By: Christa Vogelius, CLIR Postdoctoral Fellow
Editor’s Note: This is the first of three posts serializing an interview between Christa Vogelius, the CLIR Postdoctoral Fellow in the A.S. Williams collection, and Stephen Rowe, author of From a Love of History: The A.S. Williams III Americana Collection at the University of Alabama.
A little over two years after the public opening of the A.S. Williams III Collection on the third floor of Gorgas Library, the collection welcomes a broader audience with the publication of From a Love of History: The A.S. Williams III Americana Collection at the University of Alabama, by archivist and rare books dealer Stephen Rowe. From a Love of History—characterized by Rowe as a “semi-scholarly coffee-table book”— was released by the University of Alabama Press in September, and functions both as a richly-photographed guide through some of the highlights of the collection and as a tribute to A.S. (Steve) Williams, the man whose passion for history and scholarly generosity have made the collection possible. I had the opportunity earlier this fall to sit down with Rowe, who is also the longtime curator of Williams’ ongoing collection in Eufaula, Alabama. We talked about his years as a dealer and archivist for Williams, the writing of the book, and his plans for the future.
Rowe was born and raised in Richmond, Virginia, where he became interested in American history and rare books from an early age. Through his junior high school teacher, a “Real Daughter” (the daughter of a Confederate veteran), he gleaned stories of army life that provided a sense of the living history evident throughout Richmond. On boyhood trips to an antiquarian bookshop with his father, Rowe would often receive books about the Civil War, which were, as he says, “the genesis of my collection,” a modest library begun in high school and college.
In college and graduate school, Rowe gained the training that lead to a career in archives. At North Carolina State, he earned a B.A. with a concentration in American history, and then continued on in the masters program. As part of his graduate coursework, he completed a one-year practicum at the North Carolina State Department of Archives and History that included experience in both archival and records administration. This experience led to a position as an assistant archivist at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation in the fall of 1974, where he worked at the institutional repository to help to compile oral histories from the organization’s earliest employees. After several years at Williamsburg, he shifted his records management experience to the energy sector, first as a records administrator for the Virginia Electric and Power Company, then as a consultant in nuclear records management.
During these years, collecting and book dealing were serious side interests that eventually developed into a full-fledged career and a close association with Steve Williams. In 1974, Rowe began a small antiquarian book business as a way of building his own collection. By 1983, he had a clientele extensive enough to devote himself full time to the book trade, moving back to Raleigh to begin a mail order business. Shortly thereafter, in 1985, he was introduced by another bookseller to Steve Williams. Williams, an insurance agent and longtime collector, had up to that point been developing a collection focused primarily on Alabama history and presidential materials, but was interested in expanding into Civil War history. Rowe worked with Williams to acquire holdings, and they branched out to working together on other areas, including Southern travel accounts, manuscripts, and Civil War photography. “I would say that I just nurtured an interest that was already there,” says Rowe of the move into these photographic works, which would become a significant aspect of the collection. Between Rowe’s travels as a book dealer and Williams’ own network of rare bookshops, the collection grew rapidly, and Williams became Rowe’s “number one customer.”
Southern fiction and Southern travel narratives are major components of the collection that Rowe and Williams worked on together. As Rowe recalls it, in the mid-nineties Williams expressed an interest in building out a collection of Southern literature based on the two works that he then owned: a signed copy of Gone with the Wind and a first edition of To Kill a Mockingbird. Rowe put together an outline of collecting priorities, beginning with Edgar Allan Poe and working his way up to contemporaries like John Grisham. Following this plan, the two acquired an extensive collection of first editions, including strong holdings in William Faulkner, the Southern Fugitives and Agrarians, and Eudora Welty. Williams’ interest in this area was particularly well-timed: several major buyers in this field had recently stopped collecting, and “there was sort of a wasteland in Southern fiction,” which Rowe and Williams were able to take advantage of. “It got to the point when I would walk into a book fair, people would literally make a beeline for me and go, ‘You’ve got to come to my table, I’ve got some Allan Tate, I’ve got some James Boyd, I’ve got some stuff you need to see.’” This fortuitous timing resulted in an unusually rich collection that includes many first editions as well as some manuscript and photographic material. In building a collection of Southern travelogues, Williams and Rowe proceeded with a similar system, developing a want list of items from bibliographies and from a sense of whether, in Rowe’s words, “the book has any gravity.”
When in the late 1990s, Williams decided to move his collection from his home in Birmingham to his hometown of Eufaula, Alabama, Rowe was instrumental to the process. Williams’ collection, which he would call the Eufaula Athenaeum after the Boston Athenaeum, one of the United States’ oldest archives and museums, had by this time grown to the point that it merited an independent building. In 2000, he bought a building in Eufaula and spent the next two years or so refinishing the building to accommodate his collection. Then, over the course of the next year, Rowe and Williams made five separate moves from Birmingham, packing and unloading nearly all of the materials themselves. At 6500 square feet, the new Athenaeum allowed Williams the possibility of housing 30,000 books—and by the early 2000s, he had acquired around 22,000.
It was during this move that Williams and Rowe began to talk about the possibility of Rowe taking a more full-time role as curator for the collection, a position that Rowe has held for the past eight years. Though he continues to travel as a book dealer, Rowe’s duties at the Athenaeum include building the collection, curating exhibitions, and reaching out to the community. For the past several years, the Athenaeum has been on the Eufaula Tour of Homes, also known as the Pilgrimage, in April, and Rowe has also hosted meetings, held tours for interested parties, and done walk-throughs with local civic groups. As for the move from Raleigh to Eufaula, a town of about 15,000, Rowe touts the perks of small-town life, saying, “You can be on a first-name basis with the mayor and the chief of police, you can call your banker from a book fair somewhere and say ‘Joe, I’m writing a bad check, would you cover it for me?’ I can just see trying to do that in Raleigh.”