The fourth floor of Moe’s Books is home to a wonderful and amazing antiquarian book collection. Sequestered in a room of its own is a vast array of rare art and rare books that provide a chance to escape the day to day toil and immerse the mind in faraway thoughts.
There are people who love to collect books, particularly rare ones. Books coveted by collectors can be quite valuable — say, a first Italian edition of "Pinocchio" ($80,000) or the first-edition "Lolita" that Vladimir Nabokov inscribed to his friend Graham Greene, which fetched $264,000 at auction.
Book collectors are people who have an intimate and complex relationship to books and history. Some collect for the investment, a passion for a particular author or genre, or an interest in a particular historical period, and others for the thrill of it. Antiquarian booksellers deal in almost every conceivable subject. Some specialize in one subject, or certain subjects, others are generalists.
Bu it was not the history of book collecting, or the insight into how book dealers assess value that captivated me about the fourth floor of Moe's; it was Elliott Levine, John Wong and Ken Eastman.
Elliott, John and Ken bring to life the delightful antiquarian gallery. Brilliant, well read and engaging, they carefully archive preserved photographs, book collections, art collections and a vast array of collectibles. I felt as if I had just stepped into a world of enchantment.
UC Berkeley graduate, John Wong has owned one of the most highly prized collections of children’s books. Among his favorites are the landmark children’s book, Where The Wild Things Are, that earned author and illustrator Maurice Sendak a Caldecott Medal in 1964. Wong also loves Grimms Fairy Tales because they are “scary and have great illustrations.” However, Wong’s favorite is the Harry Whittier Frees picture books.
Wong describes Frees as a “really an eccentric guy.” In 1921 Frees was one of the first children’s novelists to photograph animals dressed in clothing. He worked at a time in history when Photoshop wasn’t even a spark in the collective imagination. In Mr. Frees' own words, "These unusual photographs of real animals were made possible only by patient, unfailing kindness on the part of the photographer at all times." Frees' animal photos were featured on post cards, calendars, books, advertising materials, and in publications such as Woman's World.
Wong brought out his personal collection of Frees books while explaining that Frees often used his own cats, Rags and Fluff, as well as the dogs, pigs, rabbits and birds belonging to his friends and neighbors.
Wong surprised me as he unveiled a street poster collection from the avant-garde Russian stage director, Vsevolod Meyerhold. He explained that Meyerhold had a reputation for producing great theatrical innovations, however, Imperial officials were not so pleased. Stalin had ordered that anything relating to Meyerhold was to be outlawed. The government exerted heavy pressure demanding that Meyerhold revert to a conventional, realistic style. Being a visionary director, Meyerhold was unmoved and accused of being an anti-Soviet formalist. As a result, the October revolution of 1917 was especially significant to Meyerhold as he was arrested and imprisoned.
Wong recounted the history behind the surreptitious acquisition of this collection: “The woman that collected these pieces was married to a man who worked for IBM. She would travel to Russia with her husband for business and visit retirement homes and trade aspirin and vodka for the strictly censored street posters, photographs and rare books pertaining to Meyerhold.“
Wong produced a collection of tiny black and white photographs that show a happier Meyerhold; swimming in a lake, posing with his loving wife, free from soviet oppression and censorship. In 1939, Meyerhold was arrested and accused of anti-government political activities. He was executed in Moscow on Feb. 2, 1940.
Wong’s knowledge and attention to detail reveals a passion for books, art and history that goes beyond intrinsic value. He is a lover of art and a great storyteller. His stories began to show me the richness that antique books and art offer.
Taking a trip to the fourth floor of Moe’s is well worth it. Adults and children will feel as if they are on a great adventure. If you collect books or are just fascinated with a specific author, genre or time period, Moe’s will provide you with the knowledge of that subject to properly appreciate your collection.
Moe's will be hosting a complimentary tea tasting on Saturday, July 23 from 2 to 3 p.m. The tea to be tasted will be Moe's Breakfast Tea, a custom blend created exclusively for the bookstore by the Lhasa Karnak Herb Company.
Moe's Bookstore is located at 2476 Telegraph Avenue, between Dwight Way and Haste Street, in Berkeley. The store is open daily from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Next week I will introduce Ken Eastman and his love for beautiful ancient Japanese texts, wine and food.