Magazine article The New Yorker

Book Sale

Magazine article The New Yorker

Book Sale

Article excerpt

After graduating from the University of Michigan, in 1963, Otto Penzler (Bronx Science, Class of '59) repatriated to his old neighborhood, near the Grand Concourse, and went to work as a copy boy at the News. This was Plan B, his fallback after a freshman-year encounter on the baseball practice diamond with his teammate Bill Freehan, the future Detroit Tigers All-Star catcher, who so thoroughly took Penzler out during a double play that he instantly abandoned his dream of playing for the Yankees. His take-home pay from the News was thirty-seven dollars a week. Of that, he budgeted five dollars to buy books.

A rare-book shop occupied a town house near the News, and the moment the dealer, James Drake, persuaded Penzler to pay ten dollars for a book that he'd put away just for him he became a collector. "There was another copy on the shelf for five dollars," he recalled recently. "The ten-dollar copy had a dust jacket. I said, 'Who cares?' and Mr. Drake explained why I should care."

In Ann Arbor, Penzler had majored in English and American literature, and he began collecting with a casual omnivorousness--Pope to Poe, Keats to Twain--until Drake convinced him that he needed to narrow his focus. "I decided to concentrate on mystery fiction, because I'd just begun to read it," he said. "I started with Sherlock Holmes, Raymond Chandler, Agatha Christie. There was no competition. I could walk into the old downtown shops--Schulte's, Biblo & Tannen, Dauber & Pine--and there were all these beautiful books, in beautiful condition, for fifty cents or a dollar."

He was reading a book a day, and in 1976 he co-authored "The Encyclopedia of Mystery & Detection," which won an Edgar award. The previous year, he'd founded the Mysterious Press, publisher of limited editions of mystery short-story collections. When this cottage industry outgrew his apartment, he and a partner bought a six-story building behind Carnegie Hall, and on a Friday the thirteenth in 1979 he opened the sui-generis Mysterious Bookshop (which in 2005 relocated to Tribeca). Meanwhile, his personal collection had forced him to further expand his real-estate holdings. In 1988, construction began on a spacious Tudor house with a tower library in northwest Connecticut. "Actually, it's a little house with a big library attached to it," he said. "The library took me ten years to finish. I kept running out of money. To this day, when I walk into that room I say, 'Holy shit. I live here.' "

This week, Swann Galleries will auction Penzler's entire holdings of British espionage and thriller fiction, more than two thousand titles (out of sixty thousand) that he's saying goodbye to like an M. …

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