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Robert A. Wilson, bookstore owner, collector

Robert A. Wilson was a Baltimore native who owned the legendary Phoenix Book Shop in New York's Greenwich Village and amassed signed first editions of works by Gertrude Stein, H.L. Mencken, Ezra Pound and others.
Robert A. Wilson was a Baltimore native who owned the legendary Phoenix Book Shop in New York's Greenwich Village and amassed signed first editions of works by Gertrude Stein, H.L. Mencken, Ezra Pound and others. (HANDOUT)

Robert A. Wilson, a Baltimore native who owned the legendary Phoenix Book Shop in New York's Greenwich Village and amassed signed first editions of works by Gertrude Stein, H.L. Mencken, Ezra Pound and others, died of heart failure Nov. 29 at Copper Ridge, a Sykesville assisted-living facility.

He was 94.

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Timothy D. Murphy, head of special collections at the University of Delaware in Newark, said Mr. Wilson was "nationally and internationally known as being the premier antiquarian bookseller, specializing in modern literature."

"He really was a fascinating guy and, as a personal collector, had magnificent collections," Mr. Murray said. "Every author living in New York would stop at the Phoenix to see Robert. ... [He] became good friends with Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, W.H. Auden, Marianne Moore, Edward Albee and W.S. Merwin, to name a few."

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The son of Robert Lewis Wilson, owner of Wilson Bros. Hardware on 25th Street, and Bessie Buchman Wilson, a homemaker, Robert Alfred Wilson was born in Baltimore and raised on Cresmont Avenue.

Family members said Mr. Wilson never tired of telling people that he was "voted the Most Beautiful Baby" at the 1923 Maryland State Fair in Timonium.

He was a 1939 graduate of City College and earned a bachelor's degree in English and American literature in 1943 from the Johns Hopkins University.

He enlisted in the Army and, as an intelligence officer, fought at the Battle of the Bulge during World War II. He was wounded and received the Purple Heart and Bronze Star. He later served with the 69th Infantry Division, which joined with the Russian army and made the historic joint crossing of the Elbe River into Germany.

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"He was very proud of what he did in the war and talked a lot about it in recent years," said a niece, Joanne E. Eich of Ellicott City.

After being discharged at the end of the war, Mr. Wilson joined the U.S. diplomatic corps and served as third secretary at embassies in Warsaw, Poland and Pretoria, South Africa. He also worked as a translator during the Nuremberg war crimes trials.

"He began collecting books as a kid," his niece said. "When he was in Germany after the war, he pulled a leather-bound book from a bonfire. It … dated to 1472. We always enjoyed looking at it."

After the war, Mr. Wilson moved to New York and immersed himself in the cultural and literary life of Greenwich Village. He continued book collecting and dabbled in theater. He also worked as manager of a cuckoo clock factory.

In 1959, he became the fifth owner of the Phoenix Book Shop at 18 Cornelia St. in Greenwich Village.

In addition to issuing catalogs he printed on the bookstore's mimeograph machine, he published the work of local writers. According to The New York Times, he published more than 40 books, some of them limited editions.

Some of his published bibliographies included the works of Stein, Jack Kerouac and poets including Corso, Diane di Prima and Denise Levertov.

"He told me his personal Gertrude Stein collection, which he gave to Hopkins, was one of the largest in the U.S.," Ms. Eich said. "He also gave his Mencken collection to Hopkins."

"He was known to anyone in the world of collecting — and for his small underground press," Mr. Murray said. "He would go and visit Auden and see a manuscript in the trash can and he'd ask for it."

Mr. Wilson's personal collection of the works of Auden, Pound, Albee, Ginsberg, James Purdy and Michael McClure are now in special collections at the University of Delaware.

"He helped many big institutions build their collections," said Mr. Murray, who had known Mr. Wilson since the 1980s. "The archives of the Phoenix are at the University of Indiana."

Mr. Wilson also collected and sold manuscripts and autographs.

In 1980, he wrote "Modern Book Collecting: A Guide for the Beginner Who is Buying First Editions for the First Time." A memoir, "Seeing Shelley Plain: Memories of New York's Legendary Phoenix Book Shop," was published in 2001.

Mr. Wilson lived in a 25th Street brownstone in the city's Chelsea neighborhood. He closed the Phoenix in 1988 because of a landlord dispute, then moved to St. Michaels.

"He continued to sell books and issue catalogs twice a year," his niece said.

His other collecting interests included stamps, autographs, model trains and items related to the Titanic.

"When you walked into that house in St. Michaels it was like walking into a great library," said Mr. Murray, who often visited Mr. Wilson and his partner, Kenneth Doubrava, a musician.

"Both Robert and Ken were quite personable and witty," he said. "They had an Alpine Christmas garden with model trains that filled a sunroom and which they loved showing to children. It really was quite impressive."

Mr. Doubrava died in 2014.

In later years, Mr. Wilson joined archaeological expeditions. During his life, he traveled to more than 70 countries on all seven continents.

He was also a doting uncle.

"He took me to see my first foreign film at The Charles on Christmas night. It was Federico Fellini's 'Juliet of the Spirits,' and even though I've seen it several times since then, I still don't get it," Ms. Eich said with a laugh.

"He had a wonderful life and a marvelous career," she said. "At the end, because of the dementia, he could no longer read."

"Robert was the last of a breed, and his death is the end of an era," Mr. Murray said.

A memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. Jan. 14 at Christ Episcopal Church, 301 S. Talbot St., St. Michaels.

In addition to his niece, Mr. Wilson is survived by a sister, Merle Wilson Sturm of Baltimore; and six other nieces and nephews.

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