Saturday, January 26, 2008

Why I Live Where I Live, by Stanley Elkin

Here's the first book - or more accurately called, pamphlet - that I printed that started selling for big money. I was flabbergasted when people started asking anywhere from $600 to $800 a copy for this slight piece. Of course, it had nothing to do with me or my press, but the price was based on the author's importance.
This book started out when I saw an essay in Esquire magazine by Stanley Elkin. Elkin was a very highly thought of novelist, short-story writer and essayist who taught at Washington University in St. Louis and lived just right around the corner from my home, which was near the Washington University campus. Since the essay focused on St. Louis, our neighborhood, and people in our community, I thought that it would be an ideal essay to reprint as a little pamphlet from the Contre Coup Press.
I had never met Elkin - indeed, I never did meet him, despite printing this book and another book that he had written. But I knew some people who had been in his classes, and he had quite a reputation - quite a reputation, indeed! One woman who took a class with him told me that he had given the class an assignment, and when they turned them in at the beginning of the next class meeting, Elkin stacked the writings on the desk in front of him, picked up the top item and started reading it silently. After a few moments, he exclaimed, "Oh my God! What a bunch of shit!" He then took the entire stack of papers, lit them on fire with his cigarette lighter and tossed them into the waste paper basket to burn.
Needless to say, I was intimidated at the thought of approaching him. So I decided to take the bull by the horns, so to speak, and write him a letter that was filled with chutzpah, thinking that this might appeal to him. Regretably, I didn't keep a copy of the letter, but it was along the lines of how he actually owed it to me to let me print the essay, which was ridiculous, of course, but I hoped that it would appeal to his well-developed sense of the ridiculous. Apparently it worked, because he did grant me permission to reprint it. I had promised him that I had no interest in making money off of his writing, and that I planned on giving away all of the copies, which was entirely true.
So I printed the pamphlet in an edition of 30 copies. I bound 25 of the copies in grey wrappers, and another five copies in brown wrappers, which were the copies that I gave to Elkin. For some reason, the picture here looks very much like one of the brown copies, but it's actually one of the grey copies. The presswork was really so-so on the book. I printed it on my old Chandler and Price 8 by 12 platen press, and I hadn't yet perfected doing make-ready, so the pages are pretty uneven. The pamphlet was 9 by 6 inches, with 8 pages, printed on a German Ingres paper with wrapper of Fabriano Ingres heavy. The text was set in the Van Dijck typeface.
So anyway, I sent off the five copies to Elkin, who seemed pleased with the thing, and gave away a number of the copies that I kept - I think I ended up with about nine or ten copies left over that sat around for awhile. Then one day the telephone rang, and it was Peter Howard, owner of Serendipity Books in Oakland, California. He was on a buying trip, and had stopped in St. Louis to go to some bookstores as well as to visit with Stanley Elkin. He was quickly taken with my little pamphlet, and immediately bought some copies from Elkin. He was calling me because he wanted to buy some more from me.
Well, I told him that I couldn't sell them, because I had promised Elkin that I would not do so. He asked me if I would sell him some copies if he could get Elkin to grant me permission to do so. I said that was fine. The next day he called me, not in a particularly happy mood. He sourly told me that he had gotten Elkin to agree to letting me sell some copies, but Elkin had given permission on the condition that Howard pay me what he had paid Elkin for his copies, which was $100 each. I was floored, of course. So I agreed, and he came and bought six or seven copies, as I recall. He twisted my arm to sign the copies, which I am loathe to do because my handwriting is completely illegible, and I think that my signature on a book is more of a defect than an extra feature. But I did sign them as he requested. He immediately went back to Oakland and started offering them for $600. I found the whole thing pretty amusing. But Howard was smart. He knew that avid author collectors want everything that an author has published, and this little pamphlet was the most limited item in Elkin's canon. I think that he sold them out pretty quickly.
So that little item put me in a bit of a different class in the private press community. Today some of my books sell for pretty stiff prices on the internet - or I should say, people are asking some pretty stiff prices. I don't know if anyone is actually paying those stiff prices or not.
A few years later I asked Elkin if he had something else for me to print, and I ended up doing an edition of his radio play, The Coffee Room. But that's another story, and another post.

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