Friendship and Love of Rare Books - Fitting Bookends for Two Lives

Old Books, Rare Friends: Two Literary Sleuths and Their Shared Passions

By Leona Rostenberg and Madeleine Stern

Doubleday, 275 pp., $21.95

Nearly 55 years ago, Madeleine Stern gave her best friend a Christmas present that changed the course of both women's lives. Knowing that her friend dreamed of someday becoming an antiquarian book dealer, Stern ordered business stationery reading "Leona Rostenberg - Rare Books."

With that daring gift, an amazing enterprise was born. Never mind that Rostenberg lacked capital and confidence. And never mind that her initial stock of Renaissance books - her specialty - barely filled a tiny bookcase.

The following year, in 1944, despite objections from her mother ("My darling, no woman in our family has ever engaged in commerce."), she opened her "shop" in a vacant third-floor bedroom in her family's Bronx home. As she explains, "I could not waste all this marvelously engraved stationery."

That modest beginning is one of many stories the two women recount in their charming joint autobiography, "Old Books, Rare Friends." Writing in alternating chapters, they draw on memories, diaries, and letters to describe not only their eventual "partnership in business" but also their "partnership in life."

Both were born into middle-class German-Jewish families in New York. Both enjoyed a close relationship with their parents. Both also reveled in intellectual independence.

Yet that independence came with a price. Any desire to marry was thwarted by their failure to find men who shared their scholarly interests. "We would certainly have delighted in children," Stern admits, although she notes, "If books were indeed our children, we had large families."

As a doctoral student at Columbia University in the 1930s, Rostenberg wrote a dissertation on the role of the 17th-century printer-publisher in shaping civilization. But her thesis was rejected as invalid and she was denied a degree, ending her chances for an academic career.

Despite the obvious hurt, Rostenberg calls that decision - which was later reversed - "one of life's most productive ironies." It forced her to continue a difficult apprenticeship to an Austrian rare-book dealer in New York, a man of "uncontrolled ravings" who sometimes addressed her as "Frulein Dummkopf." Yet those "five years in Siberia" gave Rostenberg invaluable knowledge. They also honed what her mentor called Finger-Spitzengefhl, an "electrifying alertness to what is unusual or important in an early printed book."

In time, Stern left her tenured teaching position to join Rostenberg. Sharing a sense of humor and a love of adventure, the pair traveled widely in search of Renaissance books and French philosophes of the 18th-century. Their success in uncovering "sleepers" and tracking down exceedingly rare volumes earned them an affectionate title as the "Holmes and Watson" of the rare-book business.

Their careers have also broadened their male-dominated field. Stern launched the first Antiquarian Book Fair in the United States in 1960. And 13 years later, Rostenberg became president of the Antiquarian Booksellers Association of America, one of only three women to hold that post.

Between them, the partners have produced 25 books. It was Rostenberg who discovered Louisa May Alcott's hidden career as a writer of "blood and thunder" stories, published under the pseudonym A. M. Barnard. Stern continued the role of Alcott sleuth, writing a biography of her and anthologizing her thrillers.

Now in their ninth decade, the two scholarly sleuths no longer climb bookstore ladders to explore the highest shelves. They also no longer make annual buying trips to Europe. But retirement? It is a word lost on "the book ladies of the Bronx," who still enjoy "sniffing the musty dusty odor of books" and still find pleasure in the thrill of the chase.

As the printed word competes with the Internet, Rostenberg and Stern offer reminders of the enduring importance of ink on paper. Their descriptions of the astonishing legacy of centuries-old volumes, filled with literature, history, culture, and human drama, may encourage readers to discover for themselves the treasures contained in exquisite early editions, "bound in vellum that has become stained or calf that has become scuffed."

No cyberspace words, however brilliantly written, can compare.

* Marilyn Gardner is a Monitor staff writer.

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