Tuesday, April 14, 2015

NYC Antiquarian Book Fair 2015

Having attended and exhibited at a number of "provincial" book fairs, it was a special treat to visit the grandaddy of them all, the ABAA's New York Antiquarian Book Fair. My reconnaissance mission was overlaid with the pleasure of seeing some bookseller friends in action and having my daughter want to accompany me after so many years of thinking what her dad and I do is hopelessly pointless and boring.

 The Book Fair is the premiere attraction of New York City's Rare Book Week and had begun on Thursday with an evening preview. I arrived on Sunday, when I thought the crowds would be thinner and I could spend more time browsing. The atmosphere did seem a bit more subdued than I had imagined and there was more than a hint of general weariness among all the booksellers, given that this marathon event had begun with Wednesday setup and travel, and weeks of preparatory duties before that. I don't even want to think about the logistics of what some of the international dealers had to go through for this event.

While we were in line for tickets I ran into Molly Russakoff, of Molly's Books and Records in Philadelphia. Molly and I met last year at the Colorado Antiquarian Book Seminar (CABS). She and I were both anticipating looking at some amazing book booths, having such a greater knowledge of what it takes to acquire, present and sell antiquarian material - not to mention having to schlep it all in.

I spied a few other alumni from the CABS Class of 2014 who were assisting various ABAA booksellers, including Mr. Jeffrey Rovenpor, Noah Goldrach, and Nelson Harst.

CABS Director and Minneapolis-based bookseller Rob Rulon-Miller was there with an artful display of unusual dictionaries (one of his specialties), illustrated books and assorted antiquarian material. I had never seen a copy of Rockwell Kent's first illustrated book Architec-tonics: Tales of Tom Thumbtack, Architect and Rob noted that his copy is particularly rare for having retained its original dust jacket. That's Rob on the right with the lanyard and Rockwell at center stage on the lower bookcase shelf resplendent in his smashing light blue jacket.

Two of the most welcoming and humorous booksellers I know were anchoring a booth at the east side of the Armory: Ron Cozzi of Buffalo's Old Editions Bookstore and Jeffrey Bergman. For his 21st consecutive New York Book Fair, Ron was surrounded by an impressive array of Rivers of America series books, regimental histories and beautiful bindings, but he most tempted me with two titles; an 1890s Gollywog picture book for children- which, though lovely and interesting- makes Little Black Sambo look politically correct; and a 1970s MOMA art exhibition catalogue featuring a jacket illustration by Henri Matisse in bold black brushstrokes. Jeffrey was busy stacking up modern firsts for a customer while I was ogling Ron's books, but he was very gracious to interject a nice welcome.

The books and other items at the Fair were universally magnificent and worthy of homes in the most sophisticated book collection, library or museum. How about that page out of Virginia Woolf's passport, complete with her photograph and signature? Interested in a copy of Slaughter House Five bedazzled with an inscription and self-caricature by Kurt Vonnegut Jr., complete with his ever-present smoking cigarette? I saw illuminated leaves from the 15th century, engravings of the extinct dodo, a Figbash doll handmade by Edward Gorey, a hastily scribbled lyric from the pen of Bob Dylan, a sea of miniature books, an R. Crumb pen and ink of himself and his wife seated at a bar, Ernest Hemingway's first book of poems, medieval illustrations of popes with dragon bodies, antique maps, Big Bill Broonzy's autobiography, and a range of truly rare and beautiful items, all in impeccable condition. It was heady stuff.

While most items at the New York Book Fair were well out of my price range, I did pick up a nice book for my reference collection from Boston's Bromer Booksellers, where the range of Goreyana particularly entranced a certain graphic design student raised on The Gashlycrumb Tinies

Brattleboro, Vermont-based booksellers Matthew and Adrienne Raptis of Raptis Rare Books were there with a large and sumptuous array of biblio-eye candy; truly one of their gorgeous catalogs come to life. Classic literature, fine sets and books about economics and finance comprise the bulk of their stock and all the high spots were there in luscious condition.

