The Rolls-Royce of book clubs; Limited Editions: back in style

When subscribers open a package from the Limited Editions Club, they find something very special indeed: one of the most beautifully crafted volumes printed anywhere in the world today.

The number of books of each edition is limited to only 2,000, and each copy is hand numbered. The title page often is signed by the author and/or illustrator -- in the past such renowned artists as James Joyce and Pablo Picasso, this year Leonard Baskin and Romare Bearden, among others.

The pages are printed on the most extravagantly pliable and durable kind of paper available, the binding stitched rather than glued, the lettering set by metal type designed in the '30s or '50s and not yet matched in distinctiveness and grace by photo composition. And the letterpress printing is unmistakable, because it leaves behind not only a wash of ink to define the letters, but also an impression embossed right into the page.

Illustrations of Limited Editions Club books are nearly as delicate and subtle -- or bold and radiant as the originals. In fact, each of the 10 books in the club's 1981-82 prospectus, released last month, will contain an original work -- painted, drawn, or lithographed by the artist.

What's a firm that's built on exclusivity and quality doing in a world of no-frills efficiency, high-tech production, and mass marketing?

Mostly it's swimming against the tide, says president Sidney Shiff, who left his Wall Street investment activities to rescue the club in 1978, when it was on the verge of bankruptcy. Walk into his offices in the French Building at 551 Fifth Avenue, and he'll let you browse through a floor-to-ceiling shelf of books dating back to the start of Limited Editions in 1929. He is full of talk about its history, its immediate plans, and its hopes for the future.

Not since the early years of the club, when it was under the direction of founder George Macy, have so many top artists accepted commissions as today, Mr. Shiff explains. The new prospectus, the club's 46th, includes: Leonard Baskin illustrating and designing "The Iceman Cometh" by Eugene O'Neill; Henry Pearson illustrating "Selected Poems of Seamus Heany," with a foreword by Thomas Flanagan; Jack Levine illustrating and Eric Bentley introducing "The Threepenny Opera" by Bertolt Brecht; Romare Bearden illustrating "Selected Poems of Derek Walcott; Joseph Mugnaini illustrating "Fahrenheit 451" by Ray Bradbury; and Al Hirschfeld illustrating "A Streetcar Named Desire" by Tennessee Williams.

Sid Shiff couldn't be prouder. He explains that after George Macy's passing in 1956 and the retirement of his widow, Helen, in 1974, the club sank to a membership low of about 500. Mr. Shiff himself had never heard of Limited Editions when someone approached him three years ago to ask if he could save it. He put together a group of investors and took hold of the reins.

Today the membership is back up to 1,200. In the next year Mr. Shiff would like to enlist 800 more subscribers to fill the roster, and then start a waiting list.

The high price of fine printing doesn't deter him. "We never ask how much it costs" to make a quality book, says Mr. Shiff. "We're not a conglomerate that has to think about the bottom line. Frankly the club isn't a moneymaking venture at the moment. With a full list it could be, but we feel you have to do worthwhile things to really build a good, solid base.

"We're attracting the great artists of our time back to the club, and that's where it's really at. You can't use pedestrian illustrators and have great books. We also feel that if we do a good job we can make an impact on other companies. We want to be the small, quality publishing company that proved people do want what's good. . . ."

To receive the 10 '81-'82 books, current members will pay a discount price of cost of each book at ordinary hardcover prices. Mr. Shiff believes the books will appreciate in value over the years, but he makes no promises. The volumes published early in the club's history have "proven themselves depression-proof," Mr. Shiff told the Los Angeles Times recently, "but that isn't what we're about. These books are published for people who love fine books and intend to enjoy them for some time to come."

At an antiquarian bookstore, the club's 1934 edition of Aristophanes' "Lysistrata," illustrated by Picasso, brings around $2,000 when available today, Mr. Shiff tells me. Club members got it for $10 at the time it was printed. James Joyce's "Ulysses," published a year later (at the same price) with illustrations by Matisse, would cost about $2,500 in a rare books shop today.

Finding designers, printers, and materials requires considerable effort from the club's five-person staff. Mr. Shiff constantly is talking with authors, publishers, and artists about the club's next list. (On the day of my visit, he had spoken with Malcolm Cowley and Isaac Singer.)

He's also busy picking up calls on the toll-free line (800-223-0768). Telling prospective members all about Limited Editions appears to be his second most favorite chore, next to making beautiful books.

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