Tuesday, July 16, 2013


The sale price of choice individual houses in Coronado can take your breath away. But think about the days when you could buy the entire island for far less than the cost of the cheapest condo in town. The sale of Coronado to Elisha Babcock and Hampton Story is legendary, but ownership had changed multiple times before that. It all started with the last Mexican Governor of Alta California, Pio Pico, who owned the San Diego island as part of a land grant. He set off a chain reaction of sales and purchases after he gave the "Peninsula of San Diego" as it was then called, to Pedro Carillo as a wedding present. Carillo sold it after only a few months of ownership. The record of those various sales and buyers is traced in the very rare and original draft documents currently loaned to the Coronado Public Library. The loan of this archive is made possible through Ralph Bowman, a long established dealer in rare paper documents and historical memorabilia.

The list of owners of Coronado may seem like a list of characters from a Dickens novel; Bezer Simmons; Archibald Peachy; Henry Chauncey, et al, a seeming random list of names without local historical resonance. Yet their back-story is as colorful as any fictional character, and in reality, their stories are intertwined with the birth of the state of California.

Coronado didn't have a name back in 1849. It was just called The Island or The Peninsula of San Diego. Before the big dreamers came, there wasn't much commercial value in Coronado. There were rancheros that were much bigger, and its waters were too shallow for shipping. Carillo sold the island in 1846  to Bezer Simmons, a whaling ship captain living in Maine, for 1000 dollars in silver. Simmons had visited Coronado, or The Peninsula, as did many whalers, when they used the shallow "Whaler's Bight" to careen their ships in order to repair and clean the ship's hulls during low tide.The Bay, as attested to by Richard Henry Dana in Two Years Before the Mast, was also navigated by trading ships coming to get cow hides from the Mission de Alcala, in what was to become San Diego.

The Mexican-American War was being fought then, and Mexico ceded Alta California to the U.S. in the Treaty of Guadaloupe Hidalgo in 1848, just before gold was discovered at Sutter's Creek.

During the gold rush in 1849 there were expectations that California would become a state. While  Coronado (still called "The Peninsula") didn't seem to have many prospects, its location at the entry to the Bay of San Diego made it of potential interest to the U.S Army as a fort, guarding the bay entry along with the old Spanish fort in Point Loma.  In these early documents, Coronado was denoted as consisting of "two square leagues" of land, "more or less."

Frederick Billings and Archibald Peachy, named on the 1850 deed, were the principal law partners in HBP in San Francisco, along with Henry Halleck. Billings also happened to be Bezer Simmons' brother-in-law. Simmons, his younger wife Laura, and her brother Frederick Billings had made the arduous trek from New England to San Francisco during the Gold Rush, travelling by ship down the eastern coast and across land at Panama. Laura died soon after reaching San Francisco, from a fever caught in Panama, probably the first woman casualty of the California Gold Rush. Billings met Archibald Peachy in San Francisco, a fellow lawyer. In the wild days of San Francisco they had both been deputized to guard a jail against the local Vigilantes, by no less than future Civil War General William Tecumseh Sherman, then in command of the California State Militia. Frederick Billings and Archibald Peachy had become principal law partners in San Francisco, along with Henry Halleck. Halleck had been a fellow lieutenant with Sherman during the Mexican-American War. Their law firm specialized in the tricky but booming business of establishing legal land ownership claims during the transition from Mexican to American laws. Their other specialty was settling suits in mining claims, an even more booming specialty. Indeed, both Billings and Peachy had represented John Sutter (of Sutter's Creek) in different mining claim suits. The partners also made money from having bought the biggest commercial building in San Francisco, the Montgomery Block, where they hired George Granniss to manage the rentals.

Despite his nerdy name, Archibald Peachy was a tall, good-looking Southern aristocrat. He was fond of dueling whenever his name was impugned, a habit he started in college. He dueled with his friend James Blain in 1852, where he prevailed. Much later in 1879 when he had become nearly blind, he challenged California Supreme Court Justice David Terry to a duel, but Terry declined.

Bezer Simmons never prospered in San Francisco. He got deeper in debt and died in 1850, just after transferring full ownership of Coronado to Billings and Peachy to settle his debts.

The land title abstract shows various transactions of sales of portions of Coronado from Billings, and Peachy to various partners. The transaction that Coronado history sources mentions the most is the 1885 sale, where Elisha Babcock, Hampton Story, and Jacob Greundike (soon to leave the partnership) buy all of Coronado ("The Peninsula") for $110,000.

