Era ends: Liquidation sale at Berkeley’s Serendipity Books

Three rooms of these bookcases were entirely empty when Eureka Books took over. By moving books from high shelves down and from the bags and boxes on the floor, the bookshelves are completely full again. Photo: Scott Browh

Three rooms of these bookcases were entirely empty when Eureka Books took over Serendipity Books. By moving books from high shelves down, and from the bags and boxes on the floor, the bookshelves are completely full again. Photo: Scott Brown

When Peter Howard, the owner of Serendipity Books, died in March 2011, he left behind more than one million books crammed into his two-level store on University Avenue in Berkeley with the oak barrel hanging out front.

Howard’s collection of rare and antique books was considered one of the best in the country; he often sold books and manuscripts to places like the Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley or the Lilly Library at Indiana University.

The collection included so many amazing items that Bonham’s held six different auctions of his holdings, selling off early editions of John Steinbeck, a broadside by James Joyce, many modern first editions, early baseball memorabilia — even poet Carl Sandburg’s guitar.

But there are still books left to sell. More than 100,000 books, in fact.

On Saturday at 10 a.m., the doors of Serendipity Books at 1201 University Ave. will open for what will surely be one of Berkeley’s most memorable used-book fairs. Eureka Books of Eureka, California, acquired the remainder of the Serendipity collection, and will sell the books on most weekends through Dec. 15. The books start out at $5 early in the sale, and will drop to $1 each in mid-December.

“It was a one of a kind place,” said Scott Brown, the co-owner of Eureka Books, who was also a longtime Serendipity customer. “I don’t think there is another bookstore like Serendipity around.”

This was the mystery section of Serendipity Books before it was sorted. Photo: Scott Brown

This was the mystery section of Serendipity Books before it was sorted. Photo: Scott Brown

The bookstore was a jumble of books stacked high in shelves and in boxes and bags when Howard, 72,  died of pancreatic cancer. The auctioneers moved out most of the books, but the store was still a wreck when Eureka Books came in to sort, said Brown. Workers spent weeks reassembling the place.

The mystery section of the second floor was virtually impassable, with bags of books blocking the floor. Many books were still stacked up on high shelves and were unreachable; the Eureka staff brought them down to viewing height. The shelves in the front room were almost empty, but now have been refilled with books from other parts of the store. (The shelves and other fixtures are also for sale.)

“It would not be wrong to say there were 1,000 bags and boxes filled with books in the store,” said Brown. “By the time we unpacked those I would say the whole ground floor was full again.”

Even though the best books were auctioned off, many gems remain, said Brown. There will be an entire section of 18th- and 19th-century leather books on sale for $5.

“While there are no $1,000 books laying around, we left many, many things that were priced in the hundreds,” said Brown.

Howard’s daughters plan to keep the University Avenue building and find a new tenant after the sale, said Brown. They donated Howard’s correspondence with literary luminaries like J. D. Salinger, Graham Greene and Larry McMurtry to the Lilly Library, he said.

A number of leather-bound old books will be on sale for $5 at the Serendipity Books liquidation sale. Photo: Scott Brown

A number of leather-bound old books will be on sale for $5 at the Serendipity Books liquidation sale. Photo: Scott Brown

Howard started Serendipity Books in 1967 in a small store on Shattuck Avenue and moved to the University Avenue location in 1986. Howard collected a voluminous number of books – he often bought individual’s entire collections. He had a reputation as an astute rare-book dealer. He discovered and saved many important manuscript collections, as well as collecting works by both well-known and lesser-known writers. He consulted with major libraries on what to buy and how much to bid.

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

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 space-saving 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.

Peter Howard in 2010. By Ken Sanders

Peter Howard in 2010. Photo: Ken Sanders

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.

One indication of the reverence in which Howard 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.

The liquidation sale will be held from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. almost every weekend through Dec. 15th. Check here for the schedule.

All books will be $5 on Nov. 9, 10, 11, 15, 16, and 17th. Then the price will drop to $3 each book on Nov. 21, 22, 23, and Dec. 5, 6, and 7. The prices drop to $1 on Dec. 12, 13, 14, and 15th.

Visit the Serendipity Books Liquidation sale Facebook page.

Rare works from Serendipity Books to be auctioned (02.12.12)
Peter Howard, renowned rare book dealer, dies (04.13.11)
Future uncertain for Berkeley’s Serendipity Books (04.29.10)

To find out about more events in Berkeley and nearby, check out Berkeleyside’s Events Calendar. We also encourage you to submit your own events.

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  • guest

    Wow! I know where I’ll be all day Friday.
    I really loved this bookstore. I’ll never forget discovering the tiny closet filled with Edgar Allan Poe under the stairs. I almost cried.
    Serendipity was really the best name for this place. you never knew what you might find around the corner. I spent two lovely rainy days exploring this store, and would have happily spent many more.

  • FYI The sale starts Saturday, not Friday.

  • Chris J

    Odd. I live right around the corner from here and have never entered the building. Why? My perception was at first that the place wasn’t open, or it wasn’t an actual bookstore. I remember going as far as the front door and thinking…I may never come out again. My loss.

  • Bill N

    I just bought a 1905 copy of the S.F. Chronicle – a special issue about California industry – for $1.00 There is so much stuff in there you can hardly believe it!

  • bgal4

    Please don’t tell my husband, please…..

  • jmcvey

    funny, how the store looks more manageable in size — for mere mortals — in its current, depleted state. sigh.
    I recall the painting of the pope from my laboring days at the Shattuck Ave store, in the late 1970s.

  • Robert ANderson

    Too bad, I never knew this was a bookstore. Traffic is too heavy to read the name on the wine keg sign when driving by , so I thought it was still a make-wine-at-home supply store. I’ve been by twice for some good close-out bargains.

  • DisGuested

    It was today announced that the sale has been canceled from here on out (inventory has been sold within trade).