The Book Club of California has long been a haven for bibliophiles. With a mission to promote West Coast literature, the book arts and a general love of fine books, the Book Club of California - based in San Francisco - will celebrate its 100th anniversary in 2012.
The Book Club has a plush but relaxed ‘club house’ on Sutter Street in the heart of San Francisco’s financial district. A non-profit organization for book lovers and collectors, the Club acts as a meeting place for bibliophilic souls but does so much more by offering a regular program of events, speakers and exhibitions that showcase fine printing, collecting and the book arts. Its fall exhibition (until December 12) showcases artists’ books from the collection of Robert J. Ruben.
I walked into the Book Club unannounced on a Monday lunchtime and was warmly welcomed. Several friends chatted in one corner while some other bibliophiles browsed books in the extensive reference library that houses over 3,500 titles. It’s a beautiful venue filled with fine books and people who love to talk about fine books.
The Book Club of California is more than a club. It’s also a publishing house and has been publishing books since 1914. Many prominent bibliophiles have been members over the decades, including Phoebe Apperson Hearst, the San Francisco philanthropist and mother of William Randolph Hearst, publisher Alfred A. Knopf and pioneering landscape photographer Ansel Adams. The Club has strong connections to many other Californian institutions, such as the Bancroft Library at the University of California Berkeley and the Huntingdon Library in San Marino.
John Crichton, the owner of San Francisco’s Brick Row Book Shop, is the president of the Book Club of California and a strong advocate of West Coast literary culture.
“Our goal is to support and encourage fine printing, the book arts and book collecting primarily in California through public programs and exhibitions,” he said. “The Club was founded in 1912 to support the Pan Pacific Exposition, which never happened, but the Club grew and grew. Our members come from every walk of life – doctors, lawyers, attorneys, librarians, printers, bookbinders and booksellers.”
Lucy Rodgers Cohen is the Club’s executive director and its only full-time employee. “Over half our members live within driving distance of the Club with around 25% located in Southern California, but, for instance, we also have members in Detroit and Atlanta who pop in when they visit San Francisco,” she explained.
More than 220 books have been published by the Club and these books - always printed in limited editions - would be worthy of collecting in itself. Many of their books have been printed by legendary printers like the Grabhorn Press, the Allen Press and the famous bibliophile and printer John Henry Nash.
“We have published a remarkable variety of books over the years and not just about California - books about Japanese scrolls, the bookplates of Eric Gill and one recently about The Wizard of Oz,” said John Crichton.
And why did the Club take the decision to publish? The answer is because so much wonderful material was easily accessible.
“Our members have always had access to great content but also printers and fine press bookmakers. It’s been a fascinating convergence of books and content,” continued John Crichton. “The decision was taken very early by the Club and lots of work has gone into publishing books.”
Roberto Trujillo, who is the head of Stanford University’s Special Collections Library and a director of the Book Club of California, explained how the club’s publishing program works.
“We have a publishing committee that works through manuscripts,” he said. “We argue within ourselves – we ask if we publish 300 to 500 copies will it sell? We ask about the cost. The process is similar to the process at an academic press – we drag in other members into the discussion until we have consensus. There is no vote.
“We have just finished publishing two books and we are currently working on contracts to print two to three more. We have always used small print runs. The fine press community in the Bay Area has always been strong and we’ve always had access to them. When we publish a book, there is always a connection to a member in some way or form.”
And what has been the secret of the Club’s longevity?
“The Book Club has succeeded because it’s a social network that is not insignificant,” said Roberto. “It’s part business, part entertainment. The Club isn’t just about having fun but also learning.”
“It also acts as a focal point for these people,” added John Crichton.
Learn more about the Book Club of California at http://www.bccbooks.org/
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