By then, Archibald Peachy had served in the California Assembly and in the California Senate, Frederick Billings eventually returned to his native Vermont, where he became active in the University of Vermont and in the conservation movement. His interest in the academic world is reflected in having indirectly suggested the name of Berkeley be given to the University of California.

Of course Babcock and Story had big plans to build a resort hotel, the Hotel del Coronado, and to develop most of the rest of Coronado into housing and business lots. The name of Coronado itself was decided upon by Babcock and Story. Although they had several names that came in through a naming contest, they ended up giving the Peninsula the name Coronado, after the Coronado Islands (Los Cuatro Coronados) off the coast of northern Baja California. The name was modified in various promotional documents as Coronado Beach, considered a more picturesque name in helping sell lots.

One of the documents in this collection is the folded map shown below. This street map was used for a sales prospectus in 1886-1887. The map shows the original Spanish Bight dividing North Island from the village. This same street map was used with minor modifications through the 1930s.  The Spanish Bight was filled in as the North Island Naval Air Base expanded in the late 1930s.

Included in this Coronado archive are various drafts that notaries (historically notaries served as title lawyers) used in preparing the legal documents to transfer ownership of Coronado. in parts or as a whole. These documents could be considered like the manuscript that an author prepared before typing and sending the completed book manuscript to the publisher.

The later drafts specifically mention the Coronado Beach Company, the corporate name of the partnership that developed the Hotel del Coronado and sold lots in Coronado. 

Such documents as are part of this archive provide a larger window in which to see the beginning of Coronado in the 19th century. Much has changed in the world, and especially in Coronado, since they were written. It is amazing that these fragile founding documents survive at all. It would be a blessing to have this loaned archive return to Coronado on a permanent basis.

Written by Christian Esquevin

Thursday, April 18, 2013


The traditional world of book publishing has been broken, and we are now trying to figure out how to fit in to this Brave New World. Publishing companies are no longer the independent imprints that literary America grew up with. Publishers such as Viking Press, Harper & Brothers, Doubleday, Scribner & Sons, Houghtin-Mifflin, Harcourt,  and Knopf, publishers of the great American novels, fiction and quality non-fiction, have all been swallowed by conglomerates. 

These publishers are becoming part of ever larger conglomerates – Random House, which has consolidated Knopf, Crown, Dial Press, Doubleday, Dell, Ballantine, and Delacorte, is now owned by the German company Bertelsman. Penguin consolidated the publishers Dutton, G.P. Putnam, Viking Press, and Grosset & Dunlap. Penguin is owned by Pearson, an English company. Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp owns HarperCollins, and Macmillan (who consolidated Henry Holt, Little, Brown and St. Martin’s) is owned by Holtzbrink of Germany.  Simon & Schuster is a division of CBS. And now the two publishing giants  Bertelsman and Pearson will merge.

While the conglomerates play a game of thrones, readers, authors, book sellers and libraries are buffeted by strong winds of change, winds that are clearing the decks of many players. Although change has been occurring for years in the publishing and retail sectors, the advent of ebooks has added gunpowder to the mix. Ebooks in 2012 accounted for 23% of book sales. and of the 250,000 or so self-published books, a majority of these are now self-published ebooks. With the Barnes & Noble Nook, 25% of sales are from self-published ebooks. Over at Amazon, which has 65% of the ebook market, it is estimated that 30% of ebook sales are those from self-published authors. This represents a huge evolutionary step in self-publishing.

This phenomenon has helped many authors, and may also help libraries in the future. As it stands, the major publishers have been reluctant to "sell" ebooks to libraries. They have changed the rules of the game under which libraries and publishers have operated for 200 years. Although ebooks sell cheaply through Amazon and other sellers, the publishers charge libraries  three or four times retail for their ebooks, and they add other restrictions like the number of times libraries can check out an ebook before libraries are obligated to "buy" another one. As for authors, most writers routinely have their manuscript submissions rejected. Of those that are picked up, only a small percentage make a decent advance or regular royalties. Now with the relative ease of self-publishing electronically, authors are by-passing publishers altogether. 

Of the 250,000 or so self-published books ( a conservative estimate), a majority of these are now self-published ebooks.  The average price for an e-book is now below $8, with many in the $1.99 and $2.99 bracket. Amazon offers its Kindle Direct Publishing service for self-publishing, and Smashwords offers another self-publishing service for authors. The total number of ebooks, self-published or otherwise, will continue to grow.

