Rob Warren is no stranger to nostalgia. The Bronx-born bibliophile traded in it for years as the owner of Skyline Books.
Rob Warren, of Rob Warren Books
Skyline was a New York City bookshop that made its home on W. 18th Street in Manhattan for two decades, until its closure in 2010. Its proprietor’s background was as book-soaked as one could dream – Warren’s father was a printer with a shop dedicated to old-time printing presses, selling greeting cards and stationery, and eventually books. Warren worked there, then several varied New York-based bookshops, before striking out on his own and building Skyline in 1990. He has been with AbeBooks since 1998, the very early days of our business.
Skyline was tailor-made for bookish types – a cozy, creaky hole in the wall, piled high with quality books and a much-beloved cat named Linda. Linda was featured not only in a Japanese calendar, but also the cover model for a book about Paris’ Shakespeare & Co. bookshop (those are her hindquarters below left, adorning Time Was Soft There).
Skyline attracted a certain kind of person. Bookish, passionate people from the neighborhood and beyond would stop in to buy, to browse, or even to connect with other like-minded people over a first edition or two.
Over the years the likes of Gregory Corso, Allen Ginsberg, Ted Joans, Anne Charters, Robert Frank, and Herbert Huncke darkened its doors. A review from the shop’s now defunct Yelp business profile states “This shop is definitely a book forager’s shop and not one for those with a weak sense of adventure. If you prefer your bookstores with organized shelves, clearly marked prices, and pristine covers, this place is not for you. But if you’re one who doesn’t mind combing through titles for hours on end, Skyline, with its jumbled collection, can be quite a treat.”. Sounds heavenly to me.
When his lease increased suddenly and steeply, Warren was unable to afford the space and was forced to make the painful decision to close his doors. Linda came home with him, of course (and continued at his side until she passed away at age 16, halfway through 2015). And the books? Well, the more pedestrian of the Skyline collection were sold in the shop’s last days, at great discounts. Lots others were snapped up at a West Village book fair, the proceeds of which went to benefit LGBTQ organizations. Still more, the cream of the crop, were put aside by Warren, who just couldn’t bear to part with certain titles and gems. Modern first editions, special finds and an impressive collection of works by and about the Beat Generation all went home with him to his small apartment, whose two storage rooms he estimates hold ~1500 volumes.
Much of that collection is available now on AbeBooks, after he started selling in the Tin Pan Alley district of New York City later in 2010 under the name Rob Warren Books. The collection that has his apartment and storage areas packed must go, a bit at a time, and so he’s adding more inventory all the time, albeit gradually. Warren’s days are more varied now – he still receives occasional calls from interested book buyers and booksellers. He enjoys plenty of down time, including playing guitar, on his own in the park or along with the other members of his rock band. A few at a time, he’s listing his books for sale, those gems that were his “keepers” for 25 years. Once a booklover, always a booklover, and Warren will still venture far and wide to attend particularly choice book signings. By and large, though, he spends his time close to home, in the coffee shop, library and restaurants in Manhattan’s East Village. Life is soft.
Warren was kind enough to talk with us and answer some questions about his collection of Beat books, and how they became the focal point of his book love.
AbeBooks: How and why did you begin collecting books of the Beat Generation?
Rob Warren: I just liked reading them. As a teenager I discovered Burroughs and Kerouac, reading them in hardcover then eventually wanting a first edition.
Abe: What was the first Beat book you remember acquiring?
RW: On the Road. It took me 20 years to get a true first edition of On the Road – and I still have that copy!
Abe: What is the prize find in your collection?
RW: It used to be to be a first edition Naked Lunch by Burroughs (Grove Press) warmly inscribed to Paul Bowles for inspiring him to write the novel. Burroughs was visiting Bowles in Tangier when he wrote it. My current favorite is Junky, also by Burroughs under the pseudonym William Lee. This is the original Ace Double 1953, signed by Burroughs and his close friend Herbert Huncke who is the main character in the book. Interestingly, this book was published by Carl Solomon to whom Howl is dedicated. My other favorites might also be a few original unpublished notebooks by Gregory Corso from the early 90’s. Corso was a regular customer in my shop and one day he brought them in. They’re pretty amazing.
Abe: How long have you been collecting?
RW: From my teens on I always collected books even if they weren’t first editions. I officially started collecting when I discovered Raymond Carver. That was in 1983. We became acquaintances over the years.
Abe: What Beat books do you not yet have, but wish to acquire?
RW: I always regretted not getting a signed first of Howl.
Abe: Who would you call the key figures of the Beats, outside of Ginsberg, Kerouac and Burroughs?
RW: Gregory Corso, primarily, but also Ferlinghetti as a publisher. Herbert Huncke wrote some very interesting books. Ted Joans for awhile. Gary Snyder never considered himself a Beat, but he got lumped in as he was the inspiration for the main character in Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums. Ah, and Neal Cassady! His The First Third was actually written before On the Road.
Abe: What do you think contributed to the formation of the Beat poets and movement?
RW: The experience of World War II and the realization that perhaps the American Dream wasn’t necessarily what they’d been told all along. In many ways they were inevitable just as the protests of the 60’s were inevitable.
Abe: What else would you like to tell us about collecting and your collection?
RW: My entire Beat collection is going up on AbeBooks. At this point I’ve listed 130 Beat-related items with pictures. It took 30 years to build so this is going to take some time! After the Beats I’ll start listing my Raymond Carver, William Faulkner and Charles Bukowski collections. And of course a sizeable run of signed books by Samuel Beckett, including an inscribed copy of Waiting For Godot, Grove Press, 1954. A Near Fine copy in NF dust Jacket. Stay tuned.
I will say that over the years I met all the major Beats except Kerouac. They either came into Skyline or I spoke with them at signings at St. Mark’s Church. I also got to meet Robert Frank. He signed a few copies of Les Americans, the true first edition of his seminal work. Kerouac wrote the introduction to the American edition published a year later. You just can’t find yourself in these situations if you don’t inherently love what you do.
Check out all the books currently offered by Rob Warren Books.