Bookseller of the Week: Churchill Book Collector
Marc Kuritz of Churchill Book Collector was kind enough to answer our questions about his bookselling business. Churchill Book Collector is located in San Diego and it’s a partnership between Marc and Paul Shelley. Read on and you will also gain an insight into Winston Churchill himself, the business of rare bookselling and the people who collect Churchill’s books.
AbeBooks: What are the origins of your business?
Marc: “The short version first: Love of books in general. Persistent interest in this particular author. And of course a healthy dose of happy accident. Now the longer version: I’m sure it will come as a great surprise that I was a voracious reader since early childhood and inclined to collecting books. Amusingly, in college I won an award and accompanying cash prize for best private student library – which was *almost* enough to ship most of my books home upon graduation.
“As an undergraduate I spent a few terms in Washington, D.C.. One was with a brilliant professor quite versed in things Churchill. We discussed politics and leadership extensively. I admired Theodore Roosevelt and my professor asked me what about Roosevelt engendered my respect. He then recommended that I investigate Churchill as a par excellence example of the qualities that drew me to Roosevelt. This was 1989. I read the two excellent Churchill biography volumes by William Manchester, the latter of which had just been published. One of them – a pleasant memory – I read on a Cape Cod beach.
“I was studying and embarking upon a career in politics and was already a lifelong bibliophile. Churchill was a complex icon of political leadership who, whenever he wasn’t busy trying to lead the free world, spent his life writing a veritable library of books. I was hooked. Though I was amused to learn that Roosevelt met Churchill and did not like him – a fact my professor judiciously withheld when recommending Churchill.
“I spent a second term in D.C. taking the Metro lines out as far as they would go to explore any used bookstores I could walk to from the stations. I actually went shy on meals for acquisitions and managed to definitively hook myself on book collecting. For the rest of college (upstate NY), I took any opportunities to prowl out of the way bookshops in the Northeast. Of course, luck netted some neat items in my early years, but what I remember most are the things I passed up for want of knowledge or funds or both. I still remember four jacketed U.S. World Crisis first edition volumes on a floor in a New Hampshire bookshop – the first four no less. At nearly $100 and being a bit frayed at the dust jacket edges, I thought them too far a stretch for me. Of course they are worth a small fortune and the first volume in dust jacket is virtually unobtainable at any price.
“A post graduation fellowship and early career in politics meant that means lagged interest for some years, but I did not lose my affinity for Churchill. Eventually I became a more serious, discerning, and better financed collector. I learned a lot about the trade from the perspective of a customer – a good perspective to remember and one I’m particularly grateful for now as a dealer. Some years later my collection ran to excess. I became a dealer by happenstance, having acquired inventory, knowledge, and contacts that exceeded my own Churchill collecting goals. So, rather on a whim, I decided to dabble in the trade.
“I started by supplying other dealers. Then I met a fellow enthusiast via a sale. We decided to partner on the effort of retailing directly, diligently, and professionally. And here I am. I of course maintain a personal collection separate from the inventory, as does my Churchill Book Collector partner, Paul.
“At this time, we are well-established as specialists in printed works by and about Sir Winston Churchill. While we do feature a growing selection of non-Churchill material, our primary focus remains Churchill. Our inventory includes a strong selection of scarce and fine Churchill material – of course first editions, scarce editions, and signed and inscribed copies – as well as a stock of affordable reading copies of works by and about Churchill. Our business is primarily online, though we do invite customers by appointment to view our inventory in San Diego.
“The book trade has changed a lot since my days of traveling miles to delightfully dusty old bookstores and introducing myself to the resident cats and proprietors (in that order of course). Even though much business is now online, we try to bring the same level of personal care and attention that a collector might find in a traditional bookshop. We enjoy assisting fellow collectors, so we are happy to help answer questions about the daunting profusion of editions in the Churchill canon. Our descriptions are reliably detailed and accurate, always accompanied by images of the actual item offered, so our customers can come as close as possible to a visceral feel for what they are buying. We pack and ship all of our orders with care and attention. And we are able to help assemble full collections of Churchill’s works and commission exceptional quality fine bindings and preservation cases.”
AbeBooks: Where are the majority of Churchill book collectors?
Marc: “Our largest number of sales, by both volume and total value, are to U.S. customers. The U.K. is a strong second, Canada third. This makes sense when you consider the respective populations of each country. That said, Churchill is truly a world figure, and our market is a world market. We contact our customers several times a month and our emails are routinely opened on at least five continents in roughly two dozen countries. Some of these countries might surprise you – Nicaragua, Jordan, Greece, Japan, China, and Portugal are a few examples.”