I was delighted to stop in and peruse the offerings from two other CABS faculty members, Nina Musinsky of Gotham's own Musinsky Rare Books and Brian Cassidy, Books, whose antiquarian stock could not be any more disparate. Nina's inventory are jewel-like examples of early printed books, like almanacs with exquisite embroidered covers, illuminated book of hours, books with hand-colored plates of 18th century fashions, and incunabula.

Skipping ahead several centuries we get to the kind of material that Brian Cassidy unearths and preserves for us all: zines, mimeographed handbills, poetry chapbooks and broadsides, photograph archives, scrapbook albums and literary ephemera that document the "cultural detritus" of more contemporary times. Brian and Ian Kahn of Lux Mentis shared a booth, the most vivid and eye-catching of the Fair in my opinion, and Kahn took particular pleasure in ribbing Brian after I hailed him with "Perfessor Cassidy!". That coming from a man whose booth was crowned by a picture-poem worthy of the Red Hat Society.

I was eager to check in with Greg Gibson at Ten Pound Island Book Company, who, in addition to his brilliant writing in his own books and blog, had recently welcomed me so warmly into the fellowship of IOBA, but he was elsewhere, probably sniffing out amazing maritime history rarities from his colleagues. Greg has already blogged up his thoughts about the New York Book Fair (and the two shadow book fairs) here. You can also check out Rebecca Rego Barry's review of the three NY Book Fairs at Fine Books and Collections.

In addition to visiting the New York Book Fair, I packed in some more literary doings by attending an interactive production of Hamlet, rambling through Central Park to peek at the Hans Christian Andersen and Alice in Wonderland statues and examine the books, paintings and sculpture at The Frick Collection. A memorable weekend of wonderful books and events, indeed.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Guilty Pleasures of the Used and Rare Bookseller

I cultivate a certain professional persona as a seller of used and rare books. In the nineteen years since opening our bookshop, my husband Dan and I have sought to continually improve our inventory, book knowledge, and the atmosphere at our store. We don't go around in tweedy jackets but we keep up a certain quiet, cultured ambiance at the store. I endeavor to represent this venerable trade in a respectable, professional manner, and am certainly more staid at Old Saratoga Books than I am in my off-hours when I can let my proverbial hair down.

Booksellers are the guardians and purveyors of our collective wisdom and culture and there's a certain erudition, gentility, and even snobbishness that goes along with that. I and my colleagues need to be well and widely read and give off a whiff of civilization along with our books. But not everything we do is so refined or reeks of high culture and we are not all brushing up on our Latin or contemplating the bust of Homer in our off-hours.

Allow me to part the curtain.

While I do enjoy classic and literary fiction, books about books, history and science titles, bookseller memoirs and serious biographies about serious people, not all of what I read is so rarefied. There are my decidedly unrefined reads and other guilty pleasures that I now reveal to you all:

I shamelessly used my daughters so I could read the Harry Potter books aloud to them when they were young and used them as human shields so I could revel at a midnight book release party for The Deathly Hallows. I gobble down murder mysteries and the ribald antics of the cowardly, philandering hero of George MacDonald Fraser's Flashman series. I like collections of Zippy the Pinhead comics. I furtively read Dav Pilkey's Captain Underpants books when I am straightening the juvenile section.  I like Dickens and Twain, Robertson Davies and Michael Ondaatje, but count Katharine Dunn's Geek Love and James Hamilton-Patterson's Cooking with Fernet Branca among my favorite novels.  I love reading Jane Austen, but find equal pleasure in Stephanie Barron's mystery series featuring the writer as sleuth.

More dirt: I play a lot of elegant, refined music in the shop that doesn't disrupt browsing. Classical, jazz, acoustic blues, and some world music impart the right bookstore atmosphere. There are a couple of CDs at the ready of Screamin' Jay Hawkins and Native American War Chants for when I want to drive certain solo time wasters from the premises. However, when the doors close and it's just me and Sam the cat, you might hear Motown with the bass turned way, way up; Michael McDonald or Hall and Oates belting out some 80's fluff pop; or some more contemporary booty-shaker propelling me around the shop during the closing routine.

