A Sterling Character

A Sterling Character
(Notice he is reading Genius by Patrick Dennis.)

I hadn’t forgotten Sterling Lanier. Nor, then, had I thought of him for many years.

But when I visited the 2018 ABAA International NYC Antiquarian Book Fair and was walking down an aisle browsing the amazing offerings in every booth, I was arrested mid-stride by the sight of some small brass figures.

“I know those!”

Sterling was one of those larger-than-life characters who, when you are in their presence, command attention.

His first visit to my very young bookstore likely went something like this:

“My dear fellow! Do you have any Craig Kennedy mysteries by Arthur Reeve?!”

His tone was as much demanding as it was inquiring. He was a dapper man. He usually wore a blue blazer. Sometimes a sailing captain’s hat. He often put a monocle to his eye. He carried a narrow ebony cane.

“Why, yes. Yes, I do.”

Boy, did I. I’d had a set of the old battered things for…well, it seemed like since the day I opened likely 5 years before.

I’d never heard of the guy when I’d acquired them. Neither Arthur Reeve nor Craig Kennedy*. No one had ever asked for him. The books languished on a top shelf collecting dust.

I led the gentleman to the correct aisle and pointed up at the clay brown uniform short octavo buckram bound tomes above us.

“Would you like me to get them down for you?”

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* Kennedy is a scientist detective at Columbia University similar to Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Thorndyke. He uses his knowledge of chemistry and psychoanalysis to solve cases, and uses exotic (at the time) devices in his work such as lie detectors, gyroscopes, and portable seismographs.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Craig_Kennedy

“Certainly not! I will help myself.”

There was a desk chair on wheels nearby, and he rolled it over and began to clamber atop it.

“DANGER! ACCIDENT! LAWSUIT!” were the alarms that went off in my mind.

“Let me get you a ladder.”

“Won’t hear of it!” was his reply.

He was already stretching to the top shelf 8 feet above. The seat was trying to rotate, and the wheels seemed anxious to go somewhere on their own.

“Be a good lad and take these as I hand them down to you.”

And I did.

We walked up to small wooden sales counter and I set the set atop it.

“What do you require for those?”

I peeked inside. In those days the prices were penciled onto the upper right-hand corner of the front free endpaper. Beneath the price there was a single letter. That letter was a date code. My mentor Carl Sickles had taught me that every book should have one so I would know how long the book had been in stock. The first secret code was: GALSWORTHY

G 1
A 2
L 3
S 4
W 5
O 6
R 7
T 8
H 9
Y 10

Ten different letters. The letter would change every 6 months. So a “G” would stand for a book I’d acquired in my first 6 months of operation.

GALSWORTHY would last 5 years.

After that I came up with “BUCKINGHAM.” But in a few years, we switched to mostly price stickers except on valuable books. So I don’t think we ever got to the second “G” much less “H” or “A.” I hope we didn’t have many books that had languished on the shelves for 8 or 9 years back then.

I suppose the Reeve/Kennedys were probably pencil priced at something like “$3.50 A.” So that told me they’d been around several years.

I quickly calculated 20% off.

“2.80.”

“Sold!” he said. “But I can’t take them all today. I will pick three out and ask you hold the rest.”

Thus began my relationship with one of those memorable characters whom the mind can bring back vividly although you haven’t seen him in 25 years or so.

He became a very regular customer. Very. He liked to come in and hang out.

He regaled me with stories of himself and other authors.

He would also regale anyone appearing bookish who wandered into one of his “pet” categories—Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Mystery, Vintage Fiction.

“I was an editor at Chilton. You know them, right? Car repair guides and how-to books. How I GOT there is a long story. Well, I had read this serialized story in Analog magazine, and I thought it would be a great book. I went to the editors and pitched the book. I kept pitching until they became so annoyed they decided to publish it! It did not turn out well for me though.”*

* He was with Chilton in 1965, when he was instrumental in persuading the firm to publish Frank Herbert’s Dune. Having read “Dune World” in Analog magazine, he was responsible for tracking down the author and conveying Chilton’s offer. More than twenty other publishing companies had already turned the book down. Despite Lanier’s brilliant insight on the worth of the book, he was dismissed from Chilton a year later because of high publication costs and poor initial book sales.

(Excerpt from A Parker’s Books’ listing below)

We had a nice first edition copy of Dune appear in the warehouse just prior to last week’s book story. That is what triggered my Sterling memories and this story. We priced it at $3000.00.

