N. Kymmel: An Early Supplier of Books from Russia

By Bogdan Horbal, Curator, Slavic and East European Collections
June 23, 2020

A few years after the establishment of the New York Public Library, its first director, John Shaw Billings (1838-1913), decided to start collecting materials in Russian. Independent of his decision, he received a petition from 58 members of the local Russian community encouraging him to do just that. On February 8, 1899, the trustees of the New York Public Library voted to create a collection of Russian literature. The first chief of the Slavonic Division was Herman Rosenthal (1843-1917), an American author, translator, editor, and librarian of Jewish origin who was born in Friedrichstadt, province of Courland, Russia (now Jaunjelgava, Latvia). Rosenthal established exchanges with learned societies across Eastern Europe, solicited gifts, and most of all jump-started collecting by engaging book dealers. One of them had his place of business not far from where Rosenthal was born.

Kymmel/Kimmel’ bookstore was established in Riga, Russian Empire (now Latvia) in 1763, and first sold non-Russian books. Under the management of Nikolai Kimmel’ [Николай Киммель] (1816-1905) the business grew and also became a publishing house as well as a dealer of antiquarian books. It issued its first catalog in 1858 and by 1913 the company issued 75 more catalogs. The company received praise for being organized following Western (mostly German) standards. Its catalogs were organized by subject and carefully prepared, always giving a precise bibliographic citation, information about books offered for sale, and description of their physical condition. The NYPL holds a collection of N. Kymmel’s book catalogs issued during the period of 1882-1910.

In 1887, N. Kymmel acquired a portion of books from the long-defunct publishing house of Aleksandr Filipovich Smirdin (1795-1857) [See Smirdin's catalogs from 1828,  1841, and 1856]. N. Kymmel advertised these new acquisitions in a special catalog published in five parts. It also issued catalogs on Rossica, Baltica, Polonica, Asian studies, folklore, hard sciences, etc. In catalog no. 43, more than 1,500 books of various contents are listed, mainly in French, although there are a small number of Italian and Spanish editions.

N. Kymmel’s business was designed for mail delivery. Books were not kept

in a store, but in a storage room, and were inaccessible for viewing. Those who came to its store were offered catalogs that were used for ordering. This setup worked well for libraries. Yale University was buying Slavic books from N. Kymmel at least since 1908. The NYPL holds N. Kymmel’s publications in German and Russian not only from the early 20th century but also earlier works such as Briefe und urkunden zur geschichte Livlands in den jahren 1558-1562 (5 vols, 1865-1876) by Friedrich Bienemann (1838-1903) and Zur Geschichte der Bauernfreiheit in Livland (1878) edited by Jegór von Sivers (1823-1879). The oldest book published by N. Kymmel in the collection of the NYPL is Zweite Fortsetzung von des Herrn Hofraths von Hagemeister Materialien zur Gütergeschichte Livlands (1851) by Friedrich von Buxhövden (1800-1866).

At the beginning of the 20th century, N. Kymmel also supplied the NYPL with many older Russian books that were issued by other publishing houses in Moscow and St. Petersburg. For example, on June 23, 1912, the NYPL purchased from N. Kymmel a large set of Zodchii, a Russian periodical devoted to architecture that had been published since 1872. Some of the antiquarian publications purchased from N. Kymmel were later identified as rare and moved to the Slavonic Reserve collection and are now in the Rare Books Division, including six imprints from the 18th century.  

The company continued after Nikolai Kimmel’s death but did not release catalogs of books after 1913, due to the absence of new acquisitions. In 1926, the Latvian State Library bought approximately 11,000 volumes from N. Kymmel’s stock. The company soon ceased to exist.