The Grolier Club is a private club and society of bibliophiles in New York City. Founded in January 1884, it is the oldest existing bibliophilic club in North America.
On the cold evening of January 23, 1884 eight gentlemen arrived at 11 East 36th Street, the residence of Robert Hoe. Hoe owned the world’s largest printing press manufacturing company. That night the assemblage of highly-educated men formed the Grolier Club. Each of the members was a connoisseur of “book arts.” Each felt that the arts of printing and typography in America were in serious decline.
The name of the club was inspired by Jean Grolier de Servieres, who served in the royal French courts during the 16th century. Favoured by King Louis XII, Grolier acquired an enormous collection of books in grand libraries. His position as a treasurer provided convenient opportunities to get literature and other publications from France, Italy and other wealthy European nations. Many historians believe that Grolier had one of the most diverse and magnificent libraries of his time.
Although the membership later included men from other professions – bankers and lawyers, for instance – most were publishers and printers. Whitelaw Reid was the editor of The New York Tribune, William Laffan published The New York Sun, Theodore De Vinne of De Vinne Press on Lafayette Street was perhaps the foremost printer in the country. Other members were involved in major publishing houses such as Schribner, Harper, and Appleton. Harry Elkins Widener, the wealthy young bibliophile whose early death in sinking of the RMS Titanic inspired his mother to construct Harvard's Harry Elkins Widener Memorial Library, had been a member.
Initially members met on Thursday nights in rented rooms in the Mott Memorial Hall at 64 Madison Avenue. Reid’s paper, The New York Tribune, said “They talk of books and nothing but books – editions, dates, printers, bookbinders, illustrations, book plates, autographs.” For outsiders their weekly discussions would have surely induced sound sleep.
Six years later the club had grown and a permanent clubhouse was necessary.
Architect Charles W. Romeyn designed a unique Romanesque Revival house at 29 East 32nd Street built of tan Roman brick and contrasting red sandstone. Bold stone arches defined the first floor ornamented by carved stone with Celtic-type basketweave designs. The second floor was dominated by a great arched window, mirroring the shape of the arches directly below, while on the third floor a wide run of four side-by-side windows allowed sunlight to pour in.
The club was not an all-male refuge, however. Women, too, discussed their passion of books. Monthly exhibitions were staged at the Club. Despite its impressive building, steady growth in membership and programs had forced the Club to relocate and build its current home in the ritzy Upper East Side. The beautiful neo-Georgian townhouse on East 60th Street was designed by Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue, a club member, in 1917.
As an exclusive society, much of the Grolier Club is open only to members. However, anyone with a demonstrated need to consult its world-renowned collections may make an appointment to use the Library.
The Grolier Club Library collections includes books, prints, historic letters, archives and manuscripts pertaining to the design, production, sale, and collecting of books from various eras in European and American history. Some of the earliest works can be traced back to the Middle Ages and Renaissance. The Grolier Club's core collection includes bookseller and book auction catalogues that were quite popular from the 17th through 20th centuries.
The unifying theme of this 200,000-volume repository is books about books—author and subject bibliographies (including many rare and early examples), histories of printing, publishing and collecting.
The two handsome rooms of the Exhibition Hall and the Library express the two poles of the Grolier Club’s collective experience: bringing together, preserving and studying books of significance; and sharing them both among members and with a wider public.
Address: 47 East 60th Street. New York, NY 10022