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Of course, Dune went on to become the bestselling Science Fiction novel of all time. Herbert went on to write a number of other books in the Dune series. It became a “franchise”—TV Miniseries, Hollywood movie, games, graphic novels…

I got to meet Herbert at an American Booksellers’ Convention. He was autographing proofs of one the sequels in a booth. Likely Chapterhouse: Dune. One of the sales reps took a Polaroid photo of us. Herbert said:

“Smile. It’s the Frank and Chuck show.”

The rep slipped the Polaroid into a little paperboard holder with a window cut into it. Herbert signed it: “The Frank and Chuck show.”

I opened the little folder a few minutes later as I was wandered down one of the dozens of aisles of book booths. Two faces were developing. One very young. The other looking quite old and haggard. He was actually quite ill and died not long after at age 65.

I know I put that photo somewhere “safe.” I hope I come across it again sometime if I ever wade through the massive Wonder Book Archives.

Sterling always had stories. Not all of them were nice. Author Barbara Mertz (a.k.a. Elizabeth Peters and Barbara Michaels) was also an early customer. I introduced them one time when they both happened to be in the store. He was quite cool with her. She was always warm and gregarious with everyone.

Sometime later he confided:

“She is just a writer of Gothic romances even though she is an archeologist.”

He may have even “harumphed” a couple times.

There may have been some professional as well authorly jealousy between this Harvard educated archeologist and Barbara who had a University of Chicago/Oriental Institute PhD in Egyptology. Her first Amelia Peabody novel, Crocodile on the Sandbank, had appeared in 1975. She was to eventually write 19 more. The series became hugely successful bestsellers.

In July 2017, Wonder Book Frederick was one of three launch sites (the others being NYC and Chicago) for The Painted Queen. That was Barbara’s last Amelia book which her good friend Joan Hess completed for her posthumously.

Sterling would often hand out his business card to customers in the store. I wish I could find an original. It was quite humorous. If memory serves, it showed a very dapper gentleman like you would see on The Saint (by Leslie Charteris) covers. With some witticisms about “No Credit, Spending My Kids Inheritance…” Kind of like this:

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And Sterling certainly cut a figure (and often a pose) like this. What the image above doesn’t show is his pencil-thin mustache.

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As far as striking a pose…on more than one occasion he unsheathed his sword cane. He carried it more as a swagger stick than a functional cane. He would parry and thrust the shining steel around the small sales area at the front of the store sending me and any customers that might about ducking for cover.

One visit in early winter he took me aside. His tone was not blustery for a change. He seemed kind of sad and sorrowful.

“My dear fellow, would you be willing to let me work here a couple hours every few days? This time of year gets me down, and I need something to keep my occupied.”

Thus began Sterling Lanier’s irregular employment at Wonder Book. It wasn’t much money, and he would make a point of cashing his paycheck at the store and using it to pick up books he had on hold.

He ALWAYS had books on hold. Often several boxes at a time.

He didn’t really “work” there. Oh, he might go and shelve a few books now and then, but mostly he would engage and regale any customer willing to listen. Or browse the stacks for things he might have missed for himself.

Once he spoke of his correspondence with Tolkien and showed one that had been included in The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien.

I was impressed!

He discussed his award winning miniature bronze sculptures of cryptozoologic or prehistoric creatures as well as fantastic literary characters.

After a couple hours of “work,” he would tire (i.e. become bored) and insist on taking me to lunch at the venerable Barbara Fritchie* Restaurant which was right next door to the little strip center that Wonder Book was in.

* Barbara Fritchie was, of course, the heroine of the eponymous poem by John Greenleaf Whittier. She may (or may not) have chastised the Confederate troops invading Frederick Maryland by calling from her bedroom window:
“Shoot if you must this old gray head but spare the flag of your country!” https://www.bartleby.com/270/13/443.html

We would sit across from one another in a booth with a gleaming gaudy colored formica table rimmed with stainless steel between us. We would discuss books and authors and animals (I was a Zoology major in college and could hold my own pretty well.) The waitresses who all seemed to have been there since the 60s would appear in salmon pink dress with white piping and short white aprons. They all wore their hair piled high atop their heads like it WAS still the 1960s.

We would always order the homemade soup and a slice of one of their homemade pies. I almost always opted for the chicken noodle. The noodles were quite unusual—they were about a quarter inch thick and a quarter inch wide. The pie? I usually chose cherry pie.

Once I recall he was very pleased with our conversation and lunch. I think I had shocked him with my knowledge of cartilaginous fish (Chondrichthyes—sharks, skates, etc.)

“My dear fellow! Bravo. Here, I have something for you!”

