Thursday, September 18, 2014

Case Study No. 1582: Kurt Thometz, Private Librarian

Arts and Minds: Kurt Thometz - Private Librarian
A 2003 documentary by Canadian Bravo, never shown in the US, in which Mr. Thometz ruminates on his career as a private librarian in New York City.
Tags: Private Library librarian Kurt Thometz Jumel Terrace Books Harlem
Added: 6 years ago
From: privatelibrary
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[scene opens with footage of Kurt Thometz driving his car down the street]
NARRATOR: The curious world of a private librarian ...
[cut to an African American man speaking directly to the camera]
FREDDY: You call him in and you tell him what your interests are, and he will go and scour the globe to get you these books.
[cut to Kurt talking to another African American man, as he points at the spine of an old book]
FRANCOIS: We'll take all of this off here.
KURT: Mm hmm.
[cut to Kurt speaking directly to the camera]
KURT: As you get to know a person's library, you get to know them very very well.
["Kurt Thometz Private Library, jumelterracebooks dot com, 212-928-9525" appears on screen, then cut to various shots of New York City]
NARRATOR: A book lover could spend a lot of time in the Brooklyn Heights home of book dealer Kurt Thometz.
[cut to Kurt standing in front of a large bookshelf]
NARRATOR: He's also a private librarian and author.
[cut to a shot of his bathroom (with rows of books lined up above the toilet)]
NARRATOR: There are books everywhere in his house ...
[cut to a shot of several bookshelves in his kitchen]
NARRATOR: Even his kitchen is filled with hundreds of his wife's cookbooks.
[cut to Kurt speaking directly to the camera, as "Kurt Thometz, Private Librarian" appears on screen]
KURT: A private library, a personal library ... I think of it as an act of style. It's a perfect reflection of the collector. Y'know, books have interiors like people, and as you get to know a person's library, you get to know them very very well.
[cut to footage of several newspaper articles highlighting Kurt's work ("Books for Looks: The Personal Librarian" from the Wall Street Journal; "Taking the Chaos Out of Home Libraries" from the New York Times; "The Library Doctor")]
NARRATOR: Kurt earns his living curating private libraries. His clients include Misses Vincent Astor, the Lauder family, Calvin Klein, Diane von Furstenberg, and many others.
[cut back to Kurt speaking directly to the camera]
KURT: My first job was for Diana Vreeland, the empress of fashion, who had left Vogue and was working as the curator of the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Art Museum.
[cut to various black-and-white photographs of Diana Vreeland, then back to Kurt speaking directly to the camera]
KURT: And Misses Vreeland relied heavily on her library.
[cut to a closeup of Kurt's business card ("Kurt Thometz Private Librarian, The Private Library, Specializing in Made-To-Order and Custom Made Libraries on All Subjects"), then back to him speaking directly to the camera]
KURT: I came and I put it in nice order, and she and I became great friends. She was my surrogate grandma, I often thought, and she spoke me up.
[cut to Kurt getting into his car and driving down the street, then cut to a man ("John Strausbaugh, Literary Critic") speaking directly to the camera]
JOHN STRAUSBAUGH: He taught himself, in effect. Um, he was working in bookstores, but there was no such thing as a private librarian, and he invented it and started it completely sui generis. He is "the" private librarian.
[cut back to Kurt driving (and whistling along to the radio), then to another man ("Fab Five Freddy, Writer/Producer") speaking directly to the camera]
FREDDY: Kurt's a guy, like a book doctor. You call him in and you tell him what your interests are, and he will go and scour the globe to get you these books. Whether they're, y'know, rare first editions or they're some kinda trashy paperback, if that's your style or what you need.
[cut back to Kurt in his car]
KURT: We're gonna go see Francois Villon Scott the Sixth, my book binder and conservator.
[cut to a closeup of a sign ("Book Bindery by Appointment") hanging above a door, then to a man opening the door and shaking Kurt's hand]
KURT: Hey, Francois!
FRANCOIS: Hey there! How you doin'?
KURT: Alright, man, how you doing?
FRANCOIS: I'm great!
[cut to inside the building, as the two men look at one of Kurt's book under lamplight]
KURT: You won't have to re-sew or anything?
[cut to Francois speaking directly to the camera]
FRANCOIS: Usually, when people bring books to me, they're books that they treasure very highly.
[cut to Francois holding the book and speaking to Kurt]
FRANCOIS: What we can do is remove all of this.
[he flips the book around and points at the spine]
FRANCOIS: We'll take all of this off here.
[cut back to Francois speaking directly to the camera, as "Francois V. Scott, Bookbinder/Conservator" appears on screen]
FRANCOIS: Kurt brings books that ... from his clientele, and usually they're all kinds of books. They, some people collect old paperbound detective stories that are starting to fall apart, and he will occasionally bring me one of those, but usually they're a better grade book.
