Ultimate honour

The four-storeyed building, completed in 1917, is an architectural gem and stands as a testament to the Beaux-Arts style characterised by grandiosity, classical elements, and meticulous attention to detail.
The Grolier Club on 47 East 60th Street in New York
The Grolier Club on 47 East 60th Street in New York

BENGALURU: Being inducted into the Grolier Club is the ultimate recognition of being a true bibliophile. You cannot simply sign up to join the club; you need to be recommended for membership and supported by three other members. The final step is an interview with the board members. Eventually, what matters is the strength of your bibliophilic activity!

The Grolier Club was one of many American organisations founded in the years of prosperity and optimism: museums and libraries, professional and patriotic societies, and fraternal and ethnic lodges. Reflecting the reformist spirit of the era, nine business and cultural leaders of New York City, who were collectors of books and prints, gathered on January 24, 1884 to start a club for the encouragement of ‘literary study and the arts of the book’. Their group was named after ‘The Prince of Bibliophiles’ Jean Grolier (1489/90 to 1565), the leading bibliophile of the Renaissance and a royal treasurer under four French kings.

When Nick Basbanes asked me whether I would be interested in joining the club of around 820 active members (and a total of around 3,000 since its founding), I was not sure whether I was worthy of being in the company of some of the bibliophilic legends such as J Pierpont Morgan (American financier and banker), William Henry Huntington (American railroad magnate), and Henry Clay Forger (Founder of Folger Shakespeare Library).

Once I became a member, I could hardly wait to visit the Club on 47 East 60th Street in New York (between Park and Madison Avenues, in Manhattan’s affluent Upper East Side). I went there on February 26, 2024, as excited as a kid in a candy store. The four-storeyed building, completed in 1917, is an architectural gem and stands as a testament to the Beaux-Arts style characterised by grandiosity, classical elements, and meticulous attention to detail.

Exhibits at the Grolier Club
Exhibits at the Grolier Club

A stunning interior greets entrants to the building. The main hall boasts high ceilings, polished marble floors, and rich wood panelling. The walls are lined with bookcases filled with rare and valuable volumes that showcase the club’s extensive collection.

On the day of my visit, I was able to view an exhibition of ‘Judging a Book by its Cover: Bookbindings from the Collections of The Grolier Club, 1470s – 2020’. It was a stunning exhibition of eight cabinets of books, carefully categorised by era, showing the gradual evolution of bookbinding. The book Judging a Book By its Cover: Bookbindings from the Collection of Grolier Club by H George Fletcher is a gorgeous catalogue of the exhibition. The library on the second floor has around 1,00,000 books open to the community of scholars and bibliophiles (by appointment).

The club allows new members to exhibit three books from their collection at the annual New Members Collect exhibition which is open to the public from May 30 to July 27 this year. It was a proud moment for me to share Gandhi’s signed Mahatma Gandhi’s Ideas, Don Bradman’s signed Farewell to Cricket and Tagore’s signed The Golden Book of Tagore.

To have survived almost 140 years, especially in the age of rapid digitisation is a testimony to the commitment of its members and their genuine bibliophilia. At a time when print books and bookstores are on the decline, the goal now is to recruit newer, younger and diverse members.  

The Grolier Club has been the mainstay of book-collecting in the US, giving structure and direction to a movement that values books not only as vessels of knowledge but also as physical objects. It has been remarkably successful in achieving its mission: to nurture an enthusiasm for books and the book arts in the face of increasingly pervasive ‘information technologies’, and to offer to the general public the discoveries and treasures brought to light by the serious business of collecting. I am grateful to have been a speck in the spangled history of the Grolier Club!

(The writer’s views are personal)

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