AbeBooks: What is the rarest Churchill book that you currently offer?
Marc: “We are going to give you three examples and let you be the judge. We have editions of books by Churchill for which there were only a few hundred or fewer copies issued. But we also have some books made exceptionally rare by virtue of how and when they are inscribed by the author.
“For pure bibliographic perspective, the rarest book-length Churchill work we currently offer is probably the 1909 first Canadian edition of My African Journey. All early Canadian editions of Churchill’s works were produced in very small numbers, but this one is particularly scarce. The number printed is unknown, but was almost certainly no more than a few hundred and likely fewer. This is only the third copy we have ever seen offered for sale.
“From another perspective, rarity is a function of the unique attributes of a specific book. For example, the two-volume British first edition of Lord Randolph Churchill – Winston’s biography of his father published in 1906 – is not difficult to obtain. However, we offer a copy bearing an unusually personal inscription written on the day before publication to Churchill’s lifelong friend, confidante, and best man at his wedding, Hugh Cecil. By itself, the set of books is not so rare. Inscribed thus it is truly unique.
“For a combination of both bibliographically rare and individually unique, our signed set of Churchill’s second published book, The River War, is noteworthy. This first edition, final printing of Churchill’s second book was signed by Churchill on 28 December 1900, during his first lecture tour of the U.S.A. and Canada. Signed thus, the set is a prize. But even unsigned, the set is a notable rarity; All three printings of the first edition (2,646 total) are nearly identical, issued respectively in November 1899, February 1900, and June 1900. Only 151 copies of this third printing were bound. Moreover, this 1900 third printing of the first edition is the *last* unabridged edition published to date. Churchill had been remarkably critical of the British army in his first edition. In 1902 Churchill (by then a new member of Parliament) revised and abridged his text, excising much of the criticism of Kitchener for political reasons. All of the many subsequent editions of The River War are based on the 1902 abridged and revised text.”
AbeBooks: Is there a Churchill book that all collectors desire?
Marc: “Yes. Everyone – from the most serious collectors to casual readers, from those most knowledgeable about Churchill to those who know him only as a wartime figure – wants a copy of Churchill’s history of The Second World War.
“During his long life, Churchill played many roles worthy of note – member of Parliament for more than half a century, soldier and war correspondent, prolific author, accomplished painter, ardent social reformer, combative cold warrior, Nobel Prize winner. But Churchill’s preeminence as a historical figure owes most to his indispensable leadership during the Second World War, when his soaring and defiant oratory sustained his countrymen and inspired the free world. Of course Churchill wrote quite a lot more – and some would say books that are better – than The Second World War. But this is the one everybody wants. Naturally we always stock a wide variety of editions of this iconic work.”
AbeBooks: What’s the most expensive Churchill book that you have sold?
Marc: “It is actually four books – a four-volume set of the first British edition of Churchill’s Marlborough: His Life and Times inscribed in all four volumes on the eve of the Second World War and with a really neat story.
First, a bit about the edition. Churchill’s monumental biography of his great ancestor, John Churchill, the first Duke of Marlborough, was initially conceived a full 40 years before publication of the fourth and final volume. Churchill originally considered the idea of the biography in 1898, returning to it in earnest in 1928. Marlborough ultimately took 10 years of research and writing and is the most substantial published work of Churchill’s “wilderness years” in the 1930s. The final volume was published on the eve of the Second World War in 1938. Richard Langworth says ‘To understand the Churchill of the Second World War, the majestic blending of his commanding English with historical precedent, one has to read Marlborough.’ The work was very well received, both critically and aesthetically. The first edition is a physically impressive production. The books measure 9.25 x 6.25 inches and are roughly 2 inches thick. Each is bound in plum cloth with beveled edges, the Marlborough coat of arms gilt on the front cover, and a gilt top edge. Moreover, each volume is profusely illustrated.
Now, what made our set particularly special. Our four-volume set of Churchill’s Marlborough was inscribed and dated by Churchill in all four volumes for a specific individual – a woman named Gertrude Turquand. She was not a close confidante, relative, or colleague of Churchill. Even so, this set is hard to beat. We were able to obtain from The Sir Winston Churchill Archive Trust a copy of a handwritten 5 April 1939 letter from the recipient to Churchill that is about this very signed set. It not only establishes wonderful provenance, but is also a touching pre-war piece. The text of this letter follows:
Dear Mr. Churchill
I now have all your books & left four “The Life of Marlborough” at your home to be autographed by you as you so kindly promised to do sometime ago. I left them last week & shall be most proud and happy to receive them back autographed. They will always be amongst my greatest treasures.