[cut to a woman ("Fran Lebowitz, Client") speaking directly to the camera]
FRAN: My definition of a bibiliophile is a book lover. Y'know, and even a book addict, maybe, and that's definitely what Kurt is.
[cut back to Kurt and Francois examining the book]
FRAN: [in voice over] I know people generally think of it as having to do with some sort of nineteenth-century British ... y'know, "novel of manners" idea.
[cut back to Fran speaking directly to the camera]
FRAN: Um, and that of course was true, y'know? Um, but this is the upside of democracy ... Uh, is that someone like Kurt or someone like me becomes a bibliophile because you love to read and you love books.
[cut back to Kurt and Francois examining another book]
KURT: No, I don't dog-ear the dictionaries.
FRANCOIS: No tears?
KURT: No, and I don't annotate.
[cut back to Kurt speaking directly to the camera]
KURT: Book love, uh, is at the real heart of collecting. It can be something terribly precious, or it needn't be precious at all to be collectible. Uh, it could ... there are people who want, y'know, an inscribed Nancy Mitford to go with the chintz. And there are people like my client John Gulino.
[cut to a man in his apartment, as he opens a closet to display several shelves of books]
JOHN GULINO: [in voice over] Kurt Thometz is a very dear friend, and he's helped me not only amass the collection, but catalog and assemble the collection.
[cut to John pulling a book from the shelf, as "John P. Gulino, Client" appears on screen]
JOHN GULINO: For example, here's an original James Bond, first edition, by Ian Fleming called "Diamonds are Forever." And these books have become exceedingly rare, because they were popular literature, and again, being popular literature, people didn't keep them and threw them out. And the original publications weren't that great until the film series became so popular. So they're very rare, very expensive.
[cut to Kurt standing beside a large bookshelf]
KURT: When I collect, I collect pamphletry, uh, from Africa that I came across in my book searches back in the seventies.
[he picks up one of the pamphlets on a nearby table]
KURT: A pamphlet came my way in a bookstore that specialized in African literature, and I picked one up off the floor and found myself immediately pulled into it.
[cut to a closeup of the pamphlet's back cover ("By Speedy Eric, Obtainable from Membership Bookshop, 87 Upper New Market Road, P.O. Box 214, Onitsha E.C.S. Nigeria"), then back to John Strausbaugh speaking directly to the camera]
JOHN STRAUSBAUGH: These pamphlets are the first documents of Nigerians writing, thinking, speaking in English, and it's immensely important.
[cut to a closeup of Kurt's book "Life Turns Man Up and Down"]
NARRATOR: A compilation of eighteen pamphlets from Kurt's collection is called "Life Turns Man Up and Down: High Life, Useful Advice, and Mad English."
[cut back to Fab Five Freddy speaking directly to the camera]
FREDDY: The stories in the book are really relevant because it's a great look at a really important African country and people, the most populous country in Africa and also one of the wealthiest, as they began to shake that yoke of colonialism and to understand, y'know, who the people were at that point in time.
[cut back to Fran speaking directly to the camera]
FRAN: And these aren't great works of literature, but they are very ... uh, authentic, y'know, reflections of people.
[cut back to Kurt standing next to his bookshelf]
KURT: Well, lemmee read a passage, starting with chapter one.
[he opens the pamphlet and begins reading]
KURT: "The dazzling beauty of Rosemary. If there was a prize to be awarded for falling in love at first blush, Rosemary should be given the richest golden medal."
[cut to a shot of a busy New York street]
NARRATOR: The small eclectic bookshop where Kurt found his pamphlets has closed its doors, just like many of the rare and used bookstores in Greenwich Village.
[cut back to Kurt speaking directly to the camera]
KURT: So many of my cronies are outta business. Uh, particularly in the early to mid-nineties, there were many bankruptcies and suicides as a result of the technological change in the business.
[cut to several shots of bookstores (which are still open)]
KURT: [in voice over] So, all those little individualities that you'll find in a secondhand bookstore that was somebody else's passion before yours ...
[cut back to Kurt speaking directly to the camera]
KURT: It gave the book yet more personality, and this I find rapidly quickly becoming a thing of the past, and myself a ... a dinosaur.
[cut back to John Strausbaugh speaking directly to the camera]
JOHN STRAUSBAUGH: I hope there is a future for this kind of work that he does. Um, I don't suppose that at this time, with the way the world is, people are making a big deal of their private libraries, but ... y'know, they will always be around, there will always be book lovers around.
[cut back to Kurt speaking directly to the camera]
KURT: I hope to keep on. I think there are people out there that can use me, and will invite me into their passions ... um, as it's been one of the greatest loves of my life.
["Special thanks to Arts & Minds and the Bravo Company" appears on screen]



