Nearly forty years after his death, Abner Schram, the U.S. distributor of the books Schwartz published from 1971 to 1988, continues to impose his overbearing, endearing self on Schwartz. To bring him back and perhaps to lay his ghost, he tells about the man and publishes their complete correspondence.
This photo was taken on 13 October 1979, the Saturday night of the Frankfurt Book Fair that year, at Altänchen (Old Annie), a restaurant in the Grosse Rittergasse in Sachsenhausen, on the left bank of the Main. Those Saturday nights were the highpoint in the social year for Loekie and me, overflowing with good vibes and wit, sparked by the tensions and overexertion of the book fair. On the first day of the fair, Loekie would round up the regulars, some of whom would ask if they could bring a tagalong, requests that were weighed judiciously. She would then book the table, where we would be served every year by the same middle-aged waiter, Dieter, made for the part. At this half of the table that night (there were surely more of us) were, from left to right: myself, James Fraser of the Gordon Fraser publishing house in London, Loekie, behind her Peter Guy, editor and designer at Gordon Fraser, Abner Schram, the subject of this column, Valerie Ripley, whose function I no longer know, a man in glasses and a woman I cannot identify, and Roger Hudson, a non-fiction editor. Other regulars were Simon Kingston (Gordon Fraser), David Godine (David R. Godine Publishers), George Gibson (David’s sales manager), Roger Conover (MIT Press), John Smith (Charing Cross Road allrounder), Barbara Burn (Metropolitan Museum of Art Books) and – forgive my memory, please, the buddy who took me to lunch at the Chelsea Arts Club.
The dinner grew out of an evening at the 1972 fair, when my partner in Junius Press, Mark Suckle, and I took Abner out to dinner. He had become the U.S. distributor for the art-history reprints we brought out. The way he did this should have taught me more of a lesson than I learned. The other people in scholarly book publishing were university types like me, building on their majors or dissertation subjects, with exaggeratedly high opinions of the importance of our work and professional egos that were tied to the print runs of our books. Abner was different. He had been in charge of the photoengraving department of the New York daily Journal-American, an unforgiving environment with little place for opinion at all. When it folded in 1966 he cast about for a new line of work, which he found when someone told him that European publishers were bringing out English-language books on art for which there was a market in American museums and universities they were unable to reach. His lack of attachment to the subject matter allowed him to set up a business free of sentiment and fluff. For example, if I had a promising title coming out of the Netherlands, I would typically look for an English-language co-publisher who would come in for a thousand copies or more at a discount of at least 70%. Abner would order 200 copies at 50 or 55%, and if they sold would reorder fifty or so at a time, for re-reorders ten or even fewer. Mostly, all were sold, while a too-large run sold to a co-publisher would be remaindered, depleting the value of my own stock. The upshot was that you could earn as much from Abner as distributor as from, say, a university press as co-publisher. He would weigh a book on his hand, flip through the pages and come up with a reliable guess as to how many of the customers on his carefully cultivated list, which did include some middlemen like Richard Abel and Baker & Taylor, would buy it.
A major element in our relationship was the Frankfurt dinner, which Abner initiated. In 1972, a year into our collaboration with him, he wrote (22 August 1972):
Mark and I took him out to the iconic Frankfurter Hof, which however fed us in a drab dining hall. On the leadup to the next fair, which is always held in October, Abner seized the reins again (24 August 1973):
If you want to do something for me instead of the Frankfurter Hof, let us have dinner in some restaurant in Sachsenhausen, on the other side of the river, where it is inexpensive and good. The Frankfurter Hof is for visiting Firemen. Ask around for a recommendation.
Thus I found Altänchen (Mark was leaving Junius Press operations up to me, and I was working more on my own, with Loekie, as Uitgeverij Gary Schwartz), and the event began to take on form. Altänchen was a classic, gemütlich German restaurant that used to be the most prevalent model and is now a rarity, among the ethnic eating places that have taken over.
Gary (31 October 1973):
Our meetings in Frankfurt were the high point of this Fair. Next year, when there’s peace in the world, even for the Jews [the Yom Kippur War had just ended], when inflation [then at 10%, wiping out the narrow margins in our line of business] is a thing of the past, when art publishers and distributors are the glamor boys of Wall Street, things will be better.
Abner (5 November 1973):
At Frankfurt I am buying and you are selling, that is the difference. They have to butter me up instead of vice versa. Then, too, I enjoy talking and noise, pretty girls and good food. We will have peace in the world when the Messiah comes and not before and I am beginning to doubt even then there will be peace for the Jews.
