Our First Catalog

We started collecting books on Africa and African-Americans sometime shortly after Phil graduated from Law School in 1968 and we moved to Des Moines. An enterprising college classmate had opened a bookstore and convinced Phil that he needed to collect books as an antidote to the tedium of practicing law. We were soon hooked. Vacations meant a chance to go to bookstores. In those days before car seats, our daughter Kristina began each trip with most of the car available to her and her imagination. Her space kept shrinking as we filled the car with books. Demand for books about African-Americans was slim and most dealers were happy to see us. Obscurities and rarities lurked on the shelves of American bookstores. Of course, they weren’t worth much money at the time, and we had limited funds and very limited knowledge. We sometimes passed up great books in favor of pedestrian titles that we hadn’t seen and could afford. Great or pedestrian, books soon overran the upstairs bookshelves in our rented house on 32nd Street. Sharon said we couldn’t buy any more books unless we got rid of some.

A catalog seemed like a good idea. Of course, we had no customers, but how hard could it be. We bought a bunch of 3 x 5 index cards and started spending our evenings and weekends cataloging books. We persuaded Phil’s younger brother to mimeograph our first catalog. John also assembled it (on the ping pong table in his parents’ basement in Atlantic, Iowa). Thus was born Catalog No. 1, which bore no such designation, and was dated October, 1970. We went to the library at Drake University and compiled a list of college and university libraries. That was our mailing list.

Our first catalog listed 756 items. Part I (“Africa”) had 333 entries. Part II (“Black America, Race & Racism”) had 423 entries. Most of the titles were out-of-print items of no great rarity, but there were some interesting listings.

In the Africa section, there are listings for a few of books uncommon even then, such as: Alleyne’s “Gold Coast at a Glance,” Casely Hayford’s “Ethiopia Unbound,” Bishop Heard’s “The Bright Side of African Life,” Ogumefu’s “The Staff of Oranyan,” Searle’s “With a Policeman in South Africa,” and Young’s “The Rabbit and the Baboons.”

The “Black America, Race & Racism” section listed quite a few scarce titles. We see Bell’s “The Poetical Works of James Madison Bell,” Bragg’s “History of the Afro-American Group of the Episcopal Church,” J. T. Brown’s “Theological Kernals,” Bruce’s “The New Man,” Buck’s “The Progression of the Race,” Carroll’s “The Negro a Beast,” two Chesnutt first editions, Davis’s “‘Weh down Souf,” two Fauset novels (an autographed “Chinaberry Tree” remained unsold at $20), Griggs’ “Unfettered” and “Imperium in Imperio” (we had two copies of the latter, purchased in thrift stores for 50 cents each), Harper’s “Iola Leroy,” Hayne’s “The Negro in Sacred History,” two Hurston first editions ($20 each, neither sold), four first editions by Claude McKay (at $10 to $17.50 all sold), Mossell’s “The Work of the Afro-American Woman,” Penn’s “The Afro-American Press and Its Editors (2 copies, one, for which we had paid $20, sold at $22.50), Sampson’s “Mixed Races” (first phrenology book by an African-American, unsold at $25), a Blind Tom pamphlet, and the 1886 edition of the “Narrative of Sojourner Truth.” No Langston Hughes, and nothing by William Wells Brown or Phillis Wheatley. Here’s one we’d both forgotten: “Golden Moments: Life Sketches and Poems of Willie Jean Sheppard” published in Stillwater, Minnesota circa 1906. Purchased by the University of Georgia Library for $10.

Institutions were buying lots of books in those days, even from unknown booksellers with an amateurish looking catalog. Orders came from a wide range of American institutions. We had one or two orders from collectors (how they found us is a mystery). Bill French at University Place Bookshop probably bought something, but he was the only dealer. The largest order came from the University of Georgia. Phil still remembers picking up the mail from our P. O. Box on the way into the law office on a Saturday morning and seeing that letter with its mass of numbers. Our first large order and McBlain Books was firmly launched. We bought a piano with the profits.

Phil & Sharon McBlain