Peter Howard, owner of Serendipity Books, dies

Peter Howard’s chair at Serendipity Books. Photo: Ken Sanders, Ken Sanders Rare Books

Peter Howard, the eccentric and brilliant owner of Serendipity Books, and a towering figure in the world of rare books, died at home on March 31.

A Giants season ticket-holder for more than 40 years, Howard died with the opening game of the season blaring on television – while the Giants were still beating the Dodgers.

“He died at the bottom of the sixth inning,” said one of his daughters, Kerry Dahm.

Howard’s death at 72 means that there will be changes at Serendipity Books on University Avenue, but the shape of those changes is still unclear.

There are a number of people interested in buying the store and/or the inventory, according to Dahm. For now, the store is still open.

“I doubt it will continue as it was,” said Dahm.

Howard died seven and a half months after the death of his wife Alison, 71, to whom he had been married for more than 50 years. The couple was able to have a 50th wedding anniversary party with close friends in June.

Howard is also survived by another daughter, Esme Howard, and a number of grandchildren.

Serendipity Books Photo: Ken Sanders

Howard and Alison met in 1958 in Alaska on a Friends service project to build houses for the Eskimos, said Dahm. After the project was over, they built a moss-covered raft and floated down the Yukon back to civilization, she said.

They both returned to college – he to Haverford and she to nearby Swarthmore – and married the weekend after they graduated. They moved to Berkeley so Howard could go to graduate school in English at UC Berkeley and Alison could be closer to her family.

Howard was teaching Subject A (entry level English) at Cal and sold a small collection of D.H. Lawrence books he had. He soon realized he got more pleasure matching good books with good owners than either owning the books or studying English. He quit school and started a small rare-book business. Soon, the family’s house on Colusa was overflowing with books. Howard opened a store on Shattuck Avenue in 1967 and moved in 1986 into an old winery on University.

Serendipity Books is crammed top to bottom with books in every conceivable location: on shelves, on table tops, on the floor, in the rafters. The books in the store are only a part of Howard’s vast collection, which he estimated last year was around 1 million volumes. There is a warehouse in Berkeley stuffed with boxes of books as well.

“There are books everywhere,” said Dahm. “There is the store. There is the warehouse with almost as many books in boxes as in the store. Then there is our house with bookshelves in every room, including the stairwell. He would often bring bags and bags of books home.”

Howard soon developed a reputation as an astute rare-book dealer. He discovered and saved many important manuscript collections, as well as collecting and valuing works by both well-known and lesser-known authors.

Howard’s collection covers many areas, including California history and western Americana. He was known for his collection of first editions of American and British literature, and has holdings of Ernest Hemingway, Henry James, Shakespeare, North Point Press, and fiction from countries around the world. Serendipity also has large collections of literary manuscripts, screenplays and little magazines.

“He was one of the major antiquarian book dealers of our time,” said Victoria Shoemaker, a literary agent, close friend, and former neighbor of the Howards’.

Howard made some notable purchases in his lengthy career as a bookseller.

In the late 1990s, he bought the 18,000-volume collection of Carter Burden, a descendant of Cornelius Vanderbilt, and a progressive New York politician and businessman. The size of the collection prompted Howard to install compact shelving, making Serendipity the only bookstore in the world to have such shelving.

In 1991, Howard was offered the archives of Thomas M. Jackson, an Oakland grocer who had served as secretary for the California chapter of the NAACP from 1910 and 1940.  After Jackson died, in 1963, someone took his papers to the Berkeley dump. Someone else rescued them and asked Howard to help them find a proper home. Howard sold the papers to the Bancroft Library.

Later in that decade, someone found 946 letters exchanged between two Japanese-American teenagers who met at an internment camp in Utah. Tamaki Tsubokura and David Hisato Yamate were separated for a few years during the war, and they wrote to one another frequently. These letters were also dumped at the Berkeley landfill and later rescued. Howard brokered their sale to the University of Utah.

Howard was a blunt and forthright man. After he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer a year ago, Berkeleyside contacted him to ask about his health and the store.

“There’s nothing to say,” Howard said by telephone. “People die. We all die. Businesses end.”

Writing on, in a section called “A Wake for the Still Alive: Peter B. Howard”, Stephen Gertz, one of his friends, described meeting Howard for the first time. “He was standing in one of the aisles around twenty-five yards away from my vantage point and looked like an aged, unkempt and unshaven derelict marooned far too long, surviving on a diet far too short on calories,” wrote Gertz.

“He was wearing a sarong-like thing wrapped around his waist, sandals, a rumpled shirt and a knit cap with earflaps. It seemed as if he had just come off a three-day binge on arrack, the liquor made from coconut sap. It was Peter Howard, proprietor of the legendary Serendipity Books in Berkeley, California, who appeared to be shipwrecked on Book Island.”

