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Book pile holds hidden gems

Unexpected historic and monetary value revealed in Lanterman collection.

July 06, 2011|By Joe Piasecki, joe.piasecki@latimes.com
  • Volume 4 of Writings of John Muir at Lanterman House in La Canada Flintridge on Tuesday, July 5, 2011. (Tim Berger/Staff Photographer)
Volume 4 of Writings of John Muir at Lanterman House in…

A vast collection of more than 1,000 old books that once cluttered the Lanterman House could be a lot more interesting — and valuable — than anyone previously imagined.

A first-edition copy of Mark Twain’s “Adventures of Tom Sawyer” and a book autographed by former President Richard Nixon were only the beginning.

Boxes and boxes of books that had belonged to former state Assemblyman Frank Lanterman, his brother Lloyd Lanterman and their parents, Dr. Roy and Emily Lanterman, sat piled in the home’s basement or at an off-site storage locker for years after Lloyd bequeathed the house and its contents to City Hall upon his death in 1987.

At that time, the 1915 concrete bungalow needed so much repair and restoration work that the Lanterman Historical Foundation’s imperative was to simply catalogue the books, protect them from the elements and get them out of the way, said Executive Director Melissa Patton.

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The books were recently moved to a secure, climate-controlled storage facility. Their existence popped up in public discussion last week when City Council members approved the storage facility expense, which for $100 per month includes storing additional papers from the vast Lanterman archive.

But were these books really worth saving, questioned Councilwoman Laura Olhasso.

For the most part, answered Patton, the collection was believed to contain antique, leather-bound books that appeared to serve a purpose more decorative than informative, and likely retained little interest for collectors today.

“That’s what you did in those days — show people you had a library and lined it with books. They belong to the city, and so it’s not our decision what to do with them,” Patton said.

That was enough to pique the interest of local rare book expert John Horrall, a former San Francisco newspaper editor who runs the online bookseller Bee Jay’s Treasures and Rare Books out of his La Cañada Flintridge home.

Horrall, 89, soon went to work reviewing a list of the titles in storage.

“At first glance, I thought it was just a bunch of stuff. There was a little bit of everything,” said Horrall, finding not only decorative volumes but treasured works of literature and non-fiction tomes on medicine, mathematics, government, gardening, card playing — even the oil business.

But, he said, “I certainly wouldn’t dismiss this as junk.”

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