When Glenn Horowitz is seated, he looks around Le Veau d’Or and observes that the place doesn’t seem to have changed much since the first time he came here with me. That would have been in 1980, a year or two after he first set up shop in a pretty elemental suite of offices in the Graybar Building, where first editions of masterpieces of modern literature were arrayed on shelving consisting of orange crates set on their sides.
In the 35 years since, my friend has metamorphosed now the dominant force in the world of rare books and documents. He’ll kill me for saying this, but in terms of scope and style, Glenn’s standing in his chosen vocation reminds me of Larry Gagosian in his. The Dickensian premises and orange crates have given way to elegant galleries and bookrooms in Manhattan and East Hampton. His clientele includes very big names in Wall Street and Hollywood (I should know: he sold my copy of the first edition of The Wind in the Willows, in dust jacket, to one of the biggest). For me, it’s what hasn’t changed about Glenn that matters: the qualities he brought to the table at the outset that have underwritten a friendship that’s shown admirable staying power despite the odd pebble in the path. But let’s step back.
I began collecting modern first editions at the end of the 1960s when my indispensable friend, John Saumarez Smith of London’s Heywood Hill, persuaded me to buy the inscribed copies of Decline and Fall and Vile Bodies that Evelyn Waugh had presented on publication to his chum Cyril Connolly. They cost a hundred pounds each. Today? I hate to think…
Around 1980, some 10 years into my collecting life, I began to be aware of a cyclonic force gathering strength on the bibliophilic horizon. Like all good storms it had a name: Glenn Horowitz. There had to be something there, I suspected, to judge from the “not our sort” moaning and keening emanating from the pillars of the trade. Made curious by the gossip, I sent away for Horowitz’s most recent list of offerings, and what I read sent me hastening to the Graybar Building.
Our first meeting confirmed my premonitions. No extended pinkie here! His business instincts obviously coursed in him as vitally as his love and knowledge of books. He clearly found glamour in great writing and good books, and he conveyed that passion with a knowledge and intensity that could turn the dankest philistine into a book-person of incandescent refinement. Finally, he was clearly, candidly ambitious—and what was wrong with that? The book world can be a bit la-de-da at its most rambunctious and can always use a brisk shakeup.
And so it turned out. Glenn’s business grew and prospered, and he left the Graybar Building for a series of Manhattan premises and opened one in East Hampton. When Glenn and the late, irrepressible Carter Burden (the most voracious book collector it’s ever been my pleasure to know) discovered each other, a perfect book-world storm was born. With a prize in view, neither man displayed an ounce of quit. It was great fun to watch: the disruption of all that cozy, clubby, leather-armchair gentility.
When we sat down at the Veau, however, my plan wasn’t to revisit ancient landscapes and exchange anecdotes of bookish derring-do and folly. What I was interested in was how, in a business defined by a clientele that has changed generationally and culturally, Glenn has maintained, even improved, his position in the field. Part of this could be attributed to the man’s intellectual and cultural adaptability, and his prescient opportunism. But also, in the past decade and a half, Glenn’s “traditional” business had given way to large-scale transactions involving the acquisition of individual writers’ literary archives and estates. These have included the papers of James Salter to the Ransom Center at the University of Texas, as well as the archives of Tom Wolfe, Norman Mailer, and Vladimir Nabokov to the New York Public Library; John Updike to his alma mater (Harvard); Marilynne Robinson to Yale; and Kurt Vonnegut to the Lilly Library at Indiana University (KV’s home state).
Just before I sat down to write this, the New York Observer published a piece entitled “The Rarefied World of Rare Book Collecting Is Not a Dying Art.” The “money quote” in the article is provided by John Doyle, proprietor of the marvelous Upper East Side bookshop Crawford-Doyle: “Typically, rare book buyers tend to be middle-aged or older readers. They are reminiscing about books that impressed them as children.” I emailed Glenn for his take on the article. “If you’re not spawning generations of new consumers who first engaged as adolescents with texts through books they will not grow up to be middle-aged and advanced-aged buyers of books. Great copies of great titles will always have real currency, and will trade. But with texts entering young people’s lives electronically rather than through traditional books, the bird will be starved, tumble off the branch.”
There may never be a smartphone that’s as satisfying in either a tactile or intellectual way as a book, but you can’t fight the tape, as they say on Wall Street. Glenn Horowitz has kept the passion, but shifted the focus. That’s what the good ones do. I’ll buy him lunch anytime.