William Sherman Reese (1955-2018)

With Bill’s passing on June 4th, the world of rare books lost a remarkable man, widely respected as the greatest antiquarian bookseller of a generation. Notices in the New York Times and on the websites of the ABAA and the Beinecke Library have recounted his remarkable career. Collectors and fellow bookdealers have written of his sterling character and his charismatic charm. As one wrote to me, he was “a man of integrity and intelligence, a rarity in any field.”

In accepting election to AAS membership at the age of twenty-five, Bill wrote “I am deeply sensible of the honor the American Antiquarian Society has paid me… The study of American books, prints, and decorative arts has been the guiding passion of my life and the center of my closest friendships and interests. No more signal recognition exists than the notice of the Society.” And from that day until his last, Bill repaid the honor by working tirelessly to make this venerable institution even better. In October 2017, we bestowed upon him the Society’s highest honor—the Christopher Columbus Baldwin Award—in recognition of this exemplary service. Bill helped us build the collections: giving choice items from his stock, encouraging gifts from collectors and other dealers, keeping replenished a fund for transporting shipments of newspapers offered to the Society by other institutions. He generously contributed to our causes, large and small: pitching in to help us buy our first fax machine in 1990, bankrolling each year our “cataloging camp” project and research fellowships in book history, giving unstintingly to the campaign for our current building project. And, perhaps most importantly, Bill promoted awareness of AAS and advocated for its support throughout the book world. As I look down the list of AAS members today, I count more than 150 collectors, dealers, and librarians who would readily identify themselves as a “Friend of Bill’s.”

And it is as an “FOB” that I offer my personal tribute to him. Bill was first elected to the AAS Council in 1992, just as I was taking office as president, a newcomer to the institution with which he was intimately familiar. While deeply committed to the traditional mission of the Society, Bill eagerly embraced our outreach efforts, encouraged our digital initiatives, and generally supported my “bright ideas” (reserving the right to sprinkle cold water on any he felt ill-advised). Although incredibly busy himself, Bill made time for my calls, was always willing to make another trip to Worcester (he claimed he knew every inch of the 100-mile journey by heart), ever willing to work through any problem with me, ever mindful of the invisible line that good boards maintain in their work with staff. Often when the issue at hand was minor, I could solve it by merely asking myself, “Would Bill approve of what you are about to do?” But I so relished those times when he and I could talk instead, especially when Bill was in a story-telling frame of mind. He loved telling tales about rare books and the people who buy and sell them; and I loved listening, even (perhaps especially) to the great ones I’d heard before.

I admired Bill for his dedication to the craft of bookselling, stood in awe of his prodigious knowledge, and simply enjoyed his company—hanging out at bookfairs, bopping around the backroads of Worcester County as we scouted locations for a Walpole Society visit, eating crab cakes at Bill and Dorothy’s Maryland farm, sharing the excitement of being at the White House when AAS received the National Humanities Medal. Bill was such a positive person; I know he would want me to remember those happy times rather than dwell on the profound loss I feel at his untimely death.

The legacy Bill has left to the Society is a tremendous one. He inspired us to take on big challenges—such as the $20 million construction project in which we are currently engaged—and supported us in every way he could. Having personally contributed $750,000 to the endeavor, Bill and his wife, Dorothy Hurt, decided that gifts made in his memory should be directed to AAS to help us achieve our campaign goal. It is but another way the Society has been enriched and honored by this extraordinary man and faithful friend, who I would describe—like many of the books he sold—as a “great rarity, the only copy known.” Godspeed, Bill.

Ellen S. Dunlap
AAS President


Left: July 2014 with the Obamas, Ellen, and AAS chair Sid Lapidus (White House photographer)
Right: November 2013 at the Boston Antiquarian Book Fair (photo by Lisa Baskin)

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