For many, many decades, the Brattle Book Shop has been a fixture in Boston for lovers of old, used, and rare books. Its history is the history of a family whose love of the printed word transcended nearly all other desires. Today, Ken Gloss, a second-generation bookseller and highly respected authority on rare books and manuscripts, is keeping the love affair with books alive and well. Gloss is a frequent contributor on Antiques Road Show, where his appraisals are eagerly sought.
Gloss recently gave an entertaining and informative presentation via Zoom as one in a series of lectures hosted by the Mattapoisett Free Public Library and sponsored by the Friends of the Mattapoisett Library Purrington Lecture Series.
Gloss began his talk by sharing the early years of his father George’s quest to put books in the hands of as many people as possible starting in the 1940s. Beginning at 32 Brattle Street in the Cornhill section of Boston, which was eventually absorbed into Government Center and forced the senior Gloss to seek another location, George Gloss found another location several blocks away on West Street. But to move his vast inventory, he first had to downsize the collection.
“My father knew the police and so was able to secure permission to drive a horse-drawn carriage around town with a sign that read ‘Go West’ to advertise his new location,” said Ken Gloss. As the carriage went up and down the city streets, books were tossed to onlookers. Predictably, the event caused traffic problems, “…But my father made his point.”
On another occasion, the West Street location burned nearly to the ground. “Needless to say, we weren’t heavily insured,” recalled Ken Gloss. But the community of book lovers came out in force, and soon George Gloss was awash in hundreds of donated used books to kick-start his business once again.
Although Ken Gloss studied chemistry and believed he was headed to a career in science, he followed in his father’s footsteps. His joy of discovering something old, something written down, something of historic value, places him in the category of archeology, where getting through stacks of discarded printed materials are the tome and digging through may just produce a long-lost treasure.
Ken Gloss is nothing if not a storyteller extraordinaire. Stories tipped off his lips in a sort of stream of consciousness.
He told the story of being invited to assess a collection of art reference books for a family in Newport, Rhode Island. He said that the family had over 5,000 books and was part of the Brown clan, founders of Brown University. “We bought 80-percent of their collection,” he said. On another occasion in Newport, Ken Gloss was invited to one of the Bellevue Avenue mansions that was still inhabited as a family home. He said it was amazing to have unrestricted movement around the mansion that had maintained its original glory.
This family had contacted Ken Gloss to place a value on family papers dating back to the War of 1812 and written by Commodore Oliver Perry. “It was the day-to-day accounting of the ship,” he said, explaining with a laugh that Perry was considered a privateer by Americans but a pirate by the British. “In the papers, it was noted that a captain was to receive a five-dollar bonus for the loss of a leg in battle,” he said.
Not all mansions are homes or all homes mansions, but surprises can be found in both.
Ken Gloss was called to an unassuming, ranch-style home where a little old lady lived alone. Walking up to the home he didn’t expect the trip to result in much more than a short friendly visit, but upon entering the premises he was astounded to find himself surrounded by watercolors done by Turner. He estimated them to at least $1 million. The lady had been married to a Ukrainian prince. “The books were lousy, but the stories she told were priceless,” Gloss recalled.
There was the time an Irish woman of a certain age called the shop saying, “I slept with Kennedy.” The lady said she had letters from the President that she wanted appraised for value. The end of the story is that she was Kennedy’s governess when he was a small child, and she had indeed slept with the then infant Kennedy.
Continuing in this vein, Gloss shared anecdotes that seemed to pour out of his brain as his eyes twinkled on the computer screen. There was the first edition of “The Great Gatsby” with a value of $100,000 because author F. Scott Fitzgerald inscribed the book to the owner, T.S. Eliot. Gloss said that Eliot had written on the pages edits he would have made to the manuscript.
In a case of ‘I can top that,’ Gloss topped himself when he told of holding four handwritten pages which were Paul Revere’s own accounting of his ride alerting all, “The British are coming!”
“It sent chills up my spine,” Gloss confessed.
There was the day that he held Isaac Newton’s personal copy of a math book with annotations throughout. “It was a circa 1600 edition.” That book now rests on view to all at the Huntington Library in San Marino, California. And Gloss’ memories rolled on. In Dracut, at another small nondescript dwelling, he found the original manuscript of “On the Road,” by Jack Kerouac. “He had used a teletype roll of paper,” Gloss said. It sold for $2.5 million.
As the hour wound down, Gloss said that being an appraiser on Antiques Roadshow is great; but, pulling the curtain back a little, also shared, “We don’t get paid to appear.” He said that being highlighted on the show is completely dependent on the object being appraised and if the producers think a clip is worthy. “We get free publicity and we love to do it,” he said.
To watch the full presentation, visit https://vimeo.com/564347847.
By Marilou Newell