BIBLIOPHILE KNOWN IN BOOK TRADE, ACADEMIA AS A LEGEND IN WORLD OF RARE CHILDREN’S BOOKS
By Nicholas Dawes
What connects ruby slippers to a glass slipper, Peter Rabbit to the White Rabbit, Munchkins to Nutkins, Aesop’s Tortoise to the March Hare, Aunt Annie to Aunt Em, the Ugly Duckling to Jemima Puddle-Duck, or Beatrix Potter to Harry?
The answer is Justin Schiller, owner of America’s oldest continuously operating antiquarian book firm devoted to children’s literature. Schiller is the world’s primary scholar on L. Frank Baum and a leading expert on the Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Andersen, Beatrix Potter, Lewis Carroll, Dr. Seuss, Maurice Sendak and all luminaries punctuating the genre’s evolution.
Schiller is well known in the book trade and academia as the foremost promoter of the wonderful world of rare children’s books and related illustration, an area of collecting he pioneered with the opening of a dedicated art gallery in 1979.
“It was a magical time,” Schiller recalls when asked about his formative years – from age 8, when his mother gave him an Oz book (which he recalls ruining by reading in the bathtub), to a climax in 1956, the centenary of L. Frank Baum’s birth, by which time Schiller had acquired a formidable Oz collection, mainly from scouring New York’s “Book Row” on lower Fourth Avenue, and developing his eye and essential dealer contacts.
Events that year included a comprehensive exhibition at the Columbia University library, for which 12-year-old Justin supplied rare volumes, and a CBS TV taping of actor Bert Lahr reading from a first edition of The Wizard of Oz. Guess who supplied the copy? Sitting as a guest on the Cowardly Lion’s knee was little Justin. The other knee was occupied by a 10-year-old girl sent to the studio by her mother, who was invited but unable to attend. Justin remembers her well and sometimes wonders if Liza Minnelli remembers him?
Since those early “magical times,” Schiller has carefully curated his own collection while establishing the world’s finest and most comprehensive private collections of rare children’s books, including the personal collection of Maurice Sendak.
Throughout a long and fabled career, Schiller has approached his subject with the meticulous eye and academic awareness found only at the highest levels of curatorship, following his own advice to “always buy the best book you can afford.” Collectors could afford a lot in the “magical times.” While most high schoolers made pocket money doing chores and spending it on candy, Schiller recalls buying early Oz books with the nickels his parents gave as rewards for following them through antique shops and reselling them for less than a dollar on New York streets. He never stopped dealing. At the first New York Antiquarian Book Fair in 1960, Schiller got his first taste of the big time, selling a first edition of Winnie-the-Pooh for $25 while watching a booth for a dealer who was having dinner. He learned a great deal at that fair and foresaw the oncoming wave of commercial potential in his chosen expertise, which few rare book dealers paid serious attention to at the time.
Following graduate school, paid for by selling rare books, Schiller applied to join the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association of America (ABAA), gained acceptance in 1967 and took his own booth at the fair in 1969. He has been there every year since.
DELVING INTO RARITIES
Children’s literature did not really exist in the Western world before the 18th century, primarily because the concept of “childhood” really did not exist either. In the 1690s, English philosopher John Locke’s revolutionary writings on education, including his postulation of the tabula rasa, included the first attempts to convince Western civilization that a child needed to be fed through the eyes and ears as well as through the mouth.
Ask Schiller about early works and he will delve eagerly into some of the rarest volumes on the subject, a precious few published in the 16th century and several predating the works of Arnaud Berquin (1747-1791), widely considered the first identifiable author of books for children. In those early days, most books were instructional, teaching letters and numbers, manners and morals, but by the early 19th century, folk tales, the source of most “classic” European stories and nursery rhymes, began to appear in print and translation.
If you think Maurice Sendak is scary, try the Brothers Grimm and early “bedtime stories” written two centuries ago. Here is where the wild things really were. Hansel and Gretel, forced to wander into the dark woods following their mother’s descent into madness, were among the many children facing the real possibility of being eaten alive and not making it to the next page. In the original Red Riding Hood, the wolf eats both the grandmother and the little girl … neither to be seen again. The outlook improved for most innocents through the Victorian years, partly due to the arrival of female authors. There is nothing dark and threatening about Flopsy, Mopsy and Cottontail.
By the mid-19th century, reading was no longer confined to the privileged, and publishers began building commercial empires on children’s books. Schiller’s collection embraces and makes sense of a fantastical world, presenting the unique opportunity to witness a lifetime devotion and highly comprehensive historical collection condensed into a single auction event.
NICHOLAS DAWES is senior vice president-special collections at Heritage Auctions.
This article appears in the Fall 2020 edition of The Intelligent Collector magazine. Click here to subscribe to the print edition.