"Buying" ebooks is actually a misnomer. Libraries (and the public) only lease ebooks. The normal written agreement when obtaining an ebook, spelled out in very long and not very clear legal language, states clearly the terms of this arrangement. Perhaps this may come as a bit of a surprise, but you can't re-sell your ebook as you could re-sell your printed book. The legal doctrine of "first sale," after which you (or libraries) could sell, loan, or exchange books does not apply to digital properties under new copyright laws. Thus the restrictions for libraries on the number of loans.

Behind the scenes, the road to ebook sales by the big six publishers has been bumpy. The publishers wanted to combat Amazon's selling of ebooks at less than what it was buying them for - a practice the publishers thought would erode their sales and revenues. When Apple planned  to launch its iPad, it reportedly convinced five of the six big publishing conglomerates (Penguin, Simon and Schuster, HarperCollins, Macmillan, and Hachette) to set up an “agency model” for ebook sales. With this model, Apple would allow the publishers to set whatever price they wanted, as long as Apple got a 30 percent commission. And because publishers had to offer the same contract to all “like” retailers this would apply to Apple and Amazon. The publishers accordingly demanded that Amazon raise its prices. Amazon wasn't happy, so it most likely blew the whistle to the feds. The issue was that if Apple and the publishers had agreed to set a price, this was illegal. Shortly thereafter, the U.S. Department of Justice  filed an anti-trust lawsuit  against Apple and the five publishers, alleging price fixing. The publishers one by one decided to settle rather than to fight this battle in court, and ebook prices dropped back down.

Meanwhile, three bookstores have filed a class action lawsuit against Amazon. In the suit the stores claim they are filing the complaint “on behalf of themselves and all other similarly situated brick and mortar bookstores.” The stores are making the claim that Amazon holds a monopoly on e-book sales in this country, maintained in part by their use of a proprietary DRM (Digital Rights Management) format, and that the big six publishers are complicit with Amazon in establishing contractual terms by which those DRM-based ebooks are sold exclusively through Amazon. Their lawyer stated, “We are seeking relief for independent brick-and-mortar bookstores so that they would be able to sell open-source and DRM-free books that could be used on the Kindle or other electronic ereaders.” This essentially means than having ebooks for sale that aren't restricted to one particular brand of electronic reader like the Kindle.

With reduced profit from the sale of ebooks, some publishers are deciding to get in the game of selling their services to aspiring authors. Penguin now has Author Solutions, a separate entity that sells self-publishing services like marketing, publicity, and even publishing of your book - all for a healthy price. And at Random House, its science fiction imprint Hydra decided to do away with author advances (an initial payment to authors in advance of royalties collected). In this plan, Hydra stated that authors and publishers would share the risk in producing a book and would share in the proceeds. Hydra would take the first cut of the profits to cover its costs and the rest would be split between the author and publisher. After the Science Fiction Writers of America loudly complained, and a shower of criticism was made by authors, the plan was  dropped.

Coming along with the increasing numbers of ebooks, and becoming an increasing problem with print books, is how do you discover what is out there and available? Looking for a particular author's book is simple enough, but when you search for new books by topic or subject through a device, how long will your patience last before you just settle on the first few scrolls? With fewer brick -and-mortar bookstores, how do you browse for or find a book serendipitously? Publishers are finding this to be a problem. Discoverability is the name of the game for where and how books and ebooks (or any information sources), are placed in front of a searcher's eyeballs. This will become an increasingly important function for libraries.

With books increasingly becoming digital ebooks, and libraries unable to own them, what will the long term scenario be for archiving books? Paradoxically, the relative ease of preserving digital files will be contrasted by the lack of this being done by anybody. Publishers don't have the mission of preserving even their own printed books, will they care about ebooks that never sold well? The books that Google has digitized over the years, along with research libraries, are print books, not ebooks. Will self-published authors preserve their own works for the long run? Will archaeologists of the future be digging up old e-readers in the hopes of extracting some lost ebooks? The copyright issue is making all these trends murky.

The good news is that digital technology is making it possible for libraries to make easily accessible a variety of special collection documents and photographs, including the contents of historic local newspapers. The Coronado Public Library has its own plans to deploy the Coronado PhotoAtlas project and to digitize over one-hundred years of Coronado newspapers.  And we do provide ebooks through the Coronado Library/Serra Library Cooperative Overdrive platform.

Another renaissance is coming for libraries.