The Luckiest Bookseller Alive: A Career Biography of Joe Fay
- by Bruce E. McKinney
Joe Fay recently joined the partnership that is McBride Rare Books (see here) so we asked him if he could provide us with his biography in the book trade. He did, and it is a fascinating journey, one anyone in the book trade or a book collector will want to read. Many of you will be able to relate to it. Without further ado, we bring you Joe's account of “the luckiest bookseller alive.”
By Joe Fay
I consider myself the luckiest bookseller in the world. Almost twenty years ago, after graduating from St. Edward’s University in Austin, and not being able to find work in a lukewarm job market where most people made movies or computers, I moved home to the DFW area. It was a move that set the path for the career that followed, as the Half Price Books near my mother’s house was hiring at the time. Lucky for me. I worked at Half Price Books for three years, where I stocked various parts of the store (as most HPB employees end up doing). It was while managing the reference section, which included a small shelf or two of “books about books” that my life really changed. That’s where I met Lawrence and Nancy Goldstone, A. Edward Newton, Helene Hanff, and, most importantly, Nicholas Basbanes. Or, at least, I met their books.
The short Epilogue of Basbanes’ seminal A Gentle Madness centers around the emergence of Daryl and Joan Hill at a Swann auction in New York in the 1990s. I think the whole account is three or four pages, but it was enough to ignite an interest in the world of rare book auctions. It made the rare book auction world sound like an absolutely fabulous and exciting place to be, where the most prominent dealers convene to battle for the greatest books (and sometimes they still do). Shortly afterwards, I searched the Internet for “auction house Dallas.” Google reported back with a place called Heritage Auction Galleries, now known by the more streamlined sobriquet of Heritage Auctions (also better for a website address, as HA.com sounds much better than HAG.com). So, after seeing that they indeed handled books and manuscripts, I applied to Heritage. Lucky for me, they were looking for an assistant to the venerable Tom Slater in Americana, who also oversaw books and manuscripts at the time. They hired me, and I worked for Tom for several months before Heritage decided to bring in book and manuscript specialists. My luck improved even more when the brilliant Sandra Palomino came on at Heritage to run the manuscripts department. And my life forever changed for the better when Heritage Book Shop closed (for awhile), and sent James Gannon careening into my life. Lucky me.
James Gannon taught me a mountain’s worth of what I know about the book business. His adventures and memoirs of a fascinating L.A.-based bookselling career fueled my imagination and eventually drove my thirst to work in the rare book trade. After eight of the most rewarding years of my life, in which the ownership of Heritage and James trusted me to manage the Rare Books Department, I began to put out feelers to various book dealers in the Antiquarian Booksellers Association of America. I was looking to catch on with a rare book dealer. Maybe I’d get lucky. Then, the impossible happened.
In the Spring of 2014, Nick Aretakis told me he was leaving the William Reese Company to strike out on his own. That meant HIS job at the Reese Company was open. Fine, I said. Some lucky bastard is going to get very lucky to work for Bill Reese, the best bookseller of his generation, and whose catalogues I devoured every time they showed up at Heritage. Turns out that lucky bastard was me. I flew to New Haven two days after I submitted my paperwork, and interviewed with Bill Reese and Terry Halladay at 409 Temple Street. It was a surreal affair. And then they hired me before I left. Over the next several years, I got to play on the same team with Bill Reese, the Babe Ruth of booksellers. I still can’t believe it happened. Sometimes the memories seem made up as dreams, but they’re not. I was lucky enough to spend some valuable years learning the book trade from one of its most natural practitioners. I miss him all the time, and I’m not remotely alone.
While at the Reese Company I also got to work alongside the scary-brilliant Terry Halladay. And Bill’s wife, Dorothy Hurt, who remains kind and generous to me. And Gwen Reese (no relation), who has found her true self while in New Haven. And Leslie, Leslie, Siobhan, Joe, Pat, and Cliff, who remain my Reese family. And also, since Bill passed away in 2018, I’ve worked with the one man on Earth who was brave enough to sit at Bill’s desk, Nick Aretakis. Nick returned to take over the wheel of the Reese machine and will continue to drive the Americana department. I wish him, and the Reese Company, only the best.
But now I’ve left 409 Temple Street, just last week. Much like Nick in 2014, I left to set my own path. The time had come for me to take the lessons from the long list of brilliant mentors, colleagues, and friends mentioned above, and do my own thing. Sort of.
While at the Reese Company, I worked alongside two people who turned out to be the plutonic rare-book-world-loves-of-my-life, Teri Osborn and James McBride. Teri was at the Reese Company for a decade, and along with being a whip smart bookseller and cataloguer, she was Bill’s invaluable right arm. Bill would be the first to tell you that. Despite being younger, she was my trainer and senior at the Reese Company, and showed epic patience in teaching me the ways of Force at the company. James is a blazing smart book historian with whom I share a great affinity for English football, the University of Texas, beer, baseball, barbecue, and taco sauce. Teri, James, and I were Bill’s support team. We complemented each other professionally, and had more fun than any three people working in a mostly-serious office should have had. But we always did the work. And we did it well. I’m lucky to call them both friends.
Teri, James, and I worked together as the cataloguing team, auction bidders, researchers, and advisors to Bill Reese for about two years before Bill’s health suddenly declined in the Spring of 2018. In the months before and after Bill died, we were tasked with running the daily operations of the Americana department at the Reese Company. That’s roughly akin to sitting in Einstein’s class, then being told to teach it. Yet we stood up and gave it our best effort. Much to our surprise and everlasting benefit, we did it well. We bought books, manuscripts, archives, and more, and actually sold them to real people. The grief and tragedy of Bill’s death, and our management of the business in his absence, forged a lasting, impenetrable bond between the three of us, like fellow soldiers in a war or the bus riders in the movie, Speed. When Teri and James were let go from the Reese Company, it really hurt all of us. But to their eternal credit, they took a negative situation and turned it on its head. They took a personal tragedy and made something great out of it - they started their own rare books and manuscript retail company from the ground up, called McBride Rare Books.
Over the years, we occasionally talked about working together again. Mainly it was casual banter, hoping for a future opportunity, thinking how cool it would be to bring the band back together. Recently, the talk got more serious. Then they pitched to me the opportunity of a partnership in McBride Rare Books. It was an offer, Vito Corleone might say, that I couldn’t refuse. This new partnership gives Teri, James, and I the opportunity to continue the work we started when Bill Reese passed away. It offers us a chance to have our own particular brand of fun again. It allows me a measure of freedom and autonomy to buy and sell books and manuscripts to the collectors and institutions I’ve come to know and appreciate, all within the structure of a partnership with two supremely talented booksellers. I just hope I measure up. If you see us, say hello, and wish us luck.