150 Years of Brockhaus / Antiquarium

What links the Brockhaus / Antiquarium and the Brockhaus Enzyklopädie, an encyclopedia found in nearly every German home and library during the 19th and 20th century? They have a common historical root. In 1805, Friedrich Arnold Brockhaus (1772-1823) founded a bookshop and publishing house in Amsterdam, which relocated to the important German publishing town of Leipzig in 1814. He bought the rights to a moribund and half-finished encyclopedia and revived it succesfully. Since then, 21 editions of this monumental work have appeared.

The firm expanded rapidly, and in 1827 an intermediate book distributor was added. In 1837 F. A. Brockhaus’s sons, Friedrich and Heinrich Brockhaus, bought an im- and export book shop. For a while, there was even a brach of this shop in Paris. As the selling of books was seen as a profitable business, it was decided to add an antiquarian book shop, which often complemented “new book” shops in the 19th century in Germany.

The 1st of January 1856 ist the official founding day of the “F. A. Brockhaus’ Sortiment und Antiquarium”. Collections of antique, precious, unusual and exotic objects and books were called “Antiquarium” in German from the Renaissance onward. And this is what the founders had in mind from the beginning: a treasury of rare and unusual books, manuscripts, of exotic and exeptional works of knowledge.

The mastermind behind these expansions and innovations was Heinrich Brockhaus (1804-1874). He had entered the family firm when 15, and was only 17 at his father’s death. He and his brother Friedrich, who preferred to remain in the background, led the firm into an era of unrivalled prominence and size. He was a free thinker, well-read and educated, liberal, generous and farsighted – one of the great publisher personalities of the the 19th century.

He got the Antiquarium off to a good start by engaging Paul Trömel as the first manager. Trömel (1832-1863) had begun as an apprentice in the distribution department and was entrusted with the new branch upon its foundation. He proved to be the very man for the job. Under his all too short leadership, the Antiquarium flourished. He published several catalogues, some of which are still works of reference, like the catalogue “Bibliotheque Américaine”, a list of 435 books of a library he had aquired in Amsterdam. He also compiled a list of Schiller’s library which is still used as a bibliography today.

Joined to the Antiquarium was an exporting department which also still exists “Brockhaus German Books”. It did and still does business with North and South America. Emperor Dom Pedro II even made Brockhaus the Imperial Supplier of Books to the court of Brazil.

After Paul Trömel had died, Hermann Ziegenbalg managed the Antiquarium for 27 years. Many catalogues on many subjects were published. They prove that Brockhaus / Antiquarium was a bookshop for scientists rather than bibliophiles. Catalogues with 4000 items were usual, and there were some that had nearly 9000 books in them! At that time there was also a general bookshop. The Antiquarium was staffed by a manager, 12 booksellers and 5 helpers.

Around the turn of the century, a trend towards selling antiquarian travel books set in. There is a story handed down on how this happened: The two managing directors of the firm at that time, Albert and Rudolf Brockhaus, were discussing the future of the antiquarian department in their noble office, when a small globe fell from one of the large bookcases onto Albert’s head. This was taken as a sign and from then on we specialised in geography and travel accounts. The reality is rather more prosaic. At that time, the publishing branch had begun to print the originals or translations of many of the most famous travellers of the day: Stanley, Nansen,  Hedin, Johnston, to name but a few. And of course the Antiquarium followed suit and began dealing in old and second-hand travel books.

The Great War came and went. In the 20ies, the Great Recession hit all firms equally hard. The bookshop and antiquarian department carried on in much reduced form. Then in 1933 the Nazis took over. Quite a few rare book sellers pledged themselves to the devil and made lots of money by selling “confiscated” book collections. There is no record of Brockhaus ever having done this. The whole firm was remarkably free of Nazis, even though the SS tried to take the whole firm over several times. On the 4th December 1943 there was a huge air-raid on Leipzig, and most of the city went up in flames. The Brockhaus premises were burned to the ground. It took three weeks for the fire to die down, due to the huge rolls of printing paper in stock. That was the end of the Antiquarium for the time being.

Wolfgang Brockhaus, who had been responsible for the Antiquarium, the exporting department and the book distribution department, returned from war captivity in 1947. He tried to restart that line of business, but this was nearly impossible under Soviet rule. In 1949 he re-located “his” part of the business to Stuttgart, while the publishing department went to Mannheim.

