Bibliothanatography

About two years ago, I found myself looking at an 1892 Bibliobroadsheet. It advertised the Bronson, Michigan, store of J. Francis Ruggles, the most unusual bibliopole ever working in Bronson, for sure. Michael Winship, professor of English at the University of Texas at Austin and an editor of the recently published five-volume series A History of the Book in America, was on fellowship at AAS and had just shared with me a photo of the broadsheet, Circularissingularis, no. 22.

I knew nothing about Ruggles at the time and was more than curious. In the broadsheet, Ruggles relates his family history (New England extraction and migration to a frontier Michigan homestead). At his Bronson “odditorium,” Ruggles said that:

with his correspondents in the principal literary centres, catalogues strewing in from all parts of the world by every mail, records of most of the works published since the origin of printing, no marvel that he is prepared to furnish any obtainable book ever printed.

When the broadsheet was printed, Ruggles had been selling books for over twenty years, rebuilt his shop after a devastating 1889 fire, and undoubtedly would have tried to provide his customers with any book ever printed.

Ruggles recently reappeared to me as I’ve been working on an inventory of AAS’s collection of booksellers’ labels and binders’ tickets. The collection ranges from the early nineteenth century to the mid-twentieth century and provides just one entry point into the history of booksellers and bookstores in the U.S. The labels in the collection have not been cataloged fully, not to mention the labels still in books that have received little to no attention here at the library. Tucked into the thousand or so labels in the collection proper is an earlier label from Ruggles’s store. Dated 1875-76, the label advertises Ruggles’s ability to “supply any legitimate publication” with the aid of “representatives on both sides of the Atlantic.”

Was Ruggles superhuman or just the type of bookseller who knew what a customer needed and tried to supply it? In that, he was not unlike some of the great booksellers (the Sabins and Rosenbachs) or the less well-known (the Frank Shays [see an exhibit on Shay from the Harry Ransom Center] or Irving Ephraims [20th-century Worcester bookseller]). AAS has a number of collections that are ideal for the study of booksellers in America, including the manuscript Book Trades Collection and Isaiah Thomas Papers, and a vast number of bookdealers’ catalogs. But the bookstore is dead. The bookstore remains dead. And how shall we comfort ourselves but by the study of the history of booksellers and bookselling?

See also:

Marge Scott’s article on Ruggles in volume 23 of the Chronicle: The Magazine of the Historical Society of Michigan.

Michael Winship’s “‘The Tragedy of the Book Industry’? Bookstores and Book Distribution in the United States to 1950”, from volume 58 of Studies in Bibliography.

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