Peter Howard’s chair at Serendipity Books. Photo: Ken Sanders, Ken Sanders Rare Books
Peter Howard’s chair at Serendipity Books. Photo: Ken Sanders, Ken Sanders Rare Books

Peter Howard, the eccentric and brilliant owner of Serendipity Books, and a towering figure in the world of rare books, died at home on March 31.

A Giants season ticket-holder for more than 40 years, Howard died with the opening game of the season blaring on television – while the Giants were still beating the Dodgers.

“He died at the bottom of the sixth inning,” said one of his daughters, Kerry Dahm.

Howard’s death at 72 means that there will be changes at Serendipity Books on University Avenue, but the shape of those changes is still unclear.

There are a number of people interested in buying the store and/or the inventory, according to Dahm. For now, the store is still open.

“I doubt it will continue as it was,” said Dahm.

Howard died seven and a half months after the death of his wife Alison, 71, to whom he had been married for more than 50 years. The couple was able to have a 50th wedding anniversary party with close friends in June.

Howard is also survived by another daughter, Esme Howard, and a number of grandchildren.

Serendipity Books Photo: Ken Sanders

Howard and Alison met in 1958 in Alaska on a Friends service project to build houses for the Eskimos, said Dahm. After the project was over, they built a moss-covered raft and floated down the Yukon back to civilization, she said.

They both returned to college – he to Haverford and she to nearby Swarthmore – and married the weekend after they graduated. They moved to Berkeley so Howard could go to graduate school in English at UC Berkeley and Alison could be closer to her family.

Howard was teaching Subject A (entry level English) at Cal and sold a small collection of D.H. Lawrence books he had. He soon realized he got more pleasure matching good books with good owners than either owning the books or studying English. He quit school and started a small rare-book business. Soon, the family’s house on Colusa was overflowing with books. Howard opened a store on Shattuck Avenue in 1967 and moved in 1986 into an old winery on University.

Serendipity Books is crammed top to bottom with books in every conceivable location: on shelves, on table tops, on the floor, in the rafters. The books in the store are only a part of Howard’s vast collection, which he estimated last year was around 1 million volumes. There is a warehouse in Berkeley stuffed with boxes of books as well.

“There are books everywhere,” said Dahm. “There is the store. There is the warehouse with almost as many books in boxes as in the store. Then there is our house with bookshelves in every room, including the stairwell. He would often bring bags and bags of books home.”

Howard soon developed a reputation as an astute rare-book dealer. He discovered and saved many important manuscript collections, as well as collecting and valuing works by both well-known and lesser-known authors.

Howard’s collection covers many areas, including California history and western Americana. He was known for his collection of first editions of American and British literature, and has holdings of Ernest Hemingway, Henry James, Shakespeare, North Point Press, and fiction from countries around the world. Serendipity also has large collections of literary manuscripts, screenplays and little magazines.

“He was one of the major antiquarian book dealers of our time,” said Victoria Shoemaker, a literary agent, close friend, and former neighbor of the Howards’.

Howard made some notable purchases in his lengthy career as a bookseller.

In the late 1990s, he bought the 18,000-volume collection of Carter Burden, a descendant of Cornelius Vanderbilt, and a progressive New York politician and businessman. The size of the collection prompted Howard to install compact shelving, making Serendipity the only bookstore in the world to have such shelving.

In 1991, Howard was offered the archives of Thomas M. Jackson, an Oakland grocer who had served as secretary for the California chapter of the NAACP from 1910 and 1940.  After Jackson died, in 1963, someone took his papers to the Berkeley dump. Someone else rescued them and asked Howard to help them find a proper home. Howard sold the papers to the Bancroft Library.

Later in that decade, someone found 946 letters exchanged between two Japanese-American teenagers who met at an internment camp in Utah. Tamaki Tsubokura and David Hisato Yamate were separated for a few years during the war, and they wrote to one another frequently. These letters were also dumped at the Berkeley landfill and later rescued. Howard brokered their sale to the University of Utah.

Howard was a blunt and forthright man. After he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer a year ago, Berkeleyside contacted him to ask about his health and the store.

“There’s nothing to say,” Howard said by telephone. “People die. We all die. Businesses end.”

Writing on, in a section called “A Wake for the Still Alive: Peter B. Howard”, Stephen Gertz, one of his friends, described meeting Howard for the first time. “He was standing in one of the aisles around twenty-five yards away from my vantage point and looked like an aged, unkempt and unshaven derelict marooned far too long, surviving on a diet far too short on calories,” wrote Gertz.

“He was wearing a sarong-like thing wrapped around his waist, sandals, a rumpled shirt and a knit cap with earflaps. It seemed as if he had just come off a three-day binge on arrack, the liquor made from coconut sap. It was Peter Howard, proprietor of the legendary Serendipity Books in Berkeley, California, who appeared to be shipwrecked on Book Island.”

But the gruff exterior hid a nicer side. Many of Howard’s friends characterized him as generous and helpful and willing to go out of his way to help young book dealers get set up in business.

Gary Lepper, Howard’s lawyer, said Howard helped him compile a bibliographical study of first editions, and then asked if Serendipity could publish it. That led to a lifelong friendship between the Howards and the Leppers that included many games of bridge, delicious dinners, and a friendly rivalry over the Giants, who Howard loved, and the Dodgers, who Lepper supported.

“He didn’t do well with fools, or people he thought were delicatish, but if you hung in there you got a very good friend out of it,” said Lepper.

One indication of the reverence in which he was held by the rare-book community came every two years around the time of the Antiquarian Book Fair in San Francisco. Howard would throw a huge party at Serendipity Books the Wednesday before the fair. He would clear the books in his store out of the aisles and off of the tables, tent-over the parking lot, and have Poulet cater the meal. He would have a suckling pig, and the printer, Alistair Johnson, would print up the menu, said Dahm. The party was so popular that the store and tent were jammed.

Howard was well enough to throw the party again this year in February. After it was over, he went home and never left the house again, said Dahm.

There will be a private memorial service for Howard in May, said Lepper.

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Frances Dinkelspiel, Berkeleyside and CItyside co-founder, is a journalist and author. Her first book, Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman Created California, published in November...