Doing business as The Private Library, Mr. Thometz has provided curatorial services to schools and book collectors since 1980. These services include providing, arranging and cataloging books, database development, appraisal, bibliographic research, and conservation. Mr. Thometz's career as a private librarian has been featured in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Gentleman's Quarterly, Avenue, New York, Town and Country and Estelle Ellis' book, At Home With Books.

On September 11th, 2001, Pantheon Books published Life Turns Man Up and Down: Highlife, Useful Advice and Mad English (Pantheon Books, 2001), a selection from Kurt's collection of Eastern Nigerian market pamphletry; Africa's incunabula.

In November of 2006, the Thometz's opened Jumel Terrace Books with African and African-American collections acquired in 36 years of dealing in books. Uptown New York's only antiquarian bookshop, the shop specializes in local history, African and American, representing Colonial Washington Heights' and Revolutionary Harlem's history, art, and literature: books and ephemera, relating to its community's cultural literacy.



Books for Looks: The Personal Librarian
By Joanne Kaufman. Wall Street Journal, Eastern edition [New York, N.Y] 05 Apr 1988: 1.

New York -- During the first party Nick Carraway attended at Jay Gatsby's Long Island mansion, he walked into a "high Gothic library," and into a bespectacled man exclaiming over the books. "They're absolutely real -- have pages and everything. I thought they'd be a nice durable cardboard. Matter of fact they're absolutely real . . . It fooled me. This fella's a regular Belasco. It's a triumph. What thoroughness! What realism!"

The Great Gatsby probably had a personal librarian, someone like Kurt Thometz, who assembles book collections for people whose interest in reading is minimal but whose desire to create a sophisticated, polymath impression is overwhelming.

"We get people in the store who say 'I just moved into a new apartment. I want a library,'" says Mr. Thometz, who in addition to his consulting business also works at The Madison Avenue Bookshop. "We've done things like sell books by the yard and by the color to interior decorators.

"We've been working on one apartment where the interior decorator came to us with a list of 25 artists her client (a television mogul's wife) has works by. It was an incredible collection and the decorator wanted books on all of them." The decorator returned a few weeks later to place another order: 100 books on subjects ranging from American and foreign literature to religion and history. When Mr. Thometz asked about specific titles, the decorator had one directive: "Make my client look intellectual."

"And we did," said Mr. Thometz, who pulled from the store shelves a $5,000 collection of Proust "and some nice poetry. She got her Yeats, her Blake." The woman also got seven feet of Loeb Classics from the Harvard University Press (Greek and Roman texts), and French and German literature, Thomas Mann and Elizabeth Bishop. "It was an extensive selection," says Mr. Thometz. "It looks nice. But I don't know if she'll ever read the books."

Mr. Thometz's client list isn't restricted to nonreaders with literary pretensions. Since bringing order to Diana Vreeland's library five years ago, he has arranged the collections of Felix Rohatyn, Michael Thomas, Jerry Zipkin (heavy on art) and former Sen. Abraham Ribicoff (heavy on American history, current events and poetry). He merged the libraries of Louise Melhado (fine bindings of aesthetics, Henry James, Edith Wharton and Proust) and former Time Inc. head Henry Grunwald (political science) when the couple was married earlier this year, and is slated to oversee Brooke Astor's library in her country home. Mr. Thometz also assembled a complete library of thrillers for a German multimillionaire who wanted to catch up on the previous 50 years of the genre.

"You have to consider the people and their relationship to their library," he says. "With someone like Abe Ribicoff, a very political man, you wouldn't play up fiction as much as you would play up current events. Every library has a focal point or center. Once I do it, things are in such an order that you can find what you want in a minute."

The Dewey Decimal System or alphabetical order are not always the arrangements of choice for personal libraries. Ms. Vreeland's collection of fashion books was arranged by period; Mr. Rohatyn's histories of the American presidents were arranged chronologically. "Sometimes you DO alphabetize," says Mr. Thometz. "But sometimes you just make a sensibility out of the library. You have to ask yourself 'should American literature go with European literature?'

"It's just something you have a feel for: how many books for what kind of space and what kind of order they're going to go in."

