One of the duties of a curator at the American Antiquarian Society is to interact with dealers of antiquarian books, manuscripts, and paper ephemera. Over time we develop professional relationships with them as we get to know what type of materials they have, and they get to know our wants.
In 2003 I was using eBay to find newspapers and periodicals that were not in our collection. Over time I noticed I was bidding on a number of lots from the same seller. After winning a few lots, I found out the seller was Bob Mooers of Gateway Books in Hebron, Maryland. He and his wife, Wendy, had a small antique business and they had piles of newspapers in their warehouse. Over time it became apparent to us that they had amazing newspapers in their stock. Often I would bid on a few issues, ask if they had any more, and they would quote a long run of the title to us.
In August 2004 I accepted an invitation to visit them and spend some time going through their shelves of newspapers. Little did I know what I was getting myself into. I spent three hot days working my way through stacks of newspapers, noting the titles and years and checking our online catalog. It was obvious to me that there were many rare titles and that much of the inventory could have a major impact on our newspaper holdings.
After much deliberation and many meetings and negotiations, a deal was made between AAS and Gateway Books. In 2006 AAS purchased Part A, a large block of newspapers, with the option of first refusal in subsequent years to buy Parts B and C. Once the paperwork was prepared and a check cut for the first payment, I flew down south, rented a twenty-six-foot truck, and drove to Hebron to complete the agreement. As it happened, a few days before I flew down, Mr. Mooers had a major heart attack and was in the hospital, where he had undergone major bypass surgery. He still insisted I come down. We ended up completing the deal on his hospital bed and I handed the check over to him and his wife. Arrangements were made and a crew was waiting at the warehouse to help load the truck.
Part A had a major impact in our holdings for Alabama, Arkansas, California, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, New York, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, Wisconsin, and West Virginia.
Part B was purchased the next year and fit in a cargo van. This contained more Florida, Maine, South Carolina, and Tennessee newspapers. In 2008, due to the economy, AAS decided not to exercise its option on Part C of the newspapers.
During these years, I spoke with Bob and Wendy over the phone many times, dropped by when my travels took me near Hebron, exchanged Christmas cards, and got to know each other. Bob would tell me tales of his time in the merchant marines, how he got started in his business, and experiences dealing with libraries, other dealers, and collectors.
Even though we didn’t buy Part C at the time, Bob knew those newspapers were rare and wanted to see them come to AAS. Over time as my budget would allow, I would buy individual lots. He could have easily sold them off to other collectors and dealers, yet he held onto them for years, giving me a chance to buy what I could. One summer I stopped by and he offered me the newspapers from Clarksville and Shelbyville, Tennessee, from 1818 to 1820, at a large discount. These were the only known copies of the titles. Bob was relieved to see them come to AAS. He said they really belonged here.
Last summer I made another stop to visit Bob and Wendy. I didn’t know it at the time, but he was not in the best of health. Bob wanted to finish off the last of the lots and suggested a price that enabled me to buy the last of the newspapers. He said he didn’t want them hanging around and complicating things down the road if they got tied up in his estate. In September 2016 the last of the newspapers arrived here in Worcester, already paid for. As it happened, the next month Wendy let me know that Bob had cancer and shortly before Thanksgiving he died.
I had known Bob for twelve years, but in that time we got to know each other, enjoyed sharing company and meals, and developed a friendship. That is not part of the job description, but in the fifteen years I’ve been curator of newspapers and periodicals I’ve gotten to know many dealers. I enjoy talking with them and getting to know them. It is true that I want them to remember me and my wants, but for several of them, it is more than a professional relationship. I enjoy their quirkiness and find them interesting.
So long, Bob. I’m glad I knew you.