He reached across the table with his hand clenched into a fist. He clearly meant for me to put my hand out. He dropped one of his little sculptures into my palm.

I was delighted! It was a Nazgul from The Lord of the Rings.

From that day forward, I tried my best to be an entertaining and enlightened lunch guest. The sculptures were few and far between.

He gave me a dozen or so over a few years, and I treasure them still.

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When spring came, he would resign his position and become just a customer again. He didn’t spend much less time in store as a civilian. Oh, and the sword appeared more often when he was unemployed.

Without a pay check, the stacks of his books on hold grew and grew. I began extending him credit or taking books in trade. The books he brought were virtually unsellable. But then so were many of the books he had on hold. I was trading bad for bad…and that wasn’t too bad because I liked him. I liked him as a friend. And I liked the panache and joie de vivre he lent to the little old Frederick bookstore.

And when I came across any of his old books, he would warmly inscribe them to me.

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Come the next winter, he would start the same conversation. He needed work just to get out of the house. I guess it was a seasonal affective disorder of some kind.

Then he became addicted to a particular kind of sweepstakes scam later on. He would come in with an envelope and form letter telling him he had advanced to the next level on the way to a grand prize. All he needed to do was send… Then he would be “awarded” the next level and so on… There was no talking him out of it. He was sure he would be a winner come the next letter.

The hiring cycle continued for 4 or 5 years.

Sometime in the very late 80s, he told me he was moving to Florida. That would certainly cure the wintertime blues.

From Florida, he sent me letters occasionally. He wrote the words out in ballpoint. He wrote them in the margins and in any blank spaces he could fit them on…sweepstakes solicitation forms.

I stopped hearing from him sometime in the mid 90s.

And what were the lots that stopped me in my tracks at the 2018 NY International Antiquarian Book Fair? One was a framed manuscript letter from Tolkien to Lanier. The other was a set of 9 Lord of the Rings bronze figures Lanier had kept for himself.

I was very tempted…but…here are the listings for them from A Parker’s Books in Florida:

J. R. R. TOLKIEN, AUTOGRAPH LETTER SIGNED TO STERLING LANIER

Sterling Edmund Lanier (December 18, 1927 – June 28, 2007) was an American editor, science fiction author and sculptor. He is perhaps known best as the editor who championed the publication of Frank Herbert’s bestselling novel Dune.

Lanier’s career as an author and editor began during 1961, when his first short story was published and he became an editor for Chilton Books. He was with Chilton in 1965, when he was instrumental in persuading the firm to publish Frank Herbert’s Dune. Having read “Dune World” in Analog magazine, he was responsible for tracking down the author and conveying Chilton’s offer. More than twenty other publishing companies had already turned the book down. Despite Lanier’s brilliant insight on the worth of the book, he was dismissed from Chilton a year later because of high publication costs and poor initial book sales. Lanier also worked as an editor for the John C. Winston Company and McRae-Smith.

Around 1965, Lanier sent Tolkien a copy of Dune, as well as a set of nine bronze miniature figurines Lanier had sculpted based on characters from The Lord of the Rings. The two corresponded back and forth over the next year, discussing matters such as Tolkien’s fight for royalties from Ace for its infamous “pirate” edition of The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien renewed the correspondence in 1972, after finding an old letter from Lanier among his things after unpacking from a move.

An interesting piece of correspondence from one of the giants of fantasy to another important figure in speculative fiction.

[I think that lot was about $15,000.00.]

PLUS

SET OF NINE BRONZE “LORD OF THE RINGS” FIGURINES BY STERLING LANIER.

ONE OF ONLY THREE SETS.

Sterling Edmund Lanier (December 18, 1927 – June 28, 2007) was an American editor, science fiction author and sculptor. He is perhaps known best as the editor who championed the publication of Frank Herbert’s bestselling novel Dune; his sculptures have been exhibited in the Smithsonian and other venues.

Lanier specialized in miniatures, among which were a series featuring nine characters from J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. He sent one set to Tolkien. In Feb. 1965, Mrs. Tolkien wrote to Lanier to thank him, on behalf of her husband, for the figurines he had sent. At the end of the year, Tolkien himself wrote Lanier that Ace Books was offering to discuss terms of royalties for the infamous “pirate edition” of The Lord of the Rings. In the letter, Tolkien expresses his hope that Lanier’s work on the figurines goes to his satisfaction. On Feb. 14, 1966, Tolkien wrote Lanier to express satisfaction with a royalty deal struck with Ace Books and to thank him for his help in the matter.

