John P. Gach

The bibliophile and bookseller specialized in works on psychology, psychiatry and psychoanalysis

December 27, 2009|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com

John P. Gach, a bibliophile and a nationally known bookseller who specialized in rare books devoted to the human sciences, died of a heart attack Dec. 20 at his Randallstown home. He was 63.

Mr. Gach, the son of a carpenter and a homemaker, was born in New York City and raised in Pikesville.

After graduating from Loyola High School in 1964, he went to work as manager of Gordon's of Orleans Street, a now-closed Pikesville seafood house.

In the late 1960s, when he wasn't busy selling crab cakes, Mr. Gach fancied himself a struggling poet.

Mr. Gach, who did not attend college, spoke of his evolution as a used-book seller in an Evening Sun interview in 1972.

"I used to be in the seafood business. It must be obvious the preparation one gets there for the book business," he said.

Philip Lazarony, owner of a used-book store in the 3300 block of Greenmount Ave., offered the young man a job as a salesman.

When Mr. Gach replied that he preferred the life of the poet, Mr. Lazarony made him a deal he couldn't refuse.

He asked Mr. Gach whether he wanted to buy the store instead.

"And I did," said Mr. Gach in the 1972 interview, with financial assistance from his father, who put up half of the money for the store's purchase in 1968.

"I knew nothing about the used-book business. Which may have been a blessing. I had no preconceptions. In fact, I had no conceptions whatsoever. I was wide-eyed and innocent," he said.

Reflecting on those early days in a subsequent 1981 Evening Sun article, Mr. Gach described himself as a "total romantic" when he entered into the world of used books.

In those days, Mr. Gach, a chess fan, and his friends spent their days playing chess rather than selling books, which drove the elder Gach's blood pressure into the stratosphere.

"My father got so mad, somebody would get up to go to the bathroom and he would take their chair away," he said.

He later moved the business across the street to larger quarters at Greenmount and Venable avenues, and later, after he sold the store, it moved to the old Boulevard Theatre property at 33rd Street and Greenmount Avenue in the late 1980s.

"I've known John for more than 40 years. He was autodidact, and whenever I think of a bibliomaniac, his name comes up," said Johns Hopkins University humanities professor Richard A. Macksey, a devoted friend and customer.

"He could be both a specialist and a generalist, and many of his customers were wonderfully eccentric," Dr. Macksey said. "John had so many passions. In those early days, chess was one of them, and you practically had to beg him to get up and sell you a book. And then it was the piano. He taught himself how to play, and he wrote music."

The two men, who eventually became close friends, shared a proclivity for sitting up and reading into the wee hours.

"We were both night owls. John would give me a key to the store, and I'd go to the store at 3 a.m. and open boxes of books," Dr. Macksey said. "It was so exciting."

In the early years, Mr. Gach gained a national following after he began specializing in books by and about H. L. Mencken.

He later expanded his horizons to include African-American literature, science fiction and fantasy books, and became a leading dealer of first editions of Sigmund Freud.

Customers included not only book collectors, but libraries, colleges and the Library of Congress.

In 1972, Mr. Gach started a second business buying, selling and appraising collections and archives.

Six years later, he converted a personal interest in psychology, psychiatry and psychoanalysis into collecting books devoted to the subject and issued his first catalog in 1978.

An Evening Sun columnist wrote in 1994, that Mr. Gach had "built the business into one of Baltimore's most thriving and serious dens of musty paper and brittle bindings. Dealers, book collectors and librarians patronized the shop. It was also heavily patronized by Johns Hopkins University students and faculty members."

In a 1981 Sun article announcing the sale of the business to a Washington book dealer, Mr. Gach was described as the "ebullient Greenmount bibliophile."

"I just was not emotionally involved in the retail used-book trade," he said in the interview at the time. "I was not getting the books for them to sell, and the business ran down. I was the wrong person to own it."

After selling the business, he moved his collection of 10,000 books on psychiatry, psychology and psychoanalysis to his home in Columbia, and concentrated on locating and selling rare out-of-print books relating to this subject matter.

In the late 1980s, he added philosophy and neuroscience, and began issuing four catalogs a year, which are both in print and now online.

A decade ago, the business moved to its present quarters in Randallstown.

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