Friendship and Love of Rare Books - Fitting Bookends for Two Lives

Article excerpt

Old Books, Rare Friends: Two Literary Sleuths and Their Shared Passions

By Leona Rostenberg and Madeleine Stern

Doubleday, 275 pp., $21.95 Nearly 55 years ago, Madeleine Stern gave her best friend a Christmas present that changed the course of both women's lives. Knowing that her friend dreamed of someday becoming an antiquarian book dealer, Stern ordered business stationery reading "Leona Rostenberg - Rare Books." With that daring gift, an amazing enterprise was born. Never mind that Rostenberg lacked capital and confidence. And never mind that her initial stock of Renaissance books - her specialty - barely filled a tiny bookcase. The following year, in 1944, despite objections from her mother ("My darling, no woman in our family has ever engaged in commerce."), she opened her "shop" in a vacant third-floor bedroom in her family's Bronx home. As she explains, "I could not waste all this marvelously engraved stationery." That modest beginning is one of many stories the two women recount in their charming joint autobiography, "Old Books, Rare Friends." Writing in alternating chapters, they draw on memories, diaries, and letters to describe not only their eventual "partnership in business" but also their "partnership in life." Both were born into middle-class German-Jewish families in New York. Both enjoyed a close relationship with their parents. Both also reveled in intellectual independence. Yet that independence came with a price. Any desire to marry was thwarted by their failure to find men who shared their scholarly interests. "We would certainly have delighted in children," Stern admits, although she notes, "If books were indeed our children, we had large families." As a doctoral student at Columbia University in the 1930s, Rostenberg wrote a dissertation on the role of the 17th-century printer-publisher in shaping civilization. But her thesis was rejected as invalid and she was denied a degree, ending her chances for an academic career. Despite the obvious hurt, Rostenberg calls that decision - which was later reversed - "one of life's most productive ironies." It forced her to continue a difficult apprenticeship to an Austrian rare-book dealer in New York, a man of "uncontrolled ravings" who sometimes addressed her as "Fraulein Dummkopf. …