Conversing with Mr. Americana: Talking Books With Bill Reese

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Literature Shelves at William Reese Company


By Abby Tallmer

Introduction:

After a two hour long scenic train ride from Grand Central Station in New York, I emerge to the New Haven train station, a large building outside of which cabs are lined up (no doubt in preparation for returning Yale students.) My cabdriver takes me on a ten minute long jaunt through a snowy quaint part of New Haven, and leaves me off at 409 Temple Street. I check the address again against one of Bill Reese’s catalogues: I had expected a big shop with a sign out front, and all I see is one in a series of pretty row houses. After I satisfy myself by double and triple checking the address I ring the doorbell, which isn’t even labeled. I am convinced I am in the wrong place and am about to turn back when I hear Bill Reese’s low voice calling out my name and see his lanky body coming down the interior staircase. Talk about an understated storefront!

But once I am admitted into the Reese sanctuary I see that there is nothing understated at all. Books – perhaps thousands of them – line every available space on the walls throughout the house, overwhelming the visitor. Actually, I learn as Bill takes me on a tour, I find that we are in one of two adjoining houses, bridged together internally to make one huge rare book repository. (Reese later tells me that there is about a half a mile of book shelf space in the house and another mile and a half of shelf space at a nearby warehouse, where he keeps much of his inventory.) Part of the house is devoted to fiction, and part to Americana (Reese’s two specialties). Along the different stops in our tour I meet various Reese staff members, the most senior (in terms of rank) of which is Terry Halliday , Reese’s fiction specialist who has been with him for many years. (Reese’s true specialty and love is Americana, although he deals in both.) As we troop from floor to floor I meet Reese’s staff members, all of whom are quite cordial and seem very happy as they sit at their respective desks, surrounded by reference books and books waiting to be catalogued. The “vibe” is quite cozy: the entire operation seems idyllic: the beautiful house, the upbeat employees, the shelves and stacks of rare books everywhere we look. I gaze for a few moments at the Americana shelves while Reese is on the phone and just seeing the range, condition, and rarity of his inventory makes me unable to forget Reese’s well-founded reputation as one of if not the preeminent dealer in the Americana business.

I am entranced by the alluring bookshelves and am tempted to (carefully, of course) rifle through some of Reese’s inventory when I am saved by the bell: Bill is ready for his interview. We go upstairs to his messy yet organized office (meaning that there are piles of papers and books everywhere on his desk, but none on