Spinal Tap

Glenn Horowitz sells more than rare books; he helps create one-of-a-kind literary worlds.

For some, there is no greater pleasure than curling up with a good book. For others, only a first edition of Ulysses inscribed to Ezra Pound will do. Enter rare-book dealer Glenn Horowitz, whose passion for and knowledge of the art of letters has led him to purchase collections as varied as Nabokov's archives and Woodward and Bernstein's notes from Watergate. One doesn't visit Horowitz's Upper East Side Manhattan office without blocking out the whole afternoon; the selection is simply too overwhelming. Upstairs, original editions of Virginia Woolf's ($1,000-$50,000) fill one shelf, and they were recently joined by the collection of an Oxford architect who spent some 50 years amassing works published by Hogarth Press, which Woolf ran with her husband, Leonard. On another shelf are signed editions by Nabokov ($500-$100,000), each title page alive with the author's own illustrations of butterflies. An F. Scott Fitzgerald tome ($75,000) reveals a bawdy message, while a Carson McCullers novel ($22,500) contains an extremely rare dedication to both John and Jackie Kennedy. Framed on the wall, a single sheet of lined paper is scribbled with Jack Kerouac's short-lived renunciation of art ($25,000), which he wrote at 23. In another room, beneath the Serge Mouille chandelier, are six boxes of newly arrived papers from the estate of Vita Sackville-West (individual pieces from $3,500; as a unit, $500,000). These documents include her first novel, handwritten when she was 11; one breathy title page reads Froth, Foam, Rebellion, Vanity: A Study. Heady stuff, these Horowitz archives. For the modern bibliophile, the space is a literary paradise.

"There's the experience of being around all these books, and then there's the experience of being around Glenn, who's one of the greatest conversationalists in Manhattan," says Alan Klein, a partner at a large New York law firm. Klein has been collecting first editions by Seamus Heaney and William Carlos Williams through Horowitz for five years. "He's always got some unique letter or inscription or manuscript—something no one else has access to. The idea that they're sitting on a desk in an Upper East Side brownstone and not in some museum is amazing. You feel that if you can't possess them, it'd be the greatest crime on earth."

Horowitz began his career in the rare-books department of the legendary Strand bookstore in lower Manhattan 25 years ago, when Fourth Avenue was in its final days as Booksellers Row. (It was here that his uncle ran a successful used-book store in the forties and fifties and that Horowitz first got a taste for the business.) A protégé of Bernard Malamud's at Bennington, Horowitz moved to New York to become a novelist but soon discovered a decidedly more profitable métier. "I used my academic background and found a way of being commercially viable at the same time," he says. Not only did he actually care deeply about literature but he also understood books as objets d'art. After almost two years at the Strand, he purchased a small collection and opened an office of his own near Grand Central Station. His particular mix of moxie and style attracted all sorts of acquisitive book lovers, including man-about-town and Vanderbilt heir Carter Burden, who hired Horowitz to help him build a collection of first editions. These days Horowitz counts among his clients cosmetics mogul Ronald Lauder and the Forbes family.

But Horowitz always wanted to do more than just sell books, however rare. For 20 years he has devoted his talents to becoming what he calls a "bibliophilic diplomat," negotiating among literary heirs and estates for archival collections. He has, for example, found homes for the papers of talents as diverse as Disraeli, FDR, William Burroughs, and Bobby Fischer. Currently he's courting Norman Mailer, cataloguing a series of JFK's unpublished letters, and helping Hunter S. Thompson, the original gonzo journalist, archive his collected works at the writer's home in Colorado ("An intense experience" is how he puts it).

Though most of his time is spent in New York, Horowitz also owns a gallery in East Hampton, New York. Here the focus goes beyond the literary to art, design, and architecture. The gallery also has such decidedly outré memorabilia as Rita Hayworth's toiletry kit, complete with aspirin and doodle-filled love letters from then husband Orson Welles.

With patience, says Horowitz, books can be both a sensible and lucrative investment. He loves that a first edition of Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises bought in 1976 for $7,500 recently sold at auction for $320,000. While Horowitz is perfectly happy to sell a $2,000 book to the onetime customer, his ambitions are much grander. "I want to help a person build a collection that reflects their own and very particular interests."

Glenn Horowitz Booksellers, 152 E. 74th St., 212-327-3538, and 87 Newtown Ln., East Hampton, 516-324-5511.