Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Allen Covici - Memory of a Friend & Neighbor

When my wife and I bought the house which originally sat on the lot we still occupy * in Kensington in 1976, we didn't know any of the neighbors. This neighborhood had been settled in the late 1940's and early 1950's, and many of the residents were the original owners. Most of their children had grown up and left home by that time; we were the harbingers of the second wave of "settlers" (baby "Boomers") following the post-War boom years. They looked down their noses at us. It's certainly no surprise, then, that I wouldn't have known that a man named Don Ross lived two blocks South along our street, straddling the edge of the Sunset View Cemetery. Ross had been smart with real estate in the '40's and '50's, buying up lots and building rental housing on them. Eventually, he owned enough to live off the rents. It turned out that Ross's best friend was Brett Weston, the son of Edward Weston, and a world-class photographer in his own right. Ross's next door neighbor, and his renter, was Allen Covici. 

In the 1990's, as my career with the government began to wind down, I envisioned becoming a bookseller. I was already a collector, spending most of my discretionary money on rare books. Sellers in the trade, recognizing my useless obsession, encouraged me to consider going into the trade myself. "Collecting books is really pretty stupid, Curtis" Peter Howard of Serendipity Books would say, "but becoming a book dealer will enable you to own and handle thousands of wonderful books you'd never be able to have access to, otherwise." One day John McBride, a bookseller at Moe's Books in Berkeley, suggested I give my "neighbor" Allen Covici a ring, as he was one of the most well-known collector/traders in antiquarian books in the area, though notably low profile. I'd never heard of Allen, but the name Covici rang a bell.  

Somewhat uncharacteristically, for me, I did just that. Before long, Allen and I had become fast friends. I'd go over to his place and we'd talk for hours about books, and about some of his life experiences. We often went to lunch together in Berkeley. Allen was the nephew of Pascal Covici, who had been Allen's Father's Brother. Allen's Father had died when he was very young. Pascal, who owned a bookstore in Chicago, would eventually go into the publishing trade as an editor, starting a firm which became first Covici, then Covici-Friede,** and ultimately an important editor with Viking (famously associated with Steinbeck and other figures of note). Allen had grown up in the Chicago of Studs Lonigan, among sharply defined ethnic neighborhoods. 

Allen became interested in books at a young age, but had little money (these were the Depression years). After working briefly in a war materiel factory, he ended up in the U.S. Army, following the invasion force into Northwest France. One of his favorite anecdotes involved a three day pass he'd been given when his company had been stationed near the German border after V-E Day. Allen went to Paris, bringing along booty (chocolate, nylons and cigarettes) with which to tempt the luxury-poor French shopkeepers. He stopped in several bookstores, and acquired first editions of Henry Miller and Anais Nin, among others. Returning to camp, he stored his finds in his big green canvas bag. The day before his unit was to be sent out, the company was ordered to report for formation outside barracks. An hour later, the men returned to discover that thieves had ransacked all the bags, but of course they hadn't taken Allen's rare books, because they had no idea what they were! Allen was full of stories like this.

After the war, he'd gotten a librarianship degree and moved to Berkeley to work for the UC Library system. He'd been living in the lovely Japanese house belonging to Ross since the late 1960's. Not being married, and having no outstanding obligations, he began to acquire rare books from local bookstores and library book sales, etc. This became his chief interest in life. By the time I met him, he'd built up a world class collection of first editions, most at rock bottom prices, and he'd already begun to sell some of it off through antiquarian dealers in San Francisco. He told me of acquiring Nathaniel West's Miss Lonelyhearts in dustjacket for five dollars, and a copy of Samuel Beckett's Whoroscope for almost nothing! He kept a card catalogue itemizing all his books, updating their values over the years as each new generation of mail order catalogues arrived in his mailbox. The retail value of his collection was well over a million dollars. 

Allen's sister (1913-2008) had led quite an interesting life. A social organizer spawned in the Leftist-leaning '30's, she went to Spain during the Civil War. After her husband's death in 1959, she started a whole new life, securing a graduate degree in Social Work and spending the next 30 years in the San Francisco Bay Area teaching (at SF State), and working as an organizer. By the time I met her, she'd moved to Portland, but was as feisty and active (in her Eighties) as anyone I'd ever met of that age. 

Eventually, Allen decided that he wanted me to serve as his "literary executor" though of course it wasn't a guardian or administrator of copyrights that he needed (having published very little during his life), but as the overseer of his grand book collection. An attorney drew up the papers, but just a few weeks later, Allen and I had a falling-out and he cancelled all those plans. As he approached 90, I suggested to him that he might want to get someone to help him with chores and errands, but he was reluctant. He'd always lived alone, and had a fierce independent streak.  

Eventually, he moved to Portland and entered a rest home, where he died peacefully, and somewhat obliviously, as I was given to understand, at age 92. His sister Virginia Malbin succeeded him two years later, at age 95. 

Wishing to preserve some of his memories and opinions, I conducted a series of recorded interviews with Allen in 1997-98, thinking that I might someday publish them. The verbatim is over 60 pages long. 

I was sorry our friendship had to end, but I have no regrets. Allen taught me much about books: If I have any integrity as a bookseller, it's due in considerable part to him. He did, briefly, sell books, under the name Invisible Bookman, though never with much conviction; he loved his books too much to part with them before he had to. One of Allen's gifts to me, was his collection of an almost complete run of Margie Cohn's House of Books catalogues from the 1940's-50's.                     
Don Ross has since died, and the properties sold. I lived here for 18 years before knowing about either Ross or Covici. When I became a large format photographer, in 1985, little did I know that Brett Weston (my HERO!) was developing negatives in Ross's garage just a few hundred feet from my front door! Or that Allen Covici, one of the world's great book collectors, was also a neighbor who would one day figure prominently and intimately in my last career. 

*We had the the old house demolished in 1991, and built a new one on the same lot, designed by Jacobson-Silverstein, a Berkeley architectural firm.

**Donald Friede eventually went on to marry M.F.K. Fisher (see my post on Fisher).   


Anonymous said...

As Don Ross's son, and a photographer all of my life, I enjoyed your comments about Allan. He was a tenant and friend for over forty years.

I hope that you had an opportunity to see the Brett Weston retrospective exhibition at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art, which has recently closed. I was invited to be on a panel at the opening of the exhibition in May.

Merg Ross


Curtis Faville said...

Dear Merg:

I met your Father and Mother briefly, and had the opportunity to show them a few
of my 11x14 contact prints. Someone Don had known had given him a portfolio
of 11x14's (not Brett), and we compared them.

Your Dad said he and Brett liked to "play" in Mexico at your Dad's place there.
He said Brett would stop by on his way to places, and frequently would develop
his negatives "in the garage." He said Brett had had one of his "little strokes"
"right there in that chair you're sitting in" once.

He also said you (I think) had sold your copy of the Edward Weston life-work portfolio
to fund your college education. We ruefully wondered what that object would bring
on the market today!

My only contact with Brett was at a book signing in Carmel a couple of years
before he died.

I wish I'd known Mr. Ross earlier, and had had the chance to meet Brett through

Allen and I had some good times. He considered himself very lucky to have a
landlord like Ross.

Thanks for reading.