Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Burton Weiss [July 4, 1945 - June 19, 2011]

Photo courtesy of Americana Exchange Monthly@

On October 17, 1989, I was still employed at my government job in San Francisco, where I'd been working since April 1974. That day I left work early, as I did as often in those days, to avoid traffic on the Bay Bridge, taking the route home to Kensington in the East Bay. That day, too, I hadn't wanted to miss the third game of the World Series, which featured the Oakland A's versus the San Francisco Giants (the "Bay Bridge Series" as it came to be called), which would be televised at about 5:30 that evening. 

When I got onto I-80, I decided to segue over to Serendipity Books at 1201 University Avenue in Berkeley. I was a regular customer of Serendipity in those days. I'd become a book collector, against my better instincts, and Serendipity was the finest antiquarian bookshop I knew, at least in the nine county Bay Area. The owner, Peter Howard, had the best stuff, and he knew how to cultivate customers. Anyway, that day I pulled into Peter's little parking-lot and made my way up to the second floor at the back, where the mysteries and some of the older stock was shelved. I can't remember exactly what I was looking at--perhaps a copy of Fielding Dawson's collected stories--but at exactly 5:04 PM the building began to shake. People who live in earthquake country have a kind of intuition about quakes: when one begins, there is a sudden feeling of inevitability--"is this the big one?" you ask yourself. In those few seconds, it became clear that this was indeed "a big one" though how big was not entirely clear. As I stood transfixed standing by the second floor window, I had the distinct feeling that things were on the verge of catastrophe. The books were falling off their shelves, and I could hear tall book-cases careening onto the floor on the ground floor below. "If this gets any more intense," I thought to myself, "this second floor might collapse." All this happened in the space of only about 15 seconds, yet it might have seemed to last a minute or more. I rushed downstairs, stepping over big piles of fallen books, and encountered Burton Weiss frantically taking an inventory of the customers and the damage. "Are you alright?" Burton blurted. "Yup, just fine," I replied. My first thought was for my own house, and I hightailed it up the hill. To my relief, it hadn't suffered any significant damage, though our two cats at the time, Vanilla and Java, were spooked. 

By 1989, Burton had been working at Serendipity for some years. I don't know a lot of details about Burton, but he grew up in New York, attended Cornell, majoring in English literature. As an undergraduate there, Burton became active in political causes, as many of us did during the 1960's. In Burton's case, this involved demonstrating and contending with the University itself, primarily about Gay rights. As a Gay man, Burton felt strongly about the Gay Rights movement, and he was among the first to take up the issue as a personal crusade, rather early in its history. I don't know the background details, but at some point Peter hired Burton to be his assistant. Working for Peter was difficult, but Burton persevered for many years until circumstances permitted him to resign and become a part-time bookseller on his own. Burton had a home high in the Berkeley Hills, and he would eventually also acquire a house south of Barcelona on the east coast of Spain, where he would spend part of each year. 

Not long after Burton left Serendipity, Peter and I had a falling-out, and I stopped going there. In the meantime, Burton and I became acquaintances, and I bought books from him from time to time. Burton was a fastidious man. If you went to his house, there were certain rules you had to follow. First, you were not allowed to touch anything, because you might disturb the order, and there was also the issue of cleanliness. I was allowed into Burton's "closet"--a small room off the upper hallway--because I was shopping, but one was not allowed to touch the books in his own collection, which were impressive indeed. Burton's collection's theme was Gay literature, and he had pursued it single-mindedly for decades. 

In any event, Burton became seriously ill with cancer in 2011. He refused to talk about it with me, but it was clear that his time had come. He had worked and planned to live the life he'd dreamed about--the house in Spain, the independence of being his own boss, and a stable relationship with his partner Elliot Schwartz--and now it was all to come to a too-early close. In an ironic twist of fate, Elliot died just a few months later, also from cancer. Peter Howard had died only three months earlier, in March of that year. The collection was broken up and scattered to the trade, confirming the adage that we mortals are all just custodians of the physical artifacts that we invest with so much meaning and covetousness; we won't take them with us, no matter how determined we are not to relinquish them in life.    

In any case, Burton composed the following keepsake, Aphorisms of the Rare Book Trade, for distribution to members of the Roxburghe Club, a bibliophilic club, which I've copied below. 


These aphorisms bear more than a little truth about serious book collecting. As anyone who knows, knows, a book you acquire to add to your collection, isn't a book you want to handle. You keep it safely on the shelf, or in a custom made box, and you may take it out occasionally just to admire it and contemplate its rarity and fine condition, but actually reading it is strictly out of the question. That one might actually do so, is a privilege of ownership, but resisting this impulse is the higher purpose to which collecting, for collecting's sake, aspires. Materialism has gotten a bad name, since the advent of socialism and the distaste for effete acquisitiveness. But things are the hallmark of all societies, the repositories of our culture--books perhaps most of all, beside great paintings, buildings, musical compositions and events. 

Burton's little trifle is a gentle poke at our pretension, being both true and charming at once. 

Early in our acquaintance, Burton regaled me with the melodramatic account of a torrid love affair he'd had with a man who lived up around Santa Rosa. Burton had felt blessed to be found attractive by a man whose beauty he worshipped, and he considered leaving Elliot. This caused much agony and grief and embarrassment. Why, I wondered, is Burton relating to me these very private emotional matters? As I later understood, this was typical of Burton--he held nothing back. I realized that this was just the same kind of "deep gossip" my mother had used to practice, revealing the rumors and secrets of one's love life in intimate detail. The fact that such details emanated from a late-middle-aged Jewish Gay man, was only a matter of slight difference.   

I miss Burton. I don't know what else he might have become. Perhaps an academic. Perhaps a bureaucrat. Perhaps even a writer (?). But as a bookseller, he knew his stuff, and reveled in its complexity. 

Sometimes, the things you don't know about people are as important as the things you do know--as Ernest Hemingway said about literary works, what makes them powerful is the two-thirds portion of the floating iceberg that is submerged beneath the surface of what we're told or shown--the unknown, only implied by the part we're allowed to see.    


JforJames said...

If you can copy out a few of Burton's book collecting aphorisms, it would be fun to put them up, along with your nice post here...

Charles Shere said...

I wish I'd known him. We lived a block from Serendipity from 1973 to 1997, but I never entered the shop, having made a solemn promise not to. Other husbands forswear saloons; for me the bottle has always been books.

Anonymous said...

Not only was Burton in love with my beauty, he was in love with my brain and how I lived my life. Melodramatic, do you think? I was the only person that would allow Burton to live. With me he could touch, play and enjoy life."Embarrassment", I can believe that! Going back to Elliot and that whole way of life. Both died of cancer within a few months of each other. Why? The reason was the stress they lived with , like an old couple that can not stand each other or each others habits. You got one side of this whole affair and made it your BIZ to relate it in a public format. For Shame...

Curtis Faville said...

Dear Anon:

No names are mention with respect to the reported affair.

Your secret--whatever it is--is safe.