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2015 Bookseller Resource Guide

American Beauties

We Grow Some Wild and Crazy Collectors Here

Fine Books and Collections editor Ann J. Loftin
Editor Ann J. Loftin

Like William L. Clements, the bibliomaniac who built the great Americana library at the University of Michigan, Clements library director Kevin Graffagnino, author of this month’s cover story, may be the last of his kind: not a library specialist but a serious bookman, a Ph. D. in American history with a background in antiquarian books. The last time I spoke to Graffagnino on the phone—July 23rd—was another last of its kind: the final publication day, he told me, of the Ann Arbor News, a daily paper that had been in print for more than 170 years. “I hear they’re keeping all the young people to do the web site, and letting all the older, more experienced people go,” he said. So Graffagnino was feeling all the more grateful for his university’s commitment to the Clements library. “Ann Arbor is feeling the recession, but we haven’t had any cutbacks. Our president, Mary Sue Colman, has been tremendously supportive. When I took the job, she said, ‘Let’s make the Clements library the best we can,’ and she meant it, and we’re doing it.” Having come from the Vermont Historical Society, where the budget was tight even before the latest wave of cutbacks, Graffagnino feels doubly blessed.

I asked him whether he was respecting William L. Clements’ heartfelt wish: not to let any of the undergraduates get their grubby little mitts on his fantastically valuable collection of Americana. “Oh no,” said Graffagnino. “Mr. Clements would have disapproved strongly, but undergraduates make up a pretty fair percentage of our users. The history professors bring their classes here to see the collection. Of course, we have to tell the kids to leave the Mountain Dew outside—a request that always surprises them, because after all, who at 18 would think of going to a library? The kids do everything online—and if it’s online,” he added dryly, “it must be true.”

Unlike William L. Clements, who came to book collecting relatively late, Graffagnino fell into the book trade early. He started an antiquarian book business as a teenager in Williston, Vermont, as a way to pay for college; all through college at the University of Vermont he continued selling Vermontiana (all things Vermont) out of his apartment. But not too long after that, he got a day job—as curator of Vermont history at his alma mater’s library.

When he got to the University of Michigan last November, he was surprised to discover that very little had been written about the founder of his library, who in the early decades of the 20th century amassed a superb collection of Americana. “I was so amazed by the collection, I started making a list of the books that have been written based on our holdings, and I stopped counting at 600,” he said.

The Clements continues to collect Americana, albeit at a more modest pace than its founder. Its newest acquisition is a print depicting General Custer’s last stand, bought at the Graham Arader auction in June [see Ian McKay’s column this month]. Now all the Clements needs is more space to store and display all its treasures, and Graffagnino says the university is moving forward with plans for a second building, recession be damned. Of course, no new building will ever match the grandeur and elegance of the library William L. Clements built—Graffagnino is sure of that. “When I win the lottery, I’m going to build a Great Room just like the Clements’ for my books,” he said. And lest you think he’s just dreaming—he won $10,000 at Powerball last year.

Nothing stands in the way of a true collector.