Ken Holmes

Collector Kenneth Holmes at his desk in his house in North Carolina.

Every collection has its beginning. There is always an element of coincidence and luck, but great collections are born out of years of systematic decisions, relentless pursuit and meticulous order. There is also the will and a skill to impose order, a talent not uncommon among lawyers. Here’s the story of the Kenneth and Karen Holmes' collection – 54 boxes of John Steinbeck materials just passed to the National Steinbeck Center in Salinas, on top of Steinbeck first editions gifted previously by Holmes to Salinas. 

In the 1960s, Kenneth Holmes worked as a lawyer, commuting daily between New Jersey and a law firm in New York City. Those long commutes gave him a lot of time to read, and he happened to pick up novelist John Steinbeck – the 1962 Nobel Prize in Literature winner and Salinas native.

Holmes “enjoyed the writing immensely,” he says, right away, and he started to look around for other books by the same author. He visited a used bookstore and found many of them, but was confused to find out that the same title was offered for $2 and for $8. That’s how he learned about and purchased his first first edition – his collection of Steinbeck first editions is the pearl of the National Steinbeck Center’s collection, donated years earlier.

Over the years, Holmes enjoyed discovering Steinbeck as a person, finding objects related to his life, such as an old high school yearbook – those texts may be in fact the oldest written by Steinbeck ever published, Holmes says.

While he enjoys other writers, Steinbeck remains Holmes' favorite. His wife, Karen, knew that when marrying him, years ago, she was marrying the Steinbeck collection as well, and she had been a wonderful companion in this longtime endeavor, Holmes says. “She knew that it was a big part of my life,” he says. “So yes, she shared the enthusiasm of the collection. Whenever we traveled, we would always stop at old bookstores.” 

In 2014, the couple spent over a year doing nothing but creating A descriptive Bibliographical Catalog of the Holmes Collection by Kenneth and Karen Holmes, an impressive companion book to an impressive collection that until this year was housed in Holmes’ residence in North Carolina. It started inexpensive; Holmes got his first edition of Grapes of Wrath for under $100, he says, but time changes things, and recently he had it insured for $10,000. Even to send the collection to Salinas safely, Holmeses spent $12,000—from one crazy person who loves Steinbeck to other crazy people who love Steinbeck, Holmes jokes.

The couple, now retired, moved to a smaller place in North Carolina and the collection – perhaps the biggest Steinbeck materials collection until now in private hands – had to find a new home. Salinas was a natural choice, Holmes says. They developed contacts there a long time ago and have no doubt that the previous materials are now  “in good hands,” Holmes says.


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