The quotations are from airmail letters of the kind by which we conducted our business and that never get written anymore. They were all about books and folders and reviews and shipments and payments, but nearly all were personal as well, often edging toward and sometimes going over into invective and insult. Some mild examples:
(26 April 1983): “How many Art Historians does it take to change a light bulb? One, but it takes him all year”), followed by contrition and reconciliation. Abner (16 May 1973): “Apologizing is fine, but who will restore the years you took off my life?”
Some more quotations.
Abner (11 October 1972, when Junius Press had been nudging him to get our books reviewed):
Fear not, I do not need the swearing of two flunkies to keep me honest. A Schram’s word is his bond, and it is an old axiom of mine: Never do anything to stand in the way of collective or individual schlemielishkeit.
Abner (24 October 1972, coming home from Frankfurt with a cold):
And I will thank you not to insult German colds. Even a German cold is better than a Litvak orgasm. And I don’t need anyone to help me get rid of a cold. I am master of all I survey and if I want to get rid of a cold, I get rid of it. […] As my grandmother used to say: May a trolley-car grow in your stomach. I am sure it sounds better in Yiddish.
Gary (3 November 1972):
What’s this about a trolley-car in the stomach. All I know is zing went the string in my gotkes.
Gary (30 November 1972):
Happy Chanukah, and may your Chanukah stocking be overflowing with stockings and bondings.
Abner (4 December 1972):
Thank you for your Chanukah wishes, I am on a diet, have lost 20 pounds, am always hungry, and holidays mean nothing to me. How can I celebrate a special occasion on rye-crisp? Methinks I have a mean and hungry look. Enjoy the season to be jolly.
Abner too was crazy about Loekie, who he wanted to steal from me, without upsetting his marriage to the wonderful Fran.
(4 September 1975):
(14 September 1974):
Abner’s last visit to the book fair was in 1981. When he didn’t come in 1982, I wrote him this report, with a rare Christian reference:
We got so drunk at the alcove that I doubt you were able to read any of the signatures or the message on your card. Let me just say that you were in all our hearts, and that by eating and drinking your share in your absence, your bread and wine entered into our substance. There was even a marvelous multiplication of the pickled herring.
Although Abner stopped flying the Atlantic to Frankfurt, he did go to fairs and congresses closer to home. His visit to the College Art Association Annual Meeting in Montreal in February 1974, Fran wrote later, weakened him so that he never recovered.
(30 January 1975):
Alas, he didn’t make it. He died at the age of seventy-six in April 1984. In his memory I made twenty copies of fifty of Abner’s letters for our tablemates at Altänchen.
The business was carried on gamely by Fran, who however admitted that she simply couldn’t work as hard as Abner. We continued to collaborate until and somewhat after I sold my publishing company (an initiative engineered by Loekie) to the former Dutch government publishing house SDU, on 1 April 1988. In 1991 I sold the archive of my publishing operations to the Getty Research Institute (made possible by information acquired by Loekie from David Godine – boy, was Abner right about her financial smarts), where the originals and tens of meters of archives can be (but I am told aren’t) consulted.
As an attachment to this tribute, with the posthumous approval of Fran, I am posting scans of the complete Schram-Schwartz correspondence from 2 November 1971 to 1 June 1984.
© Gary Schwartz 2022. Published on the Schwartzlist on 24 December 2022.
The year 2022 has been so poisoned by the European war started by Vladimir Putin, with a daily death toll – the media report only those of civilians – in the hundreds, that it seems inhumane to say how much I have enjoyed it and how good I feel. A terrible sentence to write, but there it is, that split.
The highpoint of the year for me fell on the second of December, when my book Rembrandt in a red beret: the vanishings and reapperances of a self-portrait was launched in the Hague city palace, now an Escher museum, where it hung from 1850 to 1894. The painting itself was lent for the occasion, after having been on view since 1921 only for eleven days in Dayton, Ohio in February 1947 and fifty-eight days in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, from 13 January to 28 February 1967. Nina Siegal, writing for the New York Times, tells it thus.
I am making use of this website to amplify the information in the book, at http://www.garyschwartzarthistorian.nl/books/.
A fresh loss of the past week, which I find hard to accept, is the death of a unique, beloved colleague, Ger Luijten.
Responses in the Reply box below (these will be viewed by all visitors to the site) or personally to Gary.Schwartz@xs4all.nl are always appreciated and will be answered.
So will donations. Don’t be shy, send a donation.