A personal tribute to the late Richard S. Barnes
Frank J. Piehl, Caxton Club Historian
ook lovers mourn the death of Richard S. Barnes, internationally renowned scholar, antiquarian book dealer, and book conservator. Educated at Harvard, the University of California, and Yale, he came from a distinguished family. His great-grandfather founded the A. S. Barnes Publishing Company. After completing his education at Yale, Richard began his career at the Newberry Library in 1951, but after only a few months, he decided that the rigors of life at the Newberry were not for him. As he reminisced in later years, "My boss didn't like me, and I didn't like him. He wanted me to do the social thing, and all I wanted to do was learn about books, so he fired me."
To give himself freedom to devote his life to books, he opened a bookstore in Chicago on Dearborn Street in 1951, moving to more spacious quarters at 1628 North Wells St. in 1953. When I first visited this treasure house of books in 1968, I was a novice collector interested in history, and Dick Barnes turned out to be the right man to help me get started. Getting to know him, however, wasn't easy. He struck me at first as gruff and somewhat unfriendly. In truth, he was sizing me up before sharing his remarkable expertise with me. After repeated visits we became good friends. My monthly visits to Wells Street were like graduate seminars than book hunting expeditions. He was my mentor. He would ask me about my interests and then expound about the books that I should read. While discoursing on a particular historical subject, he would often say, "I've got just the book for you." After disappearing into the back room, he would reappear with a rarity, sometimes a scarce old volume that he had rebound personally. By the time I left, the books were always meticulously wrapped in brown paper and sealed with tape, a trademark of his shop.
His knowledge of books was exceptional, as was his memory. On one visit I questioned him about a reference work, The Book of Chicagoans, later known as Who's Who in Chicago and Vicinity, published occasionally from 1905 to 1950. From memory, and without hesitation, he summarized the nine editions in the colors of their bindings, as "one red, one green, and seven blues." Such instant recall of the most intimate details about books was typical. Also typical of Dick was his dress. When working in the shop, he usually wore knickers of quality wool, knee length wool stockings, and a plaid shirt. They were as much his trademark as his impeccably trimmed mustache.
One sunny summer day, in response to a question about on old issue of the Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, he took me out the back door, through a lovely but neglected garden, to a building at the back of the lot. There he stored books on the ground floor and lived on the second floor. The garden, which had been maintained by his wife Catherine until her death in 1966, had been a landmark in the Wells Street community. It suffered from neglect. Dick was too busy with his books to devote his own time to gardening. After searching through an immense hoard of books and journals, we found the issue I sought. What I remember most about this incident, however, was the peaceful garden hidden away amid the bustle of Old Town.
On one of my visits, he introduced me to a charming lady, Patricia Nichol, another customer. They were married in 1971. Six years later they sold their property on Wells Street and moved the book store to Foster Avenue in Evanston. Although the quality of the selections remained excellent, the new location lacked the charm of the Wells Street shop. Still the business prospered. For years, he had been the purchasing agent in America for English libraries. Always a sharp businessman, Dick sold a major part of his best stock to a Japanese consortium and eventually closed the shop on Foster Avenue, after which he operated his business on a reduced scale from his home. The infirmities of age eventually overcame him, and he entered the Mary McGraw Care Center in Evanston, where he resided until his death on April 29, 2001, at age 87.
Family and friends gathered at a memorial service on May 12 to celebrate his life. His stepdaughter described him as "a man who played his emotional cards close to his vest," but yet "he had a big heart and deep passions. He loved books, sports, and bridge." His stepson told of his penchant for tweed jackets, Brooks Brothers suits, bow ties, cooking, and golf. And his step granddaughter likened him to "a cherished volume, handsomely bound, but not on acid-free paper." The love for this man expressed by his family was heartwarming.
Richard S. Barnes joined The Caxton Club in 1963 and maintained his membership until his death. His wife, Patricia, became a member in 1977. The couple attended dinners frequently, but as time passed, their sojourns at their London home, and Dick's failing health prevented their attendance. He enlightened Caxtonians in January 1977 with a dinner presentation entitled "Where Do They Keep the Good Stuff?" and he participated in a panel discussion in January 1992 on "The Book-seller's Angst."
The death of Richard J. Barnes leaves a gap in the Chicago book world that will not be filled. The members of the Caxton Club ex-tend their sympathy to Patricia Barnes and to other members of the Barnes family. May they find solace in the knowledge that his memory will live on in the hearts of all the scholars and collectors to whom he gave a part of himself. v
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