When Mr. Thometz is called on a (book) case, the first thing he does is to weed out the paperbacks in a client's collection. If someone is moving from a larger apartment to a smaller one, Mr. Thometz may also weed out hard-cover classics that are readily available in paperback. "But I'll say 'Here you have a book that's seven or eight years old. It's appreciating in value. This one you can't get anymore. This you'll want to hold on to.

"Mr. Rohatyn had a whole wall of fiction which was quite tight and my suggestion -- he reads thrillers for entertainment like most businessmen -- was to weed them out. Thrillers get like comic books in time. You're probably not going to read them again. You've read the Second World War thriller. You know who won so the suspense is gone. I suggested Mr. Rohatyn build up his classics and weed out his trash.

"A personal librarian can help you with those decisions. A personal librarian can help you with your priorities."

But Mr. Thometz doesn't merely advise clients which books to put on their shelves; he also tells them which ones to remove. "I have no problem telling people to get rid of certain books," says Mr. Thometz, who charges $25-$30 an hour for services that include cataloguing titles, dismantling a library, packing it up, and reassembling it in new quarters. The list includes ANYTHING by Jacqueline Susann, plus all diet books, "Garfield" books, completed crossword puzzle books, any paperback unless it's unavailable in hard cover, and selfhelp books. "But," he adds, "there have been times when one of my clients says 'How to Win Friends and Influence People' changed his life and he wants to keep it. Or sometimes I'll weed out a book and it turns out my client knows the author and wants to have it around when he comes for dinner."

Margaret Bennett, head of Pro Libra, a home library organization in Englewood, N.J., would sooner doodle in the margins of a first edition than tell her clients to dump their Dale Carnegies. "People are usually very adamant about how they perceive their piece of the universe," she says. "We would never tell someone they should get rid of certain books."

Ms. Bennett, who has a degree in library science, says she has brought order to many personal, corporate and foundation libraries around the country since Pro Libra was established 12 years ago. "Usually a person who has a collection can keep his mind around it himself until it gets over 2,000 volumes," says Ms. Bennett, whose fees are negotiable and whose client list includes authors, socialites, scholars and philanthropists. "Then's when the SOS comes. But we've worked with collections of just a few hundred and have done a 30,000-volume home library."

"I think there's a big hidden market for personal librarians," says Fred Bass, owner of The Strand Bookstore, who has taken on that role for a former Philippine ambassador to Washington, a Texas millionaire, a socialite member of a family that owned a large newspaper chain, and a divorced bibliophile whose wife had gotten custody of the house -- and the library. "There are a lot of people who are interested in building up their collections and don't have the time or the knowledge to go about doing it. People put a lot of money into art and furniture collections, and books are comparatively cheap.

"If people don't have the personal shopper doing it they may never get to see the books. This way they'll have the books available to them when they have the time to read.

"Books do add a warm feeling to the place," adds Mr. Bass. "And believe it or not, by accident, some of these people may start to read."



Kurt Thometz got to the brownstone on 160th Street first, but a woman who designed lingerie came with more. "The underwear lady, she had $2 million in her purse, or so the broker told me," he said. "Maybe what that actually meant is that she didn't need a mortgage."

At that point, the ordinary arc of life in New York called for Mr. Thometz - a man so passionate about rare and obscure books that he has spent his life happily making a modest living trading in them - to forget the brownstone and hunt down a good-sized closet that he, wife, son and books could afford.

Off he wandered, finding nothing. One day, though, he passed the brownstone, still unsold. The underwear lady had gone away. He saw the woman of the house, Bun-Ching Lam, on the stoop.

"Your husband is a rare book dealer, and so am I," Mr. Thometz remembered saying.

"He is just home from Dusseldorf. You must meet him," she said.

Down the stairs came the husband, Gunnar Kaldewey, a maker of fine art books. Mr. Thometz gave him a copy of an acclaimed anthology of Eastern Nigerian market literature he had edited in 2001.

Over embossed endpapers, they bonded. "I'll entertain your bid for the house," Mr. Kaldewey told him.

Mr. Thometz went to the bank, but came back short of the asking price.

In that moment, love - ferocious, unmanageable, deliriously detached-from-all-reality love - conquered even the Manhattan real estate market.

"Gunnar gave us a second mortgage so I could do it," Mr. Thometz said. "That it is still a haven of books means a lot to him."

And so, in defiance of the end of reading and the printed word, in the teeth of the empire of chain stores that stretches to every corner of the retail world, the pilgrimage of Kurt Thometz has carried him from the grand salons of New York to his own bookshop on the northern tip of Harlem.