But the gruff exterior hid a nicer side. Many of Howard’s friends characterized him as generous and helpful and willing to go out of his way to help young book dealers get set up in business.

Gary Lepper, Howard’s lawyer, said Howard helped him compile a bibliographical study of first editions, and then asked if Serendipity could publish it. That led to a lifelong friendship between the Howards and the Leppers that included many games of bridge, delicious dinners, and a friendly rivalry over the Giants, who Howard loved, and the Dodgers, who Lepper supported.

“He didn’t do well with fools, or people he thought were delicatish, but if you hung in there you got a very good friend out of it,” said Lepper.

One indication of the reverence in which he was held by the rare-book community came every two years around the time of the Antiquarian Book Fair in San Francisco. Howard would throw a huge party at Serendipity Books the Wednesday before the fair. He would clear the books in his store out of the aisles and off of the tables, tent-over the parking lot, and have Poulet cater the meal. He would have a suckling pig, and the printer, Alistair Johnson, would print up the menu, said Dahm. The party was so popular that the store and tent were jammed.

Howard was well enough to throw the party again this year in February. After it was over, he went home and never left the house again, said Dahm.

There will be a private memorial service for Howard in May, said Lepper.

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  • CCG

    Fascinating. Thank you.

  • I live two blocks away from Serendipity. I can say i wandered its aisles only one time. Yet it remains embedded in my memory.

  • Szunderwood

    These two biographical observations don’t quite compute.

    “He soon realized he got more pleasure matching good books with good owners than either owning the books or studying English.”


    Serendipity Books is crammed top to bottom with books in every conceivable location: on shelves, on table tops, on the floor, in the rafters. The books in the store are only a part of Howard’s vast collection, which he estimated last year was around 1 million volumes. There is a warehouse in Berkeley stuffed with boxes of books as well.
    “There are books everywhere,” said Hahm. “There is the store. There is the warehouse with almost as many books in boxes as in the store. Then there is our house with bookshelves in every room, including the stairwell. He would often bring bags and bags of books home.”
    That’s one million volumes of fine literature inaccessible and out of circulation, not in the hands of owners, collectors, libraries or readers. There’s no question Mr. Howard was a masterful collector of antiquarian books, but I hope to see his remarkable collection return to broader circulation in the future.

    I leave it as this: De mortuis nil nisi bonum

  • chip

    Luckily, he got to see his team win the World Series before he passed.

  • Eschmitt

    Years ago an acquaintance told me that Peter at Serendipity books could fix the binding on a hardback volume I owned (High and Low: Modern Art and Popular Culture). I called and he said bring it in and I’ll take a look. Walking in to Serendipity I saw a profusion of books on rows of tall shelves, stacked on low tables, and piled in unstable stacks. There was only one person in the room sitting in a small clearing in a chair. Hi, we talked on the phone, you said you could fix my book I said handing it to him. He took it in his hands opened it quickly examining the split in the spine and handed it back to me. Not worth fixing he said. By his manor it was obvious no further conversation was necessary.

    Turning to leave, gazing at the interior again it suddenly dawned on me how amazing the place was. There were openings off in the distance giving way into other spaces, all filled with rows and stacks of volumes. In one room floor to ceiling shelves on wheels sat in ranks. Another room had ladders leading up about 14 feet to numerous shelves (atop one of these shelves I found rows of first edition John Updike volumes). Small compressed book packed spaces were tucked in around the periphery. It was overwhelming and hard to take in but totally unique.

    As I was leaving I herd an elderly man say to Peter; It’s so great to be here, you’re one of the greats. I’m from Boston and I’ve always wanted to meet you.

  • Rogbo

    Thanks for the great memories Peter
    Rest in peace

  • You fool. Your feeble point is like saying the postal service doesn’t like correspondents and isn’t really delivering the mail because there are so many letters piled up in the post office.

    Serendipity is a clearing house for books: they have to go in there to come out again and get into the right hands.

    Peter Howard placed hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of books into those right hands.

    What have you done for literature?

  • Not only did he love books, but he enabled impoverished book collecting graduate students to collect great literature, and/or sell to him, when they needed to. A wonderful friend, a true amateur.

  • Salamander Drake

    Good riddance.

  • Salamander Drake

    Good riddance.

  • Bruce Love

    ! It’s custodial, right? The whole freakin’ beautiful inventory — the point is — is preserved. It’s a work of art. I hope (and pretty much presume) the estate will respectfully manage its next fate. By all accounts, one of the more serious private library archive collections in the world is there now. God bless the man and his soul. What an achievement.

