Paul Elder Jr. was born on 12 March 1906, the youngest of Paul and Emma Elder’s three children. He was just five weeks old when the San Francisco earthquake toppled their Berkeley home’s chimney to the ground. The loss of Paul Sr’s bookstore in the fire prompted the family to move to New York City for two years (where they lived in Hamilton Grange, the former home of Alexander Hamilton), but by 1909 they were back in Berkeley to stay.
Emma was an accomplished pianist, and she and Paul made sure that music was a large part of their children’s life. Pauline, the oldest, was taught piano by her mother, Scott was a violinist, and Paul Jr took up the cello. On 10 February 1923–and no doubt on many other occasions–the “Elder Trio” performed a concert at their father’s bookstore in San Francisco.
Raised in Berkeley and educated at the University, Paul seriously considered making the cello his career. “It was a tossup between music and the store,” he said. In the end he decided on books, and after a few years learning the trade in New York City, he joined his father’s business in 1931. He gradually assumed management roles as his father’s health declined, becoming president and manager in 1943. Paul Jr. was joined in the business by his wife Eloise (1909-1973). She was a former artist and, in addition to being the book buyer, she coordinated the continuing series of book readings and art exhibits.
On 3 October 1968, Paul Jr announced the sale of Paul Elder & Company to Brentano’s. “My wife Eloise and I have been working too hard, too long,” he told The San Francisco Chronicle the next day:
Elder made it clear that automated, computerized, systematized bookselling is not his cup of tea. He’s a strong anti-censorship man, having testified for the defense in the trials involving Edmund Wilson’s Memoirs of Hecate County.
And he was sharply critical of the new men of publishing and bookselling, “the office managers… men who don’t know one book from another or one customer from another.” Elder said there is one national chain which treats books with all the respect of ketchup bottles, deliberately hiring clerks who have no interest in books.
But not he, nor his father, who once employed Kathleen Norris, and not the Brentano chain which bought out his $600,000-a-year business. Although Brentano’s is a subsidiary of Crowell Collier and Macmillan, Inc., its ideas about book merchandising are similar to his.
He declined to disclose the sale price, and with some diffidence said that he decided to sell out “because of an accumulation of things–the field is overcrowded, the competition is tremendous… automation calls for big-business organization.”
He and his wife live in the Strawberry area of Marin county with their white Persian–“that cat must be the most photographed cat in the world”–and Elder is looking forward to tennis and reading and photography, and perhaps, in a few months, a new career. He wouldn’t say what he has in mind. But, twinkling a little, he said “It won’t be another bookstore. But I’ll be enjoying myself–I always do.”
Paul Elder Jr died in 1997 at the age of 90.