Michael R. Thompson
January 8, 1940-August 10, 2018
by Bruce Whiteman, Clark Head Librarian Emeritus
Michael Thompson, the Los Angeles-based antiquarian bookseller, died recently at seventy-eight. Michael had been in poor health for some time. All the same, his death came as a shock, to me and to his many friends and colleagues. Others will write Michael’s life story more knowledgeably than I–how he followed in Jake Zeitlin’s footsteps from Texas (where he studied philosophy) to California, worked for Jake to learn the rare book business, and then established his own firm, with his wife Kathleen (who died in 2017) and their partner, Carol Sandberg–so I want to remember him here more for our friendship and for his relationship with the Clark Library.
When I came to Los Angeles as the newly appointed Head Librarian at the Clark in 1996, some of my first ports of call were the local antiquarian bookshops, of which the Thompson store on West 3rd Street was the first, luckily for me. “The Thompsons” (which always meant Michael, Kathleen, and Carol) expressed some surprise at seeing a librarian in their shop (I got that reaction all over town, and elsewhere too), but we took to each other and became fast friends from the outset. I had a lot to learn and they were more than willing to help, since I had come not just from another library but another country and culture. I remember Michael taking me through the list of members of the Southern California Chapter of the ABAA (the Antiquarian Booksellers Association of America) and his commenting on each, who they were, what kind of books they stocked, which ones would have books for the Clark, all in a sometimes wry and funny but always helpful and objective way. I didn’t buy any books on that first visit–I wasn’t even yet officially the Clark Head Librarian–but it was the first of many visits to the store, and the beginning of a friendship which still continues, though (alas) by long distance mostly.
Eventually we settled into a regular weekly lunch. I would show up around noon, look at the books that had been set aside for the Clark’s possible purchase, winnow the pile with a good deal of laughter and commentary from all of us (Is every rare book in the world really priced at $950?, I once asked with as straight a face as I could muster), after which we would have some wine and eat lunch, gossip about the trade, exchange bits and pieces of book lore, and conclude at mid-afternoon. Those lunches represent some of my most precious experiences and memories as a librarian. Even when he was grumpy–he sometimes was–Michael always seemed to enjoy the back-and-forth that selling and buying interesting books provoked. I learned a tremendous amount from him (and Kathleen and Carol), and the Clark benefitted enormously from his constant vigilance, the eye he always kept out for a book that would fit the library’s collecting mandate. Over my years at the Clark (1996-2010), I’d guess we acquired hundreds of books from Michael R. Thompson Medium Rare Books, as he liked to call the business when he was in a better and more playful mood. He also worked hard for us to get gifts, encouraging (for example) the Weinsteins, Ben and Lou, to donate both their company archive and their spectacular reference collection to the Clark when they wound up the Heritage Book Shop on Melrose Boulevard in 2007. (The firm continues under Ben’s stewardship to this day.)
And then there was Caraccioli. Louis-Antoine Caraccioli (1719-1803) was a French counter-Enlightenment writer whom one of us–me, I suppose, though my memory is vague–fastened on as a good figure to build a collection around, once the Clark started to collect European books in the period before 1800 with Peter Reill’s blessing and encouragement. Caraccioli was fantastically productive on many different subjects, and his books were translated into many languages. He was also not particularly highly valued in the market. So with Michael and Carol’s help, the Clark was able to form perhaps the best collection of Caraccioli’s books in the United States. Carol even found us an autograph letter. I used to joke with the Thompsons that they had a plant somewhere that was forging Caraccioli books, so plentiful were they (until they weren’t). It was great fun to work on that collection, and someday a scholar will be profoundly happy to delve into the Clark’s holdings.
Michael loved the Clark Library and said so often. He loved the building, he loved the grounds, and of course he loved the books and being an intimate part of making the collection grow in interesting and useful ways for scholars. He also loved the music. “The Thompsons” supported Chamber Music at the Clark and for years were always in those Sunday afternoon audiences when classical music drifted through the Drawing Room and beyond. In some ways, I miss that more even than the books. Michael especially liked Beethoven; and although he might grumble if the repertoire strayed too far into the twentieth century (“Shostakovich again!”), he was usually game for whatever music was being performed.
Michael was my best friend in the book trade. I know that, when I left the Clark to follow a new path in my life, he was disappointed–more than disappointed, maybe, maybe even heartsick–and I won’t ever forget the crestfallen look on his face when I broke the news at one of our lunches. But he supported me anyway, even if he found it hard to understand how I could leave all “that” (gesturing metaphorically and grandly to 2520 Cimarron Street) for what I was heading off to live–a very different life. We remained friends even after I left Los Angeles, and his support of the Clark never wavered. Staunch friend, I will always miss you.