  • Julie Wong

    Thank you for the excellent tribute to Peter. For many years, he drove his beat-up blue van past my house and waved on his way to Serendipity. As a member of the Bay Area antiquarian book trade, I benefited from his both his humor and kindness. He sold me an original photo of Virginia Woolf for a fraction of what it was worth, simply because he knew I liked it. When Jeffrey Thomas, my boss of 22+ years died a few years ago, he was one of two or three people in the business who wrote me a personal letter of condolence. He was kind, but he was also a character. Once I entered his shop to see a sports car on the sales floor, as if overnight Peter had become a car dealer. Another time, my husband and I were visiting him as he was enjoying a late lunch at his desk; suddenly some coffee spilled out of his cup. “Dammit! That’s why no one is allowed to eat at his desk!”

    I’m sorry to hear he’s gone, and send my sincere condolences to his family and long-time staff.

  • Szunderwood

    Forgive me, “Bruce” (and others), if I fail to see the extraordinary virtue of 1/2 million magnificent volumes boxed and moldering in a warehouse (some for many, many years) or a perhaps equal number in a book shop with extremely little turnover. Peter did have a remarkable and encyclopedic knowledge of his own collection and could produce almost any volume on demand, whether buried in myriad boxes, desktop clutter, a precarious looking ceiling high pile or from a book shelf whose organizational method remained mysterious to many.

    In fact, if there was anything that was sure to set him off, it was to doubt the organizational genius of Serendipity’s shelving scheme (or even to inquire about it in the most tepid and neutral manner). On the one hand, you wanted to spend a lifetime browsing Serendipity’s manifold treasures hoping to discover and purchase many gems and on the other hand it was difficult at best to ask for help or some type of general finding aid to this wide ranging collection.

    In any case, in my opinion, this magnificent collection now deserves to be made more widely accessible for purchase of both random, individual volumes and unified sets or sub-collections which interest private collectors or institutional libraries. I look forward to its broad dissemination for the sake of our common cultural heritage.

  • Bruce Love

    You make him sound like a lovable but frustrating rat bastard that stockpiled a lot of valuable stuff the disposition and history of which is a topic about which you have some strong opinions. I’m not sure why you ask me to forgive you. What’d you do? And how did I become pope? … Uh.. sure.. you’re forgiven. Uh… Go forth and do good. Or something. De mortuis nil nisi bonum isn’t a prescription… it’s an observation :-)

    [This comment has been moderated/edited.]

  • DC

    Lord I loved this place, and Peter. If he liked you, he would cut you a bargain. If he didn’t, he wouldn’t sell to you. And there were treasure troves there to go through. What sad news to hear of his death. I knew he had been very sick for a while, but somehow you still think that he would continue on forever, in that great pile of books. My condolences to his family. Even those of us who didn’t know him well were struck by his personality and spirit.

  • Steve Abernathy

    Peter was a cool dude. Great shop, hope it stays put and open and somehow never changes.

  • Anonymous

    In case you missed it, the books are FOR SALE. That means that they are accessible, but you have to buy them. Booksellers including Mr. Howard save heaps of books from oblivion by housing them, and trying to recirculate them. Once libraries or previous owners are done with books, the fate of them is determined by all of us, and booksellers make it their daily pursuit to put something back into circulation. How about you do your part to make your dreams come true. Go purchase a book!

    This comment has been moderated for language

  • Dsbooks

    All of the books etc. in Serendipity are for sale and always have been. One just had to choose and then ask Peter to price it. The books etc are still for sold. The shop is open this Saturday (4/16) and next Sat., 9-5. So come in by Mr. S and help place some books back into circulation.

  • Peter Howard = Books. He was one of a kind.

  • Good Bye Peter.You will be missed.

  • Not an easy job to keep an independent bookstore alive and well these days. You found your ‘bliss’ and we all found our books.

  • Paperbag Marlys

    Ah, I knew Peter was dying but it still makes me sad to put a date to it. He was one of the few booksellers who had the ambition and the brains to manage his business as a long running cultural institution. Yeah, sure, some UC profs will be read in 25, maybe 100, years but Peter’s intellectual legacy maybe longer lived than, say, your average Noble prize winner. He took the long view. Sure, he could have churned out bibliographies and built specific collections but instead he facilitated those skills in other people, other stores, other institutions. He was forever interested in people starting new intellectual projects and he guided books and resources toward them. The core of America’s intellectually interesting rare bookstores learned from his example, even if he clashed with many dealers. Before Peter, American rare bookstore catalogs focused on individual scarce items. After Peter, the more successful American bookstores started selling books based on their context within intellectual history. No, it’s not quite as simple as that but from my perspective that’s the gist of it. It’s a fine legacy and, yes, as said above, the highest compliment you can pay the man is to say that he was a true amateur, in the best possible sense, all of his life.