After the death of Tolkien’s wife in 1971, Tolkien wrote Lanier in 1972 to thank him for the full set of the figurines, having found an old letter from Lanier among his papers. Tolkien said of the figurines, “I prize them, and they have been much admired.” (An amusing passage from this letter is quoted in The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien.) The following year, Tolkien wrote to Lanier, “With regard to your marketing of sets of your figures: I can only say that I myself am perfectly willing that you should market these as ‘approved’ by me. Not only are they in a wholly different class to many things that are often marketed without my permission, but also we have special relations of friendship. The representative of my publisher is visiting me tomorrow and I will discuss this with her and if Allen and Unwin have no objection I will write to you again.” Then in a letter dated Feb. 9, 1973, Tolkien writes, “I have sent your letter on to Messrs. Allen & Unwin, asking them to explain the copyright situation.”

For whatever reason, Lanier never pursued marketing his Lord of the Rings figurines and completed only three sets. One set was sent to Tolkien. He kept the other two.

From his Sarasota Herald Tribune obit: “His sculptures included his vision of the characters from The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R Tolkien. Mr. Lanier depended upon his own imagination for the characters, which were only slightly described in the trilogy published in 1953-1954. Mr. Tolkien accepted and admired a set of the sculptures but, through his advisers, he said that they could not be made commercially available. When The Lord of the Rings became a movie in 2001, the on-screen characters amazingly resembled Mr. Lanier’s sculptural portrayals. Mr. Tolkien had died in 1973, and so Mr. Lanier was seemingly free to market his creations. But he refrained, honoring what he believed to be Mr. Tolkien’s wishes.”

Nine bronze figures imagined from THE LORD OF THE RINGS and sculpted by Sterling Lanier.

$ 7,500—the set.

And yes, both lots sold the very first day.

If you want to learn a little more about Sterling, here is his Wikipedia page:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sterling_E._Lanier

These are some of my inscribed books from Sterling

8 Comments on Article

  1. Tobi Drabczyk commented on

    He sounds like a delightful man! I wish I could have met him. How wonderful that you have the sculptures he gave you.

    1. Chuck replied on

      He was !
      I never get rid of anything – sometimes I just can’t find stuff.
      Thus … the warehouse.
      Thanks for reading and commenting Tobi.
      Best
      Chuck

  2. Michael Dirda commented on

    As I wrote a few days back, I was once on a panel with Lanier at a DC science fiction conventino. He quite overwhelmed all of us. The two volumes of his Brigadier Ffellowes stories are old favorites of mine. I’m fairly sure my friend David Streitfeld first told me about the stories and I think David may have written about Lanier for the old Book Report column. In those days, I was leery about asking writers to sign their books, partly because I wasn’t just a fan but a possible reviewer of their work and doing so would lead to a perceived conflict of interest. Still I wish I’d asked Lanier. The Peculiar Exploits of Brigadier Ffellowes has become a pricey book in nice condition.
    Needless to say, Chuck, this is a delightful column. And a zoology major–you are a man of many parts.

    1. Chuck replied on

      Thanks for inspiring the story Michael.
      I’ll clean it up a bit when I return from Madrid.
      Those photos were laid into one of the books so he must have given them to me.
      I was Pre Med in college but changed course my senior year(s). My Dad died suddenly the summer after Junior year. So, I had enough courses to major in zoology and English.
      Having such scattered learning has helped me as a generalist bookseller.
      Best
      Chuck

  3. Bill commented on

    I have a lion piece. Looks like a pendant?? Does anyone have any info? Its signed Sterling Lanier on the back.
    Thanks for any info. I have photos.

    1. Chuck Roberts replied on

      Hi Bill. I’m sure it is one of his. Are you sure it isn’t a Saber Tooth Tiger or something prehistoric?
      I have no idea what they are worth. Maybe there are records on eBay. Let me know what you find out!
      Chuck

  4. Sandra Miesel commented on

    Thank you for these charming memoirs. I knew Sterling Lanier when I was active in the science fiction field. We met at the launch of Apollo 17, the last moonshot. “Dapper” is an understatement.

    My family has a number of his miniatures: the silver Mole, dinosaurs and megafauna, the rabble-rousing rat, and a ghoul gnawing on a bone.

    A complete set of his Wind in the Willows figurines are currently on eBay for $2400. Would that I’d bought the lot when they were new.

    1. Chuck replied on

      Wow! That is great to know. I had no idea there was a market for them. I’m glad I have mine and have no intention to part with them.

      “Sterling” made a fictional reappearance in the newest Blog – Round and Round Part 5 …

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