Kurt Zimmerman, book blogger, shares memories of Dorothy Sloan
- by Susan Halas
This 1992 photo shows a young Kurt Zimmerman with Dorothy Sloan, noted Texas dealer and bibliographer, along with a current photo
Kurt Zimmerman began writing his popular blog American Book Collecting in 2011. In the next eleven years he focused on topics of interest to those in the book trade and the world of collecting. “I’ve always enjoyed writing,” he said. “Part of it is the books, but part of it is who you meet.”
Zimmerman, 55, a resident of Conroe, Texas about 40 miles north of Houston, was born in Ohio, however, he said,” I’ve been a Texan since the age of ten.”
His bookish credentials are impressive. He received his undergraduate degree from the University of Texas at Austin in 1989 and went on to obtain a MLS Library degree specializing in rare books also from UT-Austin. He was a recipient of a two year internship at the Ransom Center and also had the good fortune to work side by side as an assistant to noted Texas dealer and auction specialist Dorothy Sloan (more of that later). He went on to work for a variety of other dealers.
In the mid-1990s he ran the rare book department at Butterfield & Butterfield Auctioneers (now Bonhams) in San Francisco. He eventually decided he preferred collecting over dealing. Twenty five years ago he entered his family’s real estate business in Houston. He still keeps up with the trade and auction world via his blog, and continues to do appraisals.
In 2014 Kurt and friends founded the Book Hunters Club of Houston. In 2021 the club published his well received trade paperback presenting a selection of his blogs titled Rare Book Hunting, Essays and Escapades. “The collection,” he said, ”got good feedback ... it helped spread the gospel of collecting and get people excited.”
Zimmerman estimated his own collection at about about 10,000 items, related “mainly to book hunting and book collecting in the United States: Not only books but manuscripts, photos, documents ephemera, focused on association copies, sentimental copies, historical association, annotated copies,” or as he put it: “Every book has a story.”
Though there are many excellent articles and adventures in his recent book, this reporter, a longtime Dorothy Sloan fan, was extremely taken with his reminiscences of working with her as a young assistant, which he presented in a 2021 talk to the Florida Bibliophile Society. It can be viewed as a YouTube video
In it Zimmerman depicts Sloan, a distinguished Texas bookseller, as “a woman in a man’s field.” The noted dealer, auction proprietor and bibliographer, who passed away in 2021, was born in Houston 1943. Her own degree was from University of Texas. She specialized in Texas, Western Americana and Latin Americana. In Zimmerman’s opinion (and mine too), “She was one of the finest antiquarian booksellers of this generation.”
According to Zimmerman, “She went out to California where she worked with Warren Howell of John Howell - Books in San Francisco in the early 1970s. Howell Books was considered one of the greatest booksellers in the country for many decades. She loved it there. She went back to Texas in 1979 to work for Jenkins Co., then in 1984 went out on her own.
“About 1990 I’m in college,” Zimmerman recalled. “I was this young 22-23 year old and heard that this bookseller in Austin was looking for some part time help. I interviewed and she was quite a personality. At the time she was about 50, but looked younger.”
Zimmerman took it all in, including her intellectual life as a cataloger and book dealer and her love of the outdoors, which included maintaining a large rose garden.
“Dorothy loved to catalog, and became well known for the strength of her cataloging and her reference library. She had the ability to take an item that wasn’t so obvious and show the value of it. Not just monetary value, but historical and other kinds of value as well.
“I spent a good part of two years sitting next to her cataloging collections. She was always (working) on a shoestring, but she was great at getting good material on consignment, using her connections from her earlier days in the trade. When I met her, she was a very experienced bookseller, but had not been on her own for too long.
Zimmerman was particularly impressed with her extensive in-house reference library which he estimated totaled some 8,000 -10,000 volumes at the time. She bought the remnants of the Jenkins library. She also purchased portions of the W. Thomas Taylor reference library, noted fine press printer, and incorporated that into her holdings.
“She was amazing at knowing the books: It’s one thing to have a big reference library, it’s another to be able to access it off the top of your head. ‘I’m going to look at this book and I’ll pull this one to do the research on the material.’
