In New York: A Rare Book Week
- by Bruce E. McKinney
For those lucky enough to visit New York City during rare book fair week the city was transformed [in a small but very good way] into the center of book collecting in the western hemisphere for seven straight days. I was there and it was a terrific experience.
There were three fairs, the largest the New York Antiquarian Book Fair, the American Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association’s event that invites their counterpart ILAB, the International League of Antiquarian Booksellers members to participate. One of the other events was actually two, the Manhattan Vintage Book & Ephemera Fair and the Fine Press Book Fair, sharing space at the Church of St. Ferrer on Lexington at 66th a short walk from the main fair on Park at 67th. The other event, by the organizer of the Boston Shadow fair, is the Uptown Book Fair, a 5-minute cab or brisk 15-minute walk straight up Park at 83rd. The NYABF is a four-day affair beginning on Thursday the 9th at 5:00 pm and continuing, with changing hours each day, through to Sunday at 5:00 pm. The auxiliary fairs are one-day Saturday events. In their nine hours they will try to do for a few hours what the main fair does for four days.
The main fair always attracts thousands of visitors. It’s the most important antiquarian book fair in the world and widely acknowledged as best in class. ILAB is a international umbrella organization consisting of the national rare book seller associations of all countries including the United States. Every year they provide a strong minority of the show’s 200+ exhibitors.
Opening night, Thursday the 9th at 5:00 pm, it’s show time. It has been bigger in the past but it is still very big. The tension is palpable because a lot is at stake. Dealers have spent roughly $5,000 for their 8’ x 10’ [and more than $12,000 if they have invested for the largest, better positioned] temporary real estate in the old but still elegant Armory that dates to the American Civil War. The show is important. Shops have been closing at the speed of light and this fair is now one of the few bright spots in rare book retailing.
Today there will be three whales in the room. These are the big buyers who, for some, are the make or break guys. One whale a few years ago is said to have bought from more than forty dealers. That’s buying at the pace of “I’ll take this” and “I’ll take that” while walking by. People in the throes of bibliomania [and I am one] applaud such passion, our wives meantime suggest we seek help. And we agree. We’ll need help to carry everything out.
I do find two interesting items at Boston Rare Maps. Michael Buehler [and a partner] have a pair of 18th century manuscript maps of Albany and nearby places. The larger of the two is very large but unsigned, the smaller map, apparently in the same hand, is signed. I revisit several times and have three others casually view the material. They are asking $85,000. These maps are very appealing.
Friday is an up and down day and some dealers begin to get antsy. Their booth rent is about $200 an hour and a few are running the numbers and asking themselves the world’s second oldest question: why am I here? For dealers signing up for such shows, it’s like jumping out of a plane. It’s a short trip, the landing softened only by sales, and it takes about $25,000 in receipts for American and Canadian dealers to land without a bruise. For European, South American and Australian dealers the breakeven is a bit higher. A few invariably make no sales.
But dealers also measure success in other ways. The opportunity to buy from other dealers before the doors open is often successful and meeting potential clients once the show opens also precious. So looking at shows exclusively on the basis of immediate sales is often misleading. Dealers year after year sign up for these shows because they are very successful.
On Saturday morning all eyes turn to the shadow fairs. At the big fair there are over two hundred exhibitors, at the shadow fairs between them, another hundred. These smaller fairs are quick. The main fair will open on Saturday at noon and quickly draw many of the interested away so discounts are immediate and deep. The steady cadence of “I’ll give you” and “would you consider?” is encouraging. These booths cost about $1,000 for the 9-hour day. That’s $111 an hour for the entire day, double that for the busy morning when most sales are completed. For many exhibitors, including some ABAA members who exhibit at both the main fair and one of the shadow fairs, these fairs work out. This said, the Manhattan Vintage Book Fair is not exclusively a book event. There used, rare book and ephemera dealers are on one side, modern [as in new] material dealers on the other. Like oil and water the grey haired folks are on the old book side, the slimmer, younger folks both buying and selling on the other. I would love to see the DNA of these two groups. They are different species.
The New York City Book and Ephemera Fair on 83rd is in its first year. Organized by Marvin Getman he has brought a group of New England dealers that exhibit with him in Boston in November. But neither he nor his dealers, although new to New York, are turnips fresh fallen off a truck. The line outside for the 8:00 am opening is long, those about to enter expectant. Within an hour or so many are smiling and hailing cabs for the other shadow fair.
By Sunday morning the shadow fairs are history, the unsold material back in boxes and on the road home. I’m up early because there is an interesting auction in Freehold, New York at Carlsen Galleries. That’s a place near to the Catskill Mountains and they are selling 48 lots of mostly Hudson Valley and Catskill Mountain Currier & Ives prints. I’m interested and registered to bid by 9:30 am. A few minutes before 10:00 the phone rings and I’ll bid by phone on about half. Forty-five minutes later I have bought 13 lots for $10,045.25 [all in]. For a collector of Hudson Valley material this is a nice buy.
An hour later the New York Antiquarian Book Fair begins its final day. In deference to religions and hangovers the show doesn’t open until noon. We are now approaching the finish line; the well heeled are already out in the Hamptons, the stalwarts on both sides of the counters, the gatekeepers and the emotionally ensnared expressing in their body language desire or contempt. Sunday is liar’s poker played under an expiring clock.
By the end of the day the votes and totals are in. In Europe they disclose such numbers. In America they extrapolate, extend, divide and multiply according to whether they are buying or selling. Everyone claims to win and I hope it is so.
On Monday Bonhams, a few blocks away, will sell some interesting material. An Alan Turing notebook of computations he developed to solve the enigma code [as seen and explained recently in The Imitation Game], brings a million big ones and the sale overall $2.6 million. In the afternoon I go downtown to Swann’s at 104 E. 25th Street. They have an early Fishkill [New York] imprint of the first printing of the New York State constitution. The copy looks like Mohammed Ali had it in his back pocket when he fought Joe Frazier in Manila. Nevertheless I will try. I give my bid to Bill Reese whose RHM will execute the bid the next day.
Twenty-four hours later I tie for first but get there second. My max bid is $2,200. Someone else takes it home.
In the afternoon I go up to 87th Street to view the Doyle New York sale of a portion of the library of the New York Bar Association. There are two lots, 20 and 31, that include material relating to Poughkeepsie and Fishkill. They are very old, complex and to some extent infirm. I tell Bill to go as far as he feels appropriate. On Wednesday I buy them for $5,750 plus the house commission. These are nice buys. I’m in the auction room observing and the chemistry between bidders is complex.
On Friday I’m back home in San Francisco and speaking to Rick Stattler at Swann’s about their Tuesday sale. He mentions that an 1807 bound volume of the Hudson, New York magazine, the Balance and Repository failed to sell. He offers it to me at the start price, $200, and I take it.
Two days later I bid on lot 134 at the Arader Galleries Sale on Live Auctioneers, The Age of European & American Exploration. The lot is two small Hudson River watercolors. I bid to $900, they sell for $1,500. Graham Arader is one of the few American dealers determined to establish his own auction house. He will succeed but it takes more than ambition and material. It takes time.
The only possibility still open is the two manuscript maps of Albany and the surrounding area that I saw in the Boston Rare Maps booth. The larger map is very detailed but unsigned, the smaller map signed and seemingly in the same hand and dated. Price is the issue and I can’t quite make it work. Someone else will though. They are very nice.
So that’s it. Three book fairs and a handful of auctions, all compelling. If you were there I hope you found what you came for. If not, there is always next year. It’s very worthwhile.