1948. Sol. Malkin was its editor. Five years later, Bowker sold the magazine to the Malkins.
For the next two decades, Sol. and Mary Ann Malkin owned and ran AB Bookman's Weekly. It was the hub of the bookselling universe. If you had rare, antiquarian, or other books to sell, this is where you advertised them. To a large extent, it was the only place to promote them. It was filled with books for sale. A collector might find books of interest there, but more likely it would be a fellow bookseller, looking for items for his or her collectors, who would be perusing the listings in AB Bookman's Weekly. You could also find wanted to buy ads along with the for sale listings lining the pages. The importance of this magazine to the book trade during this era cannot be overstated. It was the marketplace.
Time and personal circumstances change. In 1972, the Malkins chose to sell their publication. They moved on and so did AB Bookman's. Sol. Malkin died in 1986, but Mary Ann carried on as a collector. She built a collection of dance books which can now be found at Penn State University. She co-wrote a book about her collection which was published in 2003. Her collection is her legacy as Mrs. Malkin had no immediate survivors.
AB Bookman's Weekly survived for 27 years after the Malkins sold the business, though ultimately, Mrs. Malkin lived longer than the publication. Technology would turn the bookselling world upside down in the 1990s. A new resource, known today as the "internet," was just coming into existence. It would quickly connect the entire world with limitless quantities of information. For the book world, it started with online databases. These were limited access databases, where members, such as libraries or booksellers, could post items being offered for sale or titles wanted to buy. Only members could see the listings. Early on there was BookQuest, then Interloc. A few years later came the even bigger development, the listing sites. These were databases of books for sale that could be accessed by anyone, including and especially collectors. Abebooks quickly became the largest of these, followed by Alibris, the public successor to the once private access Interloc. The number of books posted for sale online quickly grew to the millions.
Passing of an Era: Mary Ann Malkin of AB Bookman's at 92
The opportunity for individual booksellers to now post thousands of books for sale online spelled an end to the old model. Where you might have paid several dollars a week in the past to publish a book listing to the limited readership of AB Bookman's, the same money could post hundreds if not thousands of listings to the entire world online. The old formula no longer made sense. Once the internet grew from an obscure resource with a small number of users to something approaching the universally accepted medium it is today, there was no way AB Bookman's Weekly could compete for book listing dollars. Technology had passed it by. AB Bookman's figuratively shuttered its doors in 1999. The most important resource ever developed for selling books, the intenet, had made it irrelevant by the end of the century. Today, the AB Bookman's name has been resurrected as, of all things, a website by an Arizona company. However, this is a case of buying the rights to the name of the defunct publication, rather than a true continuation of what once was. The AB Bookman's of the Malkins is no more.
And so with the passing of Mrs. Malkin, we note the passing of her era, an era when the book trade was carried on in a much different way. Personal interactions among booksellers was the way in which most books were located, and Mr. and Mrs. Malkin's publication was the forum which brought them together. Today, books change hands through the impersonal medium of the internet. It is not for us to say whether this is better or worse. It is just different. Mrs. Malkin and her husband will be remembered for the prominent roles they played in the old way of doing business.
I am indebted to Terry Belanger, Director of the Rare Book School at the University of Virginia, for the following corrections and additions, some of which already have been incorporated into the article.
Dr. Belanger pointed out that Solomon Malkin always shortened his name to "Sol." with a period when it was written, and his name so appears in issues of AB Bookman's Weekly.
When AB was first spun off from Publisher's Weekly in 1948, it was known simply as "Antiquarian Bookman." Starting in 1949, an annual supplement known as "AB Bookman's Yearbook" was published. Dr. Belanger reports that Mrs. Malkin told him people began referring to the magazine as "AB Bookman's" as a result, so that in the 1960s the name was changed to "AB Bookman's Weekly" to reflect the commonly used name. That explains the oddity of the abbreviated name "AB Bookman's Weekly," which, if spelled out, would be the rather redundant "Antiquarian Bookman Bookman's Weekly."
While AB subsisted primarily on booksellers' advertising, Dr. Belanger points out that the "books wanted" advertising was more important than the for sale listings. Here I will quote from Dr. Belanger's comments at length, because they provide an excellent look at the trade as it existed in the pre-internet days. He says, "what sustained the magazine over the years was its utility as a place where dealers (both new-book and used/antiquarian-book) running OP search services could advertise for individual titles wanted by their customers -- who were more likely to be readers than collectors. A good many -- perhaps most -- of these customers didn't know of the existence of AB, and didn't care. They simply gave the names of one or more desired titles to the search service dealer, and the dealer advertised for these titles in AB. (PW ran exactly the same sort of titles-wanted ads in its back pages until AB was spun off.)
"Look at any issue of AB in the earlier pre-Internet days and you can see that the bulk of the issues consisted of long lists of books being searched for, not books advertised for sale. Typically, a dealer running a search service advertised for titles at his or her own expense, and did not charge the customer for failed searches. Dealers with copies of these titles, seeing them listed in AB, sent quotes on postcards to the advertising dealer, and -- with these quotes in hand -- the advertising dealer consulted with the customer, saying (for instance) that a copy of a particular title desired was available in dj for (say) $10X, or without dj for $5X: the actual quotes would have been $4-5X or $2-3X. Dealers generally doubled the best quoted price, though I heard Robert Topp, owner of the Hermitage Bookshop in Denver, say at the 1982 Used/OP Book Seminar (where I was also teaching that year) that you couldn't make money running an OP search business, especially for cheaper books, unless you tripled the quoted price."
In addition to her personal collection, which is housed at Penn State University, Mrs. Malkin left her residual estate half to the Grolier Club of New York and half to the Rare Book School. Each will receive in the vicinity of $1 million. As. Dr. Belanger points out, "That's part of her legacy too." Another part of that legacy is the Malkin lectures on the history of the antiquarian book trade. Printed copies of some of these lectures are available from the Rare Book School website, www.virginia.edu/oldbooks/publications.shtml.