Starting anew in a half derelict building near the railway station, he began to rebuild the distribution business. When that was up and running, he turned to his main love – the old books. In 1956 the Antiquarium was re-founded, and issued its catalogue No. 1: Geographie. Many more followed, and we have now reached and passed No. 205: Wenn einer eine Reise tut … containing 840 books on all aspects of travel and geography.

After the war, Stuttgart was a centre of  the German rare and antiquarian book trade. And so it was only natural that a few Stuttgart dealers got together to found the Stuttgarter Antiquariatsmesse in 1961. This is, after London, which is a few years older, the oldest antiquarian book fair in Europe. It is still going strong, and will be celebrating it’s 50th anniversary in January 2011. Brockhaus  had a stand there from the start.

Wolfgang Brockhaus handed over his post as general manager to his son-in-law, Wolfgang Berg, in 1978. He still came in every day to supervise the Antiquarium. Every book that was bought had to be shown to him, and he would take his time over it. Then, when it was described, he would look at the description, correct or alter as few words or phrases in green pencil, and finally ask: “And what is the price?” If he did not like the answer, he would shake his head, mumble hmhmhm, and then he’d say: “If someone is looking for it, he’ll pay any price!” The most expensive books were kept in a huge old safe, the key to which he carried in his pocket. If a colleague bought one of these books, he’d again shake his head, mumble hmhmhm, and say: “Then it was to cheap”. On the 16th of December 1984 he died peacefully, having been in the shop the day before.

Wolfgang Brockhaus had insisted that a copy of  our catalogues was to go to every university library and every department of geography in the whole world, which meant that we sent out over 4000 catalogues five or six times a year. The aim was to publish one catalogue on each continent every year.

However, the times were changing rapidly. Public and university libraries had less and less funds. The public’s taste was changing, too. Fewer collectors wanted the text only, regardless of the condition of the book. Fewer and fewer scientists, in our case, geographers, were building or completing their own book collections. The time had come to cater to the bibliophile, the educated layman.

In 1982 I joined the firm, and by 1987 I was managing the antiquarian department, the Ant., as it is known internally. I had served a three year’s apprenticeship in Bonn, in an antiquarian bookshop specialising in archaeology. Then I had worked in London and in a Hamburg book auction house for several years. I noticed the changes going on, and decided to alter the concept of the catalogues. Till then, they had been listings of the books in stock, very short, with hardly any descriptive text. Illustrations were out of the question. We began to write longer descriptions, detailing the contents, condition and history of the books. We also began to illustrate the catalogues and to have distinctive covers for each one. This is standard practice nowadays, but was quite innovative for our slightly old-fashioned department then.

We bought fewer books, but better ones. And once in a while we would issue speciality catalogues like “Fahrendes Volk” – travelling folk, gypsies, pirates, strolling players, itinerants, vagrants of every kind. Then there was “The North American Indian”, our first catalogue issued in English. We collaborated with some colleagues to make 3 catalogues on the history of flying, one of them on space travel alone. And we continued to issue the continental catalogues.

In 1990 our first computer appeared, and it radically changed the way we worked. No more clattering typewriters, no more index cards all over the place. A change for someone who started off writing descriptions by hand on little cards! But this was as nothing to the changes wrought by the Internet.

Nowadays, we have most of our stock on the Internet, we have a homepage which also lists our stock, and we still publish catalogues. The trend seems to be turning. Collectors prefer the printed catalogues that they can leaf through in leisure. The want to be inspired by a description or a title. On the Internet you find what you are looking for, but in a catalogue you find what may interest you – that is the difference.

The whole firm relocated twice more since 1982, but is now housed in custom-built premises. The Antiquarium has its own little niche with a large, dark and airy stockroom. The department is now a one-man-show, thanks to a very efficient computer program and the fact that I don’t have to take care of packing, accounting and the other tedious tasks that take so much time. This is all handled for me by the “big” firm. The whole firm is still in the hands of the Brockhaus family.

And so the Brockhaus / Antiquarium changed in the last century and a half, but essentially it remains what it was: A place to buy unusual, rare and beautiful books on travel, history of travel, geography and ethnology.