But wait. It gets worse. When I am not home snuggling up with a good (or awfully unserious) book, I might have the television on, and--- hold onto the lapels of your smoking jacket--- it's not all public television. I enjoy a good sweeping costume drama or cerebral British detective show, but I hereby admit to some other terribly trashy viewing. I find the Trailer Park Boys amusing. I like watching the Yankees clobber the Red Sox. I binged with my daughter through hot sleepless nights last summer viewing Don Draper's stop and start meltdown on Mad Men. The other kid got me hooked on watching Jackson Galaxy (surely not his given name) tame errant felines on episodes of My Cat From Hell. If there's a whoopee cushion, fart joke, silly walks or an extended series of bad puns in a comedy sketch, that would be me guffawing like a lovesick elk in the background.

I polled a few of my bookselling buddies to see what their guilty pleasures are. They were very gallant to divulge this information along with me. Nothing beats the cathartic thrill of airing your hidden unrefined habits...unless it's the thrill of seeing what your buddies are up to when they are not in the public eye.

For Charles Schmieg of Black Paw Books in Massachusetts there's a sensory trifecta involving the auditory, visual and gustatory realms:
"The first guilty pleasure that comes to mind is my taste in music. Being introverted as a child, I spent many hours reading in my room and listening to my clock radio. That experience has left me with a lifelong nostalgia for seventies pop (“yacht rock”). If I worry about losing my iPhone, it is that someone will someone will discover my Spotify playlists--Kenny Loggins, Doobie Brothers, Little River Band, and more than a little disco. 

Being a teenager in the eighties has also left its mark. I still have a soft spot for the movie “Red Dawn” (the original 1984 movie, not the 2012 remake). Perhaps it has something to do with growing up in New Hampshire during the Cold War, but I’m always up for watching a bunch of high school kids take on the Soviet Army. (Wolverines!). 

My taste in food also has its low points: scrapple, pork rinds, Chicken in a Biskit crackers, White Castle hamburgers. Every Thanksgiving my mother makes a lime jello salad with cream cheese, walnuts, and canned pineapple (“Kermit Salad”). It is my favorite thing on the menu, even if I pretend otherwise. 

Upshot is, heaven for me might be being holed up in the mountains with Patrick Swayze, Jennifer Grey, and Charlie Sheen, eating pork rinds and listening to Steely Dan. Of course I would never admit this."

I am joined in admiration for the fictional adventures of the boy with the lightning bolt scar by Megan Bell of Underground Books in Carrollton, Georgia:
"Well I'm a massive Harry Potter fan and ugly-sobbed with excitement when I found out I was going to Harry Potter world. I have dressed as a Ravenclaw on multiple occasions. I like YA fantasy. I also listen to terribly embarrassing pop music when I'm cataloging alone."

John Hess of Catamount Books in Arlington, Vermont likes what he calls "spoof" books, like Little Me, Cards as Weapons and this instructional example:

Brandon Rison of Oddfellows Books and Collectibles in downtown Topeka, Kansas notes:
"Well, I suppose my confession is that I am a "high brow" bookseller by day and a consumed super geek by night. I read several comic titles religiously, attend comic book conventions (probably more than I do book fairs) and have been know to dress as a Wookie on the rare occasion. Further, I spend at least two nights a week playing role playing games and in addition to a few odd books, have hundreds of Dungeons and Dragons and Warhammer miniatures filling my bookcases at home."

Here's the reply from Donna Howard of The Eloquent Page bookstore in St. Albans, Vermont (Donna's also the Fair Manager for the upcoming VABA Spring Book Fair in Burlington, VT on April 19):
"My guilty pleasure is putting out one of my stash of favorite children's books and rereading it yet again - Cherry Ames, Where the Wild Things Are, Winnie the Pooh, the Five Little Peppers series, the Miss Bianca series, the Chronicles of Prydain, Tom Swift, Chronicles of Narnia, Asterix  - I love them all."

I hope you all have enjoyed this walk on the wild side of antiquarian bookdom, though I must say that I'm a bit disappointed that no one revealed any felonious behaviors or truly bizarre hobbies like hamster taxidermy. But I thank all of my book friends for gamely baring their unserious sides to us all and I think rather more highly of them, not less, for it.

So, what's your guilty pleasure?