The antiquarian bookselling community lost one of its most beloved members in 2023, when Michael Ginsberg died. While crossing the street on his way to his favorite restaurant, Michael was struck by a car and killed. He had been a fixture in the book business since the 1950s, first working for J. S. Canner, a specialist in periodicals and scholarly books. Mike later went into business with his former employer, Eugene Schwab; together they formed Western Hemisphere, a book business specializing in Americana. In 1975 Michael ended his partnership with Schwab, took half of Western Hemisphere’s inventory, and started Michael Ginsberg Books. For nearly fifty years Michael traded as Michael Ginsberg Books, specializing in Americana, as well as economics and periodicals. He travelled extensively; served as president of the ABAA; was one of the last living dealers who attended and was an active participant at the Streeter sale; was one of the founders of the Boston Book Fair; did big business in Japan in the 1970s and 1980s; created the bookseller interview project for the ABAA; knew and mentored scores of people; was always upbeat in his dealings, and welcoming and helpful to those who were new to the trade. He was a character that few, if any of us could possibly forget. The same could be said of his impact on our select fraternity of Americanists. Although he died in his mid-eighties he was always extremely youthful and was possessed with an indefatigable amount of energy. I always assumed that the cause of death in his case would have been advanced youth.
I can’t say that I first met Mike in 1964, because the truth is that I only witnessed him in action, and no introductions were made. This “sighting” took place in the summer of 1964. I was 16 and working for my father’s partner, George MacManus. Our old shop was located on Irving Street, a small side street in center city Philadelphia that ran for only one block. Business tended to be quiet during the summer, primarily because in those days our business was focused mainly on the academic trade and due to our obscure location, we saw few people. I have a distinct memory of Mike’s entrance. The languidness of that summer day was interrupted abruptly when a short, skinny little man who sported a buzz-cut burst in, and proceeded to do a wind-sprint through the stacks, leaving piles of books in his wake. When he finished going through our inventory and making his selections, he gave George MacManus his card. They exchanged pleasantries for a moment or two, and then, in an instant, he was gone. I was stunned by his performance, and asked George who this whirlwind of a human was. George went on to explain that Michael worked for J. S. Canner and that he was buying books for them. I remember having a hard time trying to wrap my head around the idea that one dealer could buy from another dealer and make money. George, very patiently tried to explain that Michael was probably filling orders for institutions. Had he been a cartoon character, he would have, I am certain, been the Road Runner!
I don’t remember our first official meeting, but it was probably around the time of the Lowdermilk sale, that took place in Washington, D.C. in early 1970. During his time with Western Hemisphere we had a fair number of dealings, and before too long we became friends. When Johnny Jenkins bought the Eberstadt collection he aligned himself with Mike and kept him on a retainer as a consultant. This arrangement lasted for years. By the time the Eberstadt collection was purchased in 1975 we were doing a fair amount of business together, and our paths crossed frequently. He visited me a number of times in Philadelphia, and I visited him in Massachusetts on numerous occasions. At this point we were now really good friends. After Bill Reese entered the book business our business dealings and friendship increased considerably.
Mike had unlimited energy and was tireless in his pursuit of books. David Holmes loved to tell the story of his first encounter with Michael. When Dave first entered the book business he was living in Boston. Apparently there was a Bryn Mawr book sale held in Boston that both Dave and Mike attended. There were a number of long tables with books displayed with their spines up. According to Dave, Mike had someone with him who was carrying either bags or a box in which to place their selections. The way it worked was that Mike would walk along pointing at books and said one of two things: “piece of shit”, or “buy it”. These pronouncements shocked the proper Bryn Mawr ladies to no end, and I am certain amused Mike.
Michael was a true road warrior, logging thousands upon thousands of miles in his station wagon in pursuit of books. He covered all parts of the country, and seemingly knew everyone.
About twenty years ago I accompanied Mike on one of his road trips to northern New England. We spent about five days driving through New Hampshire, Vermont, parts of northern Massachusetts, and southern Maine. We visited every book store, antique shop, thrift store, junk shop, and part time dealer who sold books from their home. Aside from knowing where every book could be found Michael also knew the location of every diner in New England. By the end of our time together, in addition to having to recover from exhaustion, I also had to recover from pancreatitis, the result of having ingested too much diner fare. Mike on the other hand was exhilarated.
The only other thing I remember about our travels involved neither books nor eateries; it had to do with a turtle rescue. We were driving on a country road somewhere in rural New Hampshire when I spotted a large snapping turtle that was about to become roadkill. I startled Mike when I excitedly told him to stop the car and then proceeded to jump out, pick the snapper up and place it on the side of the road. Mike’s expression was one of disbelief, and I might add a bit of disgust. He couldn’t understand how, or more importantly, why I put myself in harm’s way for this ancient reptile. I tried to explain my interest in herpetology with little success. Several months later my friend Jack Freas told me a funny story about Mike’s reaction to the turtle rescue. Apparently when Jack asked Mike about our time together on the road Mike incredulously told Jack the turtle story. Jack went on to explain that he had witnessed me doing the same thing on a number of occasions. Mike thought for a moment before telling Jack ,“I don’t know from turtles”, and left it at that. He might not have known turtles, but he did know books, and he will never be forgotten.