ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) - Patrick Coleman recently got an email from a rare book dealer who said he had something spectacular for sale that absolutely needed to be in the collection of the Minnesota Historical Society.
The dealer wondered if Coleman could raise the purchase price of a quarter-million dollars.
“I told him I had a better chance of seducing Scarlett Johansson,” said Coleman, the society’s senior curator in charge of collecting books and other written material.
It looks like it will be a case of the rare book that got away.
But happily for anyone interested in Minnesota history and culture, there’s a lot of stuff that hasn’t escaped Coleman’s grasp and public budget, the St. Paul Pioneer Press (https://bit.ly/1CWzj0x ) reported.
For more than 35 years, the self-described book geek, history nut and lover of Minnesota has collected thousands of books, maps and documents for the historical society’s massive collection.
You can look at Coleman as a sort of rare book hunter for us all, because what he collects can be accessed free by anyone in the public, ranging from serious scholars to people researching their genealogy to high schoolers working on National History Day projects.
The historical society’s collection includes the rare, old and wonderful, like a 1683 first edition of Father Louis Hennepin’s account of his travels up the Mississippi River or an oversized volume of portraits made by Swiss artist Karl Bodmer of the Indian chiefs of early 19th-century America, the kind of book railroad baron J.J. Hill kept on his coffee table.
The historical society also has a seemingly ordinary 1911 school textbook containing a couple of speeches made by George Washington.
The slim volume normally wouldn’t be worth much and wouldn’t be of interest to the historical society, but Coleman paid $20,000 for it because it happened to be owned by a 15-year-old student from St. Paul named Francis Scott Fitzgerald.
The teenager, who later just went by F. Scott Fitzgerald, inscribed the inside cover with a description of himself as a “playwright, poet, novelist, essayist, philosopher, loafer, useless, disagreeable, silly, talented, weak, strong, clever, trivial, a waste.”
“He’s like any 15-year-old boy. He’s just totally full of himself,” Coleman said. “But how self-aware to know he’s going to be a novelist, to know he has weaknesses, that he can be lazy. This is really an extraordinary document for a 15-year-old and a really important piece of Minnesota history.”
Coleman, 63, jokes that he won’t retire until he acquires for the historical society his version of the Holy Grail, a rare 1925 first printing of the first American edition of Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby” with an intact dust jacket.
The dust jacket was printed slightly larger than the book, so it tended to get tattered and thrown away. But the iconic image on the jacket — the eyes of a woman overlooking a garish amusement park — influenced Fitzgerald, who saw the artwork while he was still writing the book.
The rarity and story behind it have meant that editions with the intact dust jacket have inched toward $200,000 at auctions.
It’s “the most expensive single piece of paper in 20th-century book collecting,” according to one expert.
“It’s a very important part of our cultural heritage, and there isn’t a copy of this in the state of Minnesota,” Coleman said. “We really need that.”
Coleman, however, has gotten the historical society the first edition of “The Great Gatsby” translated into Hindi and published in 1961 in India.
“Around here, it’s pretty rare. In India, I don’t know,” Coleman said.
It doesn’t have to have a high-brow literature pedigree to be considered part of Minnesota history and culture, according to Coleman.
He’ll get a used copy of an old pulp magazine called “Astounding Stories,” for example, because it contains a short story called “Hellhounds of the Cosmos” by Clifford Simak, a Twin Cities newspaperman who moonlighted as a science fiction writer.
“We want everything that has something to do with Minnesota,” Coleman said.
That can include vintage telephone books and high school yearbooks.
“You’d think we’d have Bob Dylan’s yearbook, and we don’t. I would love to have that,” Coleman said.
There’s a 1932 catalog from the St. Paul Artificial Limb House and a 1950s flier from a Washington Avenue night club in Minneapolis advertising the “Boys Will Be Girls” floor show and Jean Evol, “The Male Fanny Brice.”
“Anything printed is my area of responsibility,” Coleman said.
So he’s the curator of the 50,000 maps held by the historical society, ranging from a 1581 map of the interior of the United States to mid-20th-century Minnesota tourist maps featuring cartoons of Paul Bunyan and girls in swimsuits by the lake.
A map owned by the historical society was made by Lewis and Clark and is “one of the most important maps in American cartography,” according to Coleman.
But Coleman also likes a recent donation from the family of Jerome Andrusko: a 4-feet-long sheet of brown butcher paper, hand-drawn in pencil and China marker by Andrusko of the streets, houses, businesses and families once located in the Bohemian Flats, a bygone residential neighborhood along the Minneapolis riverfront.
“It’s just a lovely piece of remembered history,” Coleman said.
Another snapshot of time owned by the historical society is an 1860 panoramic map of New Ulm. Made two years before the Dakota War, the map shows a landscape of tidy settler houses with peaceful Indians in the foreground.
“You can imagine the map a few years down the road, when the buildings are smoldering,” Coleman said.
The Minnesota Historical Society’s library has about a half-million books. With so much stuff that’s rare and unusual, about 30 percent of the material is unique to the collection, meaning it can be found nowhere else.
In a typical academic library, unique materials might amount to only about 5 percent of the collection, Coleman said.
Particularly strong or important parts of the historical society collection include materials related to travel and exploration, the abolition movement, the Civil War and the world’s best collection of materials printed in the Dakota language.
One one-of-kind item acquired by Coleman is known as the Treaty of Washington, 1858, an original, handwritten document in which the Yankton Sioux relinquished more than 11 million acres of their land in exchange for a 400,000-acre reservation.
