Right at the start of my career, the dominant figure in the rare book selling world in Philadelphia was Mabel Zahn. During her time at Sesslers Bookstore at 1308 Walnut Street she worked there from the age of 15 until she died when she was 85 years old. 70 YEARS!!!!!
Some people said she was the mistress of Dick Sessler, the son of the founder (1888) of the store, Charles Sessler. Some mistress! She only was given a 1% interest in the store!
The cream of the Philadelphia business world would reverently enter her private office having waited until the precise time of their appointment with her. They would be ushered in for their special meeting where they would be allowed to examine the rare books that Miss Zahn had selected for them.
One hot Summer day in 1974, my confidence at a high from a good sale to Independence Hall, it occurred to me that it was time for me to meet this legendary expert and an appointment was made.
The rare book part of the store at that time was entered by walking through the current book section run by Hayes Hibberd, himself a legend. A fine iron gate separated the two sections and peering in for that first time was exhilarating - shelf after shelf after shelf of magnificent leather bound books lined the room and there inside was a tiny women behind a Tudor desk.
Being ushered in that day was the experience of a lifetime. So much to learn and see. Walls of Lewis and Clark, Audubon, Twain, Bibles, color plate books, Philadelphiana and on and on.
But there to the left of her desk under a cloth of red velvet, the gilt edged pages of a magnificent large leather folio volume peeked out. She happily, almost eagerly, showed it to me.
It was a magnificent Peter Goos Sea Atlas of the world on double thick paper colored with the finest gold leaf color imaginable. It was truly a perfect book. My mind clouded up and rational thought was left behind. It was going to be mine no matter what!!!
"Would you please tell me the price?"
A slight smile illuminated this ancient crone's face as the number $5000 creaked from her lips.
A bargain!!!! The chance of a life time!!!!! Time to pounce!!!!
So now it was time for me to announce that she was speaking with a rare map dealer who had just sold Thomas Penn's annotated example of William Scull's 1770 map of Pennsylvania to Independence National Historic Park for $8250. A discount was requested now that my true identity was revealed.
Instantly the room turned cold.
Firmly, deliberately, carefully Miss Zahn retrieved the Goos Atlas, placed it back on its special table and covered it with its red velvet cloth. She frigidly said, "You cannot have the book. It is not for sale."
"What's going on!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!. Being a dealer asking for a discount is ok. Right?????????? What is the price to me?????"
Her reply, "No, you cannot have this book. It is not for sale." She coldly starred making it clear that my time with her was at an end."
Now that she knew my professed profession she saw me as the enemy!
This book took my heart away! It was the ultimate production of a nation that dominated world trade in the 17th century through the powerful business minds of its relentless people. There is no one like the Dutch and there is ONLY one man, Norman Bobins - a banker in Chicago, known to me that has ever beat them in a business deal. They are the greatest traders in the world and this work of Peter Goos was a splendid example of the type of magnificent treats that they would create for themselves. And of course it was a book that they could also use to examine their vast trading outposts all over the world - there were over 700 of them at this time. No other nation was even close! And here was an example of a sea altas of the world that had special paper, special color, a special binding, rich impressions. JUST PERFECT.
And now exiled from her store my chance had been blown. It was agony. My stupid greed for an even better deal than the existing one in front of my nose cost me the chance of a lifetime.
For the next few years when dealers would come to Philadelphia and ask me for places to find books, the location of the Goos atlas would impishly be revealed and a trip to Sesslers Bookstore would be suggested. And always the greedy dealers would ask for a discount and always Miss Zahn would throw them out of the store saying the book was not for sale. Dealers just cant help themselves always negotiating when they would do much better in the long run paying a fair price. That it why they simply are not welcome in any of my stores today.
My father at this time was a keen map and atlas collector and loved my story about this book. He became infected with my passion to possess it.
At the time he was the Secretary of Commerce of the State of Pennsylvania serving under his close friend, Governor Milton Shapp. They loved working together and Pennsylvania did well during this time with many of their creative business initiatives being enacted. Dad loved this eight year period of his life. He traveled all over the world bringing businesses to set up factories in our state. He also decided to give most of the state business to Goldman Sachs through the endlessly smooth, unruffled, capable George Ross cutting out all the old WASP firms in Philadelphia that had been overcharging the state for a century. It certainly generated a lot of heat in the press and in the hearts of the people our family had known. It amuses me that George has now built a building in his honor in Philadelphia. It is the Jewish Historical Society in a structure named after him. There is sits - quite magnificent - starring back at all the other Philadelphia museums and libraries and societies founded by many of the very families he put out of business. What a pity that this is the most vibrant place in the city and that the creativity going on inside could not have been harvested and incorporated by directors, librarians and curators of existing institutions while George was in his formulative stages as a genuine philanthropist. But he was never given a chance.
It was great having a front row seat growing up as my father, like Suleiman the magnificent, was blind to race, color, gender, religion in how he picked his friends and business associates. He only cared about ability. I can still remember the day that he took A. Leon Higginbotham to play tennis with him at the all white Merion Cricket Club. Judge Higginbotham was certainly the finest black Federal Judge in Pennsylvania during the 20th century. Dad loved doing things like this.
So my father was delighted to tell this story to Governor Milton Shapp about this amazing atlas and together they came up with a way to secure the book - the Governor gave my father a signed letter requesting the purchase of this book to be given as a gift to a Dutch ambassador!
And now into Sesslers walked my father with the letter and asked to see the book for the first time. Miss Zahn impressed with the pomp of the official state car outside, a formal letter from the Governor addressed to her and my father's ministerial bearing was delighted to proffer the tome.
And when dad asked the price and she replied, he immediately pulled out the check for the exact amount - $5000 - said thank you, picked up the book and started to walk out the door.
But now the old girl was in a panic. Her game had not played out the way it had for scores of bargaining Philadelphians and visiting dealers over the last 20 years. She begged for the book back so that she could properly wrap it and then like Tolkein's Gollum frantically used any excuse she could think of to get this glowing, golden masterpiece back in her hands. She even said that she did not have permission to sell the book.
But it was too late.
My father slipped into his car and placed the atlas in his collection to stay there until he sold it to me in the early 80's for $90,000!
By then he had used his connections in the Philadelphia community to arrange for me to buy the Sesslers business and building for $200,000 with a promise to Phil Kline and Marguerite Goldsmith, the last descendant of the founder, to keep up the traditions there forever. When we walked in to take possession, that red velvet cloth still sat forlorn on the table where it had covered that glorious Goos atlas!!! Old Mabel had never moved it in all that time. It was the most beautiful book she had ever owned and that piece of velvet was the only way she kept that precious memory alive for herself.
Today my promise of preserving the Sessler tradition as Philadelphia's oldest operating fine book, print and map store is stylishly kept by my full partner, Lori Cohen. Out of respect to Mabel she has kept her seat vacant and presides in the middle of the first floor gallery elegantly designed in the timeless, enduring style of Bennett Weinstock.