I am following events very closely & even now with all the opposition you have to meet, do not despair of the Great day to come for you. For me there is only one great statesman in the House, indeed there are no real Statesmen but your self, & oh how you shine above them all.
“Ms. Turquand was, of course, correct. After the long, taxing stretch of his “wilderness years” Churchill would return to the Admiralty in September 1939 and then replace Chamberlain as Prime Minister in May 1940.”
AbeBooks: Why is there such a strong interest in the writing of Churchill?
Marc: “He was a terrific writer of course with a distinctive voice. All the wit and incisiveness and rolling cadences and sweeping sense of history inherent to his speeches permeate his books. But there are a lot of great writers. Churchill’s extraordinary life is what so compellingly infuses his writing. Churchill doesn’t just tell a great story; he is a great story. And most of what he wrote about were events and issues and people and places central to his life.
“Historian Sir Martin Gilbert rightly called Churchill’s life, ‘remarkable and versatile’. It has become common for each generation to claim that they have experienced more change – technological, cultural, and geopolitical – than any preceding. Before asserting your claim, I’d encourage you to consider Churchill.
“The young war correspondent and British imperial soldier who participated in ‘the last great cavalry charge in British history’ would later help design the tank, pilot aircraft, direct use of some of the earliest computers (for WWII code breaking), and ultimately preside as Prime Minister over the first British nuclear weapons test. This icon of the British Conservative Party dramatically repudiated the Conservatives in his early career and spent 20 years as a Liberal, championing progressive causes and being branded a traitor to his class. This soldier and scion of British Imperialism wrote his first published book in a tent on the northwest colonial Indian frontier. He would later bear witness to and hold power during devolution of the British empire, along the way supporting causes contrary to prevailing sentiment of his caste and country – early and vigorously – such as Irish Home Rule and a Jewish national home in Palestine. First elected to Parliament during the reign of Queen Victoria, Churchill would serve as the first Prime Minister under the currently reigning Queen Elizabeth II.
“Some seek to proselytize Churchill’s unerring judgment and prescience and envelop him in dull – and undeserved – hagiography. We don’t. Infallibility is boring and Churchill was anything but boring. In fact, it could be said his failures drove some of his best writing. On many occasions Churchill’s political career was viewed as all but over. Each time it very nearly was. And each time he took up his pen.
“His epic history of the First World War, arguably some of his finest writing, was spurred by his disgrace over the Dardanelles, his subsequent political exile, and his desire to clear his name. And of course Churchill found extra writing time in the 1920s after the electoral destruction of his Liberal Party, which left Churchill without a seat in Parliament for a few years. His tremendous literary output in the 1930s was at least partially enabled by the fact that he was once again out of power, out of favor, and out of money – his political fortune ruined by his implacable opposition to appeasing Hitler and his financial fortune ruined by the stock market crash of 1929. His first, wartime Premiership was a spectacular convergence of moment and man, limning both as a glowing place in the history of leadership. His second and final premiership… not so much.
The good news for readers is that when he was wrong or intemperate or vulgar it was with Churchillian wit and panache. Churchill opposed Indian independence and called Gandhi: ‘a seditious Middle Temple lawyer, now posing as a fakir of a type well-known in the East, striding half-naked up the steps of the Vice-regal palace…’ Even the unflappable Gandhi was pricked and goaded. As were most who suffered – deservedly or not – the scourge of Churchill’s tongue and ink.
Churchill was brash and ambitious and egocentric. Nonetheless, time and again Churchill showed – both as a leader and as a man – remarkable insight, courage, resolve, and decency.
Often the writings of a great statesman are just a polished literary headstone, secondary to a life spent in pursuit and exercise of power. Churchill’s life was writing. He wrote before he achieved power. He wrote after power passed from his aging hands. Words – evocative, emotional, reasoning, reckoning – were his personal currency and daily essential.
Churchill was many things, but perhaps above all a master wordsmith. Rough numbers tell part of the tale. He published 50 books, 150 pamphlets, and over 800 feature articles. His speeches fill 9,000 pages. And he won the Nobel Price for Literature.
Of course he wrote for practical purposes. He wrote to sustain himself and his family. He wrote to persuade and influence, and assert. But he also wrote as if words were not just a tool, but a compulsion, a part of him that he was driven to exhale onto page after endless page. During the course of his long life he left on paper perhaps more published work – and more that was revealingly himself – than any other great statesman.
But don’t take our word for it. Read some yourself…
AbeBooks: Is there much collectible ephemera associated with Churchill?
Marc: “Oh yes. Tons. A truly ridiculous profusion and astounding variety. Every possible item and material you could conceive has been afflicted with a likeness of Churchill at some point, from tea towels to cigarette cards and virtually anything and everything in between. I’m not judging, mind you. After all, I collect processed trees and ink.
