Rare Book Monthly

Articles - October - 2021 Issue

The Luckiest Bookseller Alive: A Career Biography of Joe Fay



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.

Posted On: 2021-10-02 21:39
User Name: americanax

I had the best experience working with you when I sold a few books at Heritage several years ago. I am no longer actively buying or selling, but I wanted to send you my good wishes on your new venture.
Elinor Eisemann

Rare Book Monthly

  • <center><b>Potter & Potter Auctions<br>Nobu Shirase and the Japanese Antarctic Expedition: the Collection of Chet Ross<br>October 12, 2023</b>
    <b>Potter & Potter, Oct. 12:</b> [BYRD]. VEER, Willard Van der and Joseph T. RUCKER, cinematographers. The 35mm motion picture Akeley camera that filmed the Academy Award-winning documentary “With Byrd at the South Pole”. $30,000 to $50,000.
    <b>Potter & Potter, Oct. 12:</b> [SHIRASE, Nobu, his copy]. RYUKEI, Yano. <i>Young Politicians of Thebes: Illustrious Tales of Statesmanship.</i> Tokyo(?), 1881-84. $15,000 to $20,000.
    <b>Potter & Potter, Oct. 12:</b> SHACKLETON, Ernest H. <i>The Antarctic Book.</i> Winter Quarters 1907-1909 [dummy copy of the supplement to: <i>The Heart of the Antarctic</i>]. London, 1909. $10,000 to $15,000.
    <b>Potter & Potter, Oct. 12:</b> [USS BEAR]. The original auxiliary deck wheel from the famed USS Bear, 1874-1933. “PROBABLY THE MOST FAMOUS SHIP IN THE HISTORY OF THE COAST GUARD” (USCG). $10,000 to $15,000.
    <b>Potter & Potter, Oct. 12:</b> HENSON, Matthew. <i>A Negro Explorer at the North Pole.</i> With a forward by Robert Peary. Introduction by Booker T. Washington. New York, [1912]. $3,000 to $4,000.
  • <center><b>Swann Auction Galleries View Our Record Breaking Results</b>
    <b>Swann:</b> Charles Monroe Schulz, <i>The Peanuts gang,</i> complete set of 13 drawings, ink, 1971. Sold June 15 — $50,000.
    <b>Swann:</b> Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Family Archive of Photographs & Letters. Sold June 1 — $60,000.
    <b>Swann:</b> Victor H. Green, <i>The Negro Motorist Green Book,</i> New York, 1949. Sold March 30 — $50,000.
    <b>Swann:</b> William Shakespeare, <i>King Lear; Othello;</i> [and] <i>Anthony & Cleopatra;</i> Extracted from the First Folio, London, 1623. Sold May 4— $185,000.
    <center><b>Swann Auction Galleries View Our Record Breaking Results</b>
    <b>Swann:</b> William Samuel Schwartz, <i>A Bridge in Baraboo, Wisconsin,</i> oil on canvas, circa 1938. Sold February 16 — $32,500.
    <b>Swann:</b> Lena Scott Harris, <i>Group of approximately 65 hand-colored botanical studies, all apparently California native plants,</i> hand-colored silver prints, circa 1930s. Sold February 23 — $37,500.
    <b>Swann:</b> Suzanne Jackson, <i>Always Something To Look For,</i> acrylic & pencil on linen canvas, circa 1974. Sold April 6 — $87,500.
    <b>Swann:</b> Gustav Klimt, <i>Das Werk von Gustav Klimt,</i> complete with 50 printed collotype plates, Vienna & Leipzig, 1918. Sold June 15 — $68,750.
  • <b><center>Sotheby’s<br>Bibliotheca Brookeriana: A Renaissance Library<br>Magnificent Books and Bindings<br>11 October 2023</b>
    <b>Sotheby’s, Oct. 11:</b> Francesco Colonna, Hypnerotomachie, Paris, 1546, Parisian calf by Wotton Binder C for Marcus Fugger. $300,000 to $400,000.
    <b>Sotheby’s, Oct. 11:</b> Leonardo da Vinci, Trattato della pittura, manuscript on paper, [Rome, ca. 1638–1641], a very fine pre-publication manuscript. $250,000 to $300,000.
    <b>Sotheby’s, Oct. 11:</b> Paradis, Ung petit traicte de Alkimie, [Paris, before 1540], contemporary morocco by the Pecking Crow binder for Anne de Montmorency. $300,000 to $350,000.
    <b>Sotheby’s, Oct. 11:</b> Capocaccia, Giovanni Battista, A wax relief portrait of Pius V, in a red morocco book-form box by the Vatican bindery, Rome, 1566–1568. $250,000 to $300,000.
    <b>Sotheby’s, Oct. 11:</b> Serlio, Il terzo libro; Regole generali, Venice, 1540, both printed on blue paper and bound together by the Cupid's Bow Binder. $400,000 to $500,000.
    <b>Sotheby’s, Oct. 11:</b> Tiraboschi, Carmina, manuscript on vellum, [Padua, c. 1471], the earliest surviving plaquette binding. $280,000 to $350,000.
    <b><center>Sotheby’s<br>Bibliotheca Brookeriana: A Renaissance Library<br>The Aldine Collection A–C<br>12 October 2023</b>
    <b>Sotheby’s, Oct. 12:</b> Anthologia graeca, Venice, Aldus, 1503, printed on vellum, Masterman Sykes-Syston Park copy. $150,000 to $200,000.
    <b>Sotheby’s, Oct. 12:</b> Castiglione, Il libro del cortegiano, Venice, Aldus, 1528, contemporary Italian morocco gilt, Accolti-Landau copy. $200,000 to $300,000.
    <b>Sotheby’s, Oct. 12:</b> Castiglione, Il libro del cortegiano, Venice, Aldus, 1545, contemporary morocco for Thomas Mahieu, Chatsworth copy. $200,000 to $300,000.
    <b>Sotheby’s, Oct. 12:</b> Cicero, Epistolae familiares, Venice, Aldus, 1502, printed on vellum, illuminated, Renouard-Vernon-Uzielli copy. $200,000 to $300,000.
    <b>Sotheby’s, Oct. 12:</b> Colonna, Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, Venice, Aldus, 1499, Gomar Estienne binding for Jean Grolier, Spencer copy. $400,000 to $600,000.
    <b>Sotheby’s, Oct. 12:</b> Crinito, Libri de poetis Latinis, Florence, Giunta, 1505, Cupid's Bow Binder for Grolier, Paris d'Illins-Wodhull copy. $250,000 to $300,000.

Article Search

Archived Articles

Ask Questions