23 Jun 2011

Bernard Levine, Harvard ’69 (!)

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Levine’s Guide to Knives & Their Values is a key reference in any collector’s library and Bernard Levine’s earlier Knifemakers Of Old San Francisco is a classic book on a very special subject.

Who would have imagined that Knife Collecting guru Bernard Levine is a Harvard ’69 dropout, who became an expert on knives as a way of surviving in the city on the Bay back in the era of the Summer of Love?

Harvard Magazine reveals all:

In February 1969, Levine headed west, looking to connect with a love interest in San Francisco—who promptly returned east to enroll in college. He knocked about the city for a couple of years, working as a stevedore and in construction. His first job, hanging sheetrock, had five other Harvard students on the site. “I realized that I wasn’t strong enough to do this kind of work,” he says, “and that it wasn’t getting me far enough away from Harvard!”

He tried a small business gathering wild yarrow stalks in the hills near San Francisco, which natural food stores sold in bundles of 50 because dividing piles of yarrow is a classical method of consulting the I Ching. “Then they found a lower-priced source,” Levine says. “That was my first lesson in business.”

In September 1971, a couple at the house Levine lived in invited him to come to a flea market; they were moving and had some items to sell. He went to a Goodwill store to find something he might sell at the flea market, and purchased a box of old knives for $3.00—30 knives, as it turned out, at a dime each. “I knew less than nothing about knives,” he says. “The little I knew was wrong. But I spread my knives out on a cloth and was overwhelmed by people.”

Levine learned that there were knife collectors, and the brand names that were collectible. “It was a revelation,” he admits. He continued selling knives at flea markets on weekends. “It turned out to be much longer hours than any job,” he says. “I’d spend all week scrounging up knives and on Friday bring them to a cutlery shop in North Beach where they’d restore them for me. The grandfather there—born in Romania in 1885—taught me a lot about the European cutlery business in the early twentieth century.

“My great love in school had been history,” he says. “Old knives are a good window into history, and a window that looks out in every direction.” From the very first day, Levine recorded every knife he sold, including brand markings and a description, eventually logging 13,000 entries.

Hat tip to Walter Olson.

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