Coleman said he finds a particular poignancy in the artifact, marked with X’s, denoting the signatures of chiefs and delegates with names like “A-ha-ka-ho-che-cha,” or “The Elk with a bad voice.”
“They gave up their way of life by signing this treaty,” Coleman said. “It was a life-changer for them.”
Coleman said the treaty was acquired in 2004 after he got a midnight call from a St. Paul book dealer who said that the document was available for $35,000.
Coleman said he pulled on a pair of jeans over his pajamas and rushed over to grab it. The dealer gave the historical society 30 days to pay the bill.
“I didn’t know if I could raise $35,000, but I wanted to try,” Coleman said.
The historical society has funds set aside for normal library acquisitions. For example, it spends about $40,000 a year on recently published books, Coleman said.
But for an expensive, “one-in-a-lifetime” purchase like the treaty, Coleman depends on donations from organizations or individuals who want to help preserve the state’s history.
“I’m always impressed by people’s generosity,” he said.
Some of that generosity comes in the form of donated material.
Coleman once acquired a 1910 guide to brothels of St. Paul hidden behind some wainscoting in an abandoned downtown building. It was found by a homeless man who correctly realized that the historical society would be interested in it.
“He wouldn’t take a cup of coffee in trade for it,” Coleman said.
A love of Minnesota history, books and finding things has made Coleman a natural fit for what he does.
“I think I was born to do this,” he said.
The older brother of St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman and the younger brother of Twin Cities journalist and former Pioneer Press columnist Nick Coleman, Patrick Coleman is the son of the late Nicholas Coleman, a state senator from St. Paul who was the state Senate’s first DFL majority leader.
Nicholas Coleman steeped his kids in Minnesota history, making them read aloud from a WPA guide to state history during road trips and giving them pop quizzes like, “For a quarter, who was the first governor of the state of Minnesota?”
Coleman said he started a personal collection of books related to Minnesota history while he was in high school. He specialized in Minnesota history with an independent study degree when he went to the University of Minnesota.
He was working with the U library when the curating job with the historical society became available, and “I was really in the right place and the right time.”
In an office with a large, nearly life-size cutout of writer, politician and eccentric thinker Ignatius Donnelly — “the most interesting guy in the state of Minnesota” — Coleman pores over catalogs from auction houses, publishers and booksellers.
His job also involves reading lots of book reviews. “I’m paid to do what I would on a Sunday morning,” he said.
Long relationships with dealers mean they know to contact Coleman if they have an item they think the historical society would be interested in.
But Coleman still will hunt for finds in book fairs in the United States and overseas. He’s been escorted by a butler from an exclusive private library in Manhattan where he couldn’t afford to buy anything. He’s also browsed for books at the St. Vincent de Paul thrift store on West Seventh Street in St. Paul. And he might be the only guy who comes in wearing a necktie to shop at Big Brain Comics in Minneapolis.
“I think he’s one of the best librarians in the country,” said Rob Rulon-Miller, a St. Paul rare books dealer. “He’s very aggressive in finding stuff that the Minnesota Historical Society doesn’t have.”
Late last month, he was waiting for the doors to open at the annual Twin Cities Antiquarian & Rare Book Fair at the State Fairgrounds.
Coleman said he used to feel anxious at book fairs that someone else would get there first to a book that he wants.
But the institution Coleman works for was created before the state itself. He knows it will outlive any book collector and will have another chance to get that book.
At the fair, Coleman finds bookseller John Campbell, who had set aside a set of letters sent by Minnesota soldiers fighting in World War I addressed to Miss Hortense Bodelson, a teacher at the Vasa Children’s Home in Welch, Minnesota.
Campbell, who is also a historian at Winona State University, said the letters include some written by Bodelson’s brother and by men who were former children at the orphanage, which would later become Lutheran Social Services.
“This makes Scandinavian Minnesotans weep,” said Coleman, who decided to purchase the letters for $250.
Coleman said the letters are timely because of a World War I exhibit the historical society is developing.
“I should’ve charged more,” Campbell said.
“It’s too late,” Coleman said.
Coleman liked a collection of works by Minnesota pulp horror writer Carl Jacobi, but declared that a collection of Charles Schulz “Snoopy” cartoons with an autographed inscription by Schulz to author Irving Wallace was “out of my league” at $4,250.
At the fair, he bumped into historical society patron Dan Shogren of St. Paul, who wrote Coleman a check to help him with his purchases.
Then Coleman met Jeffrey Marks of Rochester, New York. He’s the rare book dealer who sent Coleman the email about the $250,000 item the historical society had to have.
In a quiet corner of the book fair, Marks unpacked a box containing a novel and scrapbooks of letters.
“Oh, this is fabulous. Oh, that’s too sweet,” Coleman said as Marks explained what he had for sale. “Oh man, you’re killing me. I have tears in my eyes.”
Coleman said that if the material came to the historical society, it’s the kind of thing that would attract a half-dozen English doctorate students a year.
“This is a great piece of Minnesota literary history,” he said, worth the price Marks was asking.
“One of my better patrons just gave me $200. We’re halfway there,” he said.
Marks said he wanted to give the historical society the first chance to buy the materials before he offers it to other buyers. He allowed a reporter to see what was in the box on the condition that the contents aren’t mentioned in a story.
But you could probably find out if you gave Coleman a call, ideally with a check for $250,000.
Information from: St. Paul Pioneer Press, https://www.twincities.com
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