“Some collectors take their Churchilliana quite seriously – and there is serious money in some of it. We recently had a collector and customer ask us about liquidating his collection of Churchilliana – which filled five rather spacious rooms in his house. Generally we stick to books and published writing. But I have a friend – a buyer for one of the respected giants in the trade – who sardonically delights in the most obscure and inane Churchill bric-a-brac. I keep a small trove of Churchill ‘white elephant’ items on hand and randomly send her items from time to time.”
AbeBooks: Churchill was a prolific writer – is there a bibliography you recommend to people interested in his work?
Marc: “For the serious collector, there is Ronald Cohen’s outstandingly comprehensive, 3-volume bibliography – rather forthrightly titled A Bibliography of the Writings of Sir Winston Churchill. My own copy is now heavily worn and annotated after years of almost daily use. Ron’s mammoth effort reflects decades of work and his singular experience as both a collector and bibliographer of Churchill’s work. The result is a most welcome replacement for Fredrick Woods’ worthy, but limited and now quite dated bibliographic work on Churchill.
“Comprising three volumes, Cohen’s Bibliography provides extensive detail and background on publications by Churchill, his contributions to the published work of others, articles by Churchill in serial publications, reports of speeches by Churchill on other published works, and several other categories of published Churchill contributions and communications. As testament to Ron’s thoroughness, only occasionally do we find items not detailed in his bibliography – and doing so feels like an accomplishment.
“Cohen’s bibliography is attractively bound in blue buckram with gilt stamping and red spine title boxes. The contents are printed on acid-free paper and each volume bears a red satin ribbon marker. This work is indispensible to any serious Churchill collector. That said, availability is limited, as publication was limited to 400 copies.
“For the more casual collector, or the Churchill collector just getting started, I strongly recommend Richard Langworth’s A Connoisseur’s Guide to the Books of Sir Winston Churchill. Langworth did a great service to Churchill collectors with this effort, not only discussing each edition at length, but also including hundreds of images of some extraordinary books. It is not a bibliography, but is truly what the title purports – a guide – and therefore bibliographic in spirit. Reading it will provide an aesthetic, critical, and historical sense for each of Churchill’s book-length works. Moreover, useful information is provided about most of the many editions of each of Churchill’s book-length works. While the market values cited are woefully out of date, the information about editions and the hundreds of outstanding photographs are terrifically informative.”
AbeBooks: What biographies of Churchill do you recommend?
Marc: “As might be imagined for such a towering figure, there is a daunting profusion of Churchill biographies. I’ll limit myself to recommending just four.
Winston S. Churchill: The Official Biography by Sir Randolph S. Churchill and Sir Martin Gilbert
“This is an epic piece of scholarship about a singularly epic life, comprising eight mammoth main text volumes and – so far – 16 accompanying document volumes. The eight main text volumes were published between 1966 and 1988. Publication of the document volumes continues today. In 1962, at the age of 25, Gilbert joined Churchill’s biography team, then led by Churchill’s son Randolph. Of what became his life’s work, Gilbert says: ‘I’d thought I’d last four or five months.’ Instead, when Randolph died in 1968 with only two of the eight volumes completed, Gilbert took over, committing the substantial portion of his scholarship and life’s work to documenting, comprehending, and communicating Churchill’s life. It is the definitive source. It is also a daunting proposition for a reader. Just the eight main text volumes alone claim 19 inches of shelf space, weigh more than 28 pounds, and fill nearly 8,700 pages. That’s not including the 16 accompanying document volumes.
Churchill: A Life by Sir Martin Gilbert
“This substantial one-volume biography (1,066 pages) published in 1991 is not an abridgement of Gilbert’s eight-volume Official Biography, but rather a ground-up biography including information not known when the original, earlier Official Biography volumes were written. This is a good option for those wishing to benefit from Gilbert’s unparalleled expertise, but not willing to undertake reading all eight massive volumes of the full Official Biography.
“These highly acclaimed two volumes were my introduction to Churchill and enough to set me on the path of being a Churchill specialist dealer decades later. Enough said. Manchester died before undertaking a third and final volume, which was recently completed and published by Paul Reid (at Manchester’s behest). I cannot speak to this third volume, as I have not yet read it.
My Early Life by Winston S. Churchill
“This is Churchill’s extremely popular autobiography, covering the years from his birth in 1874 to his first few years in Parliament. Originally published in 1930, it has seen a dizzying array of reprints over the years, so affordable reading copies are readily available. Many assert that Churchill took liberties with some facts here and there, but that does not prevent the work from being revealing and informative about its author and a highly engaging read.”