Mr. Thometz has tended the serious private libraries of Brooke Astor and Diana Vreeland, Leonard Lauder, Felix Rohatyn and various Newhouses, and others of such staggering wealth that an interior decorator could summon him to provide a collection with only one specification: "53 feet of books bound in forest green."

Now he presides at Jumel Terrace Books ( on the ground floor of his family's home at 426 West 160th Street. A sign on the window says, "Open by Invitation, Appointment, or Serendipity."

Mr. Thometz; his son, Adam; and his wife, Camilla Huey, a dress and costume maker, arrived on 160th Street in 2004 with 400 cartons of book, some 10,000 volumes. The specialty is local history and African and African-American literature.

They live down the street from the oldest house in Manhattan, the Morris-Jumel Mansion, where Washington, Jefferson and the Adamses dined; where a woman who grew up in a bordello became the wife of Aaron Burr, a courtesan without peer, and by dint of shrewd real estate dealings, one of wealthiest women in America. "Eliza Jumel is the grand horizontal story of all time," Mr. Thometz said.

Around the corner is 555 Edgecombe Avenue, home over the years to, among others, Count Basie, Joe Louis, Thurgood Marshall, Coleman Hawkins, Johnny Hodges, Lena Horne, Canada Lee. "It's one of the most intensely historical places in the United States," Mr. Thometz said. "It's the crossroads where the founding fathers met the founding brothers."

Mr. Thometz, 54, was born in "middle-state Minnesota," and came to New York in 1972. "I didn't go to college, I went to Book Row," he said, working at the Strand, University Place Bookstore and the Madison Avenue Bookshop.

He found additional work as the private librarian to rich people - some of them serious readers, some of them looking to furnish a room with eye candy.

"They didn't know what they were hiring me for, they just knew that Mrs. Vreeland told them to," Mr. Thometz said.

Some clients had very particular interests. At the request of a professional dominatrix, he said, he provided a set of the Marquis de Sade, bound in black leather with fetish strappings. "Butched out," Mr. Thometz said. "She was a Dante scholar as well."

Adam, a son from his first marriage, had autism, accompanied by its common side effect, divorced parents. Adam lived with Mr. Thometz and Ms. Huey in Brooklyn Heights when 9/11 sent them all into a tailspin.

"There was no call for what I did for a long time," he said. Two years later, they were bailed out: Ms. Huey got a call from Celine Dion, who needed costumes for a Las Vegas extravaganza, three shows a day, seven days a week, 30 dancers, with changes.

In the ground floor parlor on 160th Street, Mr. Thometz gives the tour: 18th century over there. On this shelf, slavery, many oral histories; sports, jazz, street literature, narcotics, black military history. Bound volumes of Muhammad Speaks. Vinyl records of speeches by Malcolm X and Eldridge Cleaver. A signed Langston Hughes volume. Bruce Davidson's photos of 100th Street. Mr. Thometz had a very good day last month at the Harlem Book Fair, when 40,000 people visited 135th Street.

THE passion for books survives. He has a story about that. By the age of 5, Adam had not yet spoken an intelligible word - not Mommy, not Daddy, not milk or no. Mr. Thometz read to him every night for two and a half years. With Adam in the crook of his arm, the weight of the day on him, Mr. Thometz was reading Thomas the Tank Engine for the 200th time.

"Henry the engine," he read.

"Green," Adam interrupted.

Yes: the proper name was Henry the Green engine. Mr. Thometz had dropped the word. "He supplied it," Mr. Thometz said. "It was the first time he had used a word on purpose." And it was the first rung on the ladder he climbed from his isolation. Today, Adam, 16, entertains friends, plays music, and is thriving.

And now, long after the summer days have given way to dusk, a glow spills from the ground-floor window of the brownstone on 160th Street. Four letters seem to float in the window, cutting a silhouette into the light from the bookshop beyond.

"WORD," it says.



Bravo! bills itself as "Canada's 24-hour NewStyleArtsChannel" and, according to press releases issued by CHUM, is "dedicated to entertaining, stimulating and enlightening viewers who have a taste for a more complex television."

The lineup has included Canadian-produced programs such as "Live at the Rehearsal Hall" (performance and interviews), "Culture Warriors" (interview), "Bravo!News", "Bravo! Bulletin Board," and "Arts and Minds," a show dedicated to an examination of the creative process.

Over the years (and especially at the outset) the independent Toronto production company Sleeping Giant has been responsible for developing programs for Bravo! Canada. The weekly schedule is organized around the themes of dance, music, drama, literature, cinema, great performances, and the visual arts.

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