Muir Dawson

Bookseller and printer
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The Independent Online

Muir Dawson, bookseller and printer: born Los Angeles 10 June 1921; married 1948 Agnes Cloud (one son); died Los Angeles 21 February 2005.

Muir Dawson was named after the great John Muir, pioneer of the trails of California, founder of the Sierra Club and the cause of environmentalism worldwide. With the name he inherited a love of open spaces, the wilder the better. From his father he inherited, with his brother Glen, a share of the family business, Dawson's Book Shop, which celebrates its centenary this year, the oldest bookstore in the West.

Ernest Dawson, his father, founded his bookshop in 1905 in downtown Los Angeles, issuing his first catalogue of second-hand books in 1907. The great San Francisco earthquake and fire in 1906 proved a boon; many of the devastated libraries needed to replenish their shelves, and Dawson was able to buy the books they needed, mainly in Europe, which (unusually then) he visited himself. Los Angeles, not the great conurbation it now is, was a growing market; as it grew, so did Dawson's.

Muir Dawson was the youngest of the family, born in 1921. The Second World War interrupted his education; after school, he had just gone to Pomona College, east of Los Angeles, when he was drafted into the army. Already familiar with the sierras in all weathers, he was a champion skier (he came first in the 1940 Mount San Antonio and Sun Valley racing championships), so soon became a ski instructor. During the war, he served in a mountain artillery battalion, first in the Aleutian Islands, then in the mountains of northern Italy, ending in Germany and France.

When, eventually, he got home, he went back to college, finishing his degree at Pomona. At the same time, he took the course in practical printing at Scripps College nearby, taught by Joseph Foster, who became a lifelong friend and mentor. He graduated in 1949, but had already joined the family firm two years earlier. His elder brother Glen had preceded him in 1936, building up the shop's speciality in books on the history and geography of California and the West. Muir chose the history and practice of printing, and made Dawson's a mecca for all who were interested in either.

Between them, the brothers extended the range of Dawson's, to a growing number of collectors in southern California, and to the equally large and growing number of institutional libraries. To UCLA in particular, where Lawrence Clark Powell was building up the rare book collection, Dawson's was invaluable, and an index of their catalogues was kept in the Powell Library. In 1968, Glen and Muir decided to move out of the old downtown shop, finding a site on Larchmont Boulevard, in east Hollywood, where they built highly original timber-frame premises, to which yet more visitors came.

Muir Dawson always kept a good stock of books on printing. In 1975 he was able to buy the wonderful collection of Jackson Burke, formerly director of typographic development at Merganthaler Linotype, and Dawson's catalogue of it has become itself a major reference work in the field. But people came to the shop just for the pleasure of talking to one so knowledgeable about the subject and yet so modest.

He was also much more than a hobby printer himself. He kept a well-equipped workshop in his home, perched on a cliff above Silver Lake, north of central Los Angeles, and everything he set and printed was done to the highest standard. The three great Los Angeles printers, Saul Marks, Ward Ritchie and Grant Dahlstrom, were his close friends, especially the last. He shared with Jackson Burke a love of Japanese prints and art generally, and had some fine examples of it.

Muir Dawson had a particular feeling for Thomas Bewick, the great 18th-century wood-engraver, some of whose blocks he owned and printed with skill. He recently wrote an excellent essay on the blocks that Bewick engraved for two schoolbooks, identifying his carefully hidden signature on them. He also wrote an essay on his life in the book trade, to appear as part of Dawson's centenary celebration, concluding, "It is questionable if publishing by booksellers at present is a moneymaking activity, but it certainly is fun."

Life with Muir was always fun, especially when it was with his wife Agnes, whom he met folk-dancing in 1947 and married six months later. They went on dancing, travelling and camping in the wilds, particularly the lovely Anza Borrego desert in southernmost California.

Their son, Michael, is carrying Dawson's into its second century, with a new interest (shared with his father) in photography.

Nicolas Barker