Posted By DMB

The booktrade has lost one of its greats recently, and tributes from all over the world are being published. Barney Rosenthal came from famous bookselling families on both sides. Born in Munich, the family moved to Florence on the rise of the Nazis where his mother’s family, the Olschkis, were as prominent as his father’s family had been in Germany.

The Rosenthals ended up all over the world as booksellers. Barney escaped Mussolini as well in 1938, went to New York, served in the U.S. forces in World War Two, and moved permanently to San Francisco, and then Berkeley, where he has just died at 97 years of age, loved and admired by all who knew him.

The first time I met Barney Rosenthal I was a young beginner with not much more going for me than curiosity and a passion for books. On that first occasion Barney treated me like I was an admired and valued colleague. And on every subsequent time we met he treated me like an old friend. I never met him that I didn’t learn something from him. Those lessons were mainly about how to be a better bookseller and a better person and it’s those lessons I most remember.

I’m quite proud that many years ago I did sell him a book for his famous project on early annotated books. I had acquired a piece of 16th century theology of probably no importance, but it was heavily annotated in the margins. It had been sitting in my office since I didn’t know what to do with it or even where to start. Barney came in on a Toronto visit, mentioned his interest and I pulled it out.  I couldn’t read the annotations, nor the Latin the book was written in, and I hadn’t a clue as to its value. I pulled a price from the air and hoped Barney would find it acceptable; he graciously thanked me and bought it. It was a measure of the regard that I already held Barney in that I hoped it was a sleeper. And, of course, it had to be, for Barney had invented the subject of interest. The mark of the great collector – and the best dealers – is to focus on an area previously ignored and to amass an orderly collection based on that idea. The very focus enhances the value of the collection and hence its components. So, in the way of booksellers, I can shamelessly boast that I helped Barney build his collection.

For many years I have described Barney to people who never met him as a man for whom a modern first edition was a 17th century book. Except for his extensive reference library that would be mostly true.

But how I’ve always preferred to describe him, is simply to say of him that he was the most respected man in the booktrade.

Some years ago, a prominent dealer wrote an anonymous satire on the trade. Every person in the book was a cunning, rapacious scoundrel – except the hero (and the beautiful lady whose love he justly captured). The hero, the only admirable person in the book was widely reported to be based on Barney Rosenthal. Everyone who knew Barney believed it was him and cheered when he won the prize (a book, of course) and the beautiful lady.

The most respected man in the booktrade, indeed.

 
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