“When I was sitting next to her she’d send me off to find the book and we'd sit there for hours digging into every detail and trying to make the description as complete as possible. Even items that weren’t that much monetarily, she would spend a lot of time on. I soon learned that this caused issues with consignors and clients because she was always running behind schedule in getting things done.
“Bill Morrow,” he recalled, “was a prominent Texas collector who’d started in the 1930s. He was a true gentleman, by the time I met him, he was probably in his early 80s, in good health, and he had his collection on consignment to Dorothy.
“She was like a year behind. So one day there’s a knock on the door and it’s Bill. Dorothy welcomes him in, we sit in the living room. Bill gets up and starts talking about his books; all of a sudden he looks at Dorothy and says, ‘Are you going to get my collection done before I die?’
“Sure enough, she got it done. He was super pleased. He didn’t last much longer after that, but she did finally get it to the finish line. She ended up putting out an amazing catalog of his Texas collection.”
According to Zimmerman, “Sloan put out 12 catalogs on her own,” adding,” there are also 24 really amazing auction catalogs. Frankly she did auctions because she didn’t have a huge amount of capital. She wanted to handle good material, but she couldn’t afford to buy and hold. She was able to get some really important consignments and did some magnificent auction catalogs. She sold the Zamorano 80 twice, which is the pinnacle for a lot of Californiana collectors. They’re not just catalogs, they’re works of art and works of bibliography
“When you sit next to somebody like that you can’t help but absorb a lot of knowledge and stories. She was friends with Bill Reese ... he would call her on the phone and they would talk. I would overhear these conversations and my eyes would just open up. They would talk about book minutiae, but they would also joke about things ….I have no doubt that she and Bill smoked some weed together. The thought of those two great book people having some fun together always makes me smile.
“At the time I met her she was at the top of her game; she was very well known, especially in response to the Texas forgeries, all these fake documents came on the market including fake copies of the Texas Declaration of Independence. She was the one who actually discovered and noticed the fake. There's a famous book called Texfake: An Account of the Theft and Forgery of Early Texas Printed Documents,
if you read that, she is featured prominently.
“Dorothy wasn’t without controversy, she could be very engaging, but she also made it known that she didn’t think the ABAA was doing enough to make a stand against fakes and forgeries. She actually resigned from the ABAA over it. She was a very independent woman in that sense.”
As for good advice he’s remembered over the years: “She was the one who told me I had to catalog my own collection; if you don’t you will have a tough time keeping track. Now the catalog of my own books runs over 1,100 pages, thanks to her.
Zimmerman also recalled some of the circumstances around her death and the disposition of her reference material. In late 2020 he learned from her daughter that Sloan was alive, but the victim of dementia, who was living in a care facility. He also found out that many of her business affairs were badly snarled.
He noted that a portion of Sloan’s personal collection was sold to Michael Laird of Michael Laird Rare Books (ABAA), Lockhart, Texas (https://www.michaellaird.com/), and a substantial amount of her reference holdings to Rob Fleck of Oak Knoll Books (ABAA), in New Castle, Delaware (https://www.oakknoll.com/). Zimmerman himself also managed to salvage a substantial amount of ephemeral material from a shed on her property.
He went to see Fleck in Delaware during the pandemic, and recalled, “I spent 3 full days in his storage space. I started making stacks. I didn't know how I would pay for it but I wanted to preserve the core of her reference collections. He said to me: ’I guess you are interested.’ We worked out a price, packed 50 boxes and sent them back to Texas.”
As for more details about Sloan, her life and work, he said, “I’m writing some essays about Dorothy. Keep an eye on my blog and hopefully you’ll see it come up.”
Link to his talk to the Florida Bibliophile Society in 2021 focused on his youthful experiences with noted Texas dealer Dorothy Sloan
Some articles about Dorothy Sloan
Obituary in Austin Statesman https://www.statesman.com/story/news/history/2021/04/05/texas-bookseller-dorothy-sloan-fought-forgeries-fakes-stolen-goods/4822587001/
Articles focused on Texas Fakes
New York Times https://www.nytimes.com/1989/12/10/magazine/lone-star-fakes.html
Texas Monthly https://www.texasmonthly.com/true-crime/forgery-texas-style/
Contact information: Kurt Zimmerman
Link to his his blog posts http://www.bookcollectinghistory.com/
Link to his book on Amazon - Rare Book Hunting: Essays and Escapades