Interior of Berkeley’s Serendipity Books, which had an estimated one million books. Photos: Ken Sanders
Interior of Berkeley’s Serendipity Books, which had an estimated one million books. Photos: Ken Sanders

The collection the late Peter Howard amassed for Serendipity Books was so vast that it will take Bonhams six different auctions to sell it off.

Once stuffed into an old winery on University Avenue, the collection, estimated at one million volumes, has now been sorted – and resorted and resorted – for sale.

“The bookstore on University … is a warren of rooms filled to the roof with titles from the mundane and popular to the erudite and obscure,” Catherine Williamson, Bonhams’ director of fine books & manuscripts explained in the auction catalogue. “Peter wanted people to search for their books, looking carefully and hopefully finding not only what they were looking for, but far more.

“While working to clear the store in advance of this first sale (and the others scheduled throughout this year) we have found ourselves going over shelves once, twice, three times and on the fourth time finding something else worth pulling out and putting in the catalog. I‘m sure that is as Peter would have wished it,” said Williamson.

Bonhams will preview Howard’s books at its San Francisco offices February 3 to 5. The first sale will be in Los Angeles on February 12, timed to coincide with the 45th California International Antiquarian Book Fair. The auction house will hold four other sales in May and June. The value of the books in the first sale is estimated to be $400,000, according to Bonhams officials.

Howard, 72, died of pancreatic cancer in March 2011. He started Serendipity Books in 1967 in a small store on Shattuck Avenue and moved to the University Avenue location in 1986. Howard collected so many books – he often bought individual’s entire collections – that he installed compact shelving in the store, the only bookstore in the country to have it.

Peter Howard in 2010

Howard had a reputation as an astute rare-book dealer. He discovered and saved many important manuscript collections, as well as collecting works by both well-known and lesser-known authors. He consulted with major libraries on what to buy and how much to bid, including the Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley.

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

After Howard discovered he had pancreatic cancer, he tried to sell his store and entire collection, which he valued as worth between $2.5 million and $3.5 million. Neither he nor his children were able to sell it intact. It was just too big.

A 1929 Faulkner first edition

The centerpiece of Bonhams’ first auction is Howard’s large collection of John Steinbeck material. He owned the typed manuscript of “The Pearl of the World,” the original short story version of The Pearl. Bonhams estimates its value at $15,000-$20,000. Howard also owned copy number 4 of “The Red Pony”, (est. $2,000-$3,000), an inscribed copy of “The Grapes of Wrath” (est. at $10,000 – $15,000). Steinbeck’s novella version of “Lifeboat”, (which Alfred Hitchcock asked him to write.) It is worth an estimated $5,000-$7,000. There are also a number of photographs and letters from Steinbeck.

The sale will also include antiquarian books, first editions of modern literature and poetry, a group of Robinson Jeffers novels and letters, a selection of William Faulkner material, including the Ole Miss yearbook from 1918 featuring one of his submissions. It also includes Carl Sandburg’s guitar, a collection of checks signed by Jack London, and much more.

Carl Sandberg’s guitar. Photo: Bonhams
Carl Sandberg’s guitar. Photo: Bonhams

Howard was a huge baseball fan and rarely missed a Giants game. He had the satisfaction of watching his team win the World Series in 2010. He died March 31, 2011 watching the opening day game. (It was the bottom of the sixth inning.)

The auction will include some rare baseball material, including one of the earliest known baseball broadsheets (a newspaper) for the first intercollegiate ball game (est. $2,500- $3,500.)

Bonhams preview auction will be held 10 to 5 pm, Feb 3-5 at 220 San Bruno Avenue in San Francisco. The catalog can be viewed here.

Peter Howard, renowned rare book dealer, dies [04.13.11]
Future uncertain for Berkeley’s Serendipity Books [04.29.10]

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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...