Even as a child, Art Ronnie loved two things fiercely: aviation and books. He would spend his odd-job money buying books about fliers and aircraft. When he was 14, he got a job washing planes for a flying school for 50 cents an hour (an extra dollar if he had to clean up some student's vomit), which would go straight into his hobby.
Because post-World War II Los Angeles was a hotbed for the aviation industry, for a little more effort he could get his books signed by the men who wrote them or were mentioned in them. He also began collecting autographed books from fliers such as Amelia Earhart and Charles Lindbergh.
Now 82, Arthur Ronnie is still a lean man with a sharp mind and street-smart reporter's instincts. He and Sharon, his wife of more than 50 years, have lived in Altadena since 1976. Ronnie is now in the process of selling his lifetime accumulation — more than 10,000 books, most first editions, many signed.
Ronnie recently showed us some of the highlights of his collection at a nondescript warehouse in Sunland used by Blacksparrow Auctions. Blacksparrow will auction about 200 of Ronnie's books and autographed aviation lithographs on Feb. 10 at the James Gray Gallery at Bergamot Station Art Center in Santa Monica.
Back when he started collecting in the 1930s to 1950s, “you could find fantastic books for almost nothing,” Ronnie said. His autographed Amelia Earhart books cost $5 when he was 15 years old.
But the interesting stories are about the signatures he sought out. Of a book on the Lafayette Flying Corps of World War I, Ronnie said, “Two or three [fliers] were living here in the Los Angeles area, and I had their addresses from a World War I society. And then sometimes when I'd go on a publicity tour with some actor or producer and I was going to a particular city where these fliers were, I'd take the books with me — I'd call them on the phone or drop a note ahead of time and they would agree and they would sign the books.”
While in New York, Ronnie met Matthew Henson, who went to the North Pole with Adm. Robert Peary, and got him so sign his book “A Negro at the North Pole.” When he went to interview Harry Truman, Ronnie brought along a copy of the former president's memoirs, which he graciously signed.
While autographs can be big business now, Ronnie never thought about making money.
“It never entered my mind, ever, to sell a signature, or a book I had signed,” Ronnie said. “The reason I'm doing it now is because of my age. There's a time when you have to let go, and I'm certainly not going to give the books away ... I just hope someone else will get the books and use them.”
In addition to the Feb. 10 auction, Ronnie also sells his books to private collectors, through EBay, and at the Pasadena Antique Mall in the Paseo Colorado, where he puts in about eight hours a week — “primarily for fun, but I also sell books there.”
But after about 70 years since he started his collection — and reaching the time in life when he has to let it go — the question of why he became a book collector remains a mystery.
“There's no answer as to why I collect books, or aviation books,” Ronnie said.
A print catalog of Ronnie's collection and more information about the auction will be available at blacksparrowauctions.com.
TIMOTHY RUTT is the publisher and editor of Altadenablog.com.