Why The New York Antiquarian Book Fair Matters – To You, Me, and Everyone We Know
By Lorne Bair
FULL DISCLOSURE: Among various administrative and advisory roles I occupy in the book trade, I’m a member of the Public Relations committee of the Antiquarian Bookseller’s Association of America – a position I’ve filled with, at best, desultory results, but which you nonetheless may wish to bear in mind while reading the following comments.
I didn’t take any pictures at the New York Book Fair this year. I’m not much of a picture taker in the most relaxed of times, but at any given book event I can usually be counted on to snap a shot or two of my favorite booksellers in action; another few of my booth (mostly to remind me how I want – or don’t want – the booth to look next year); and another batch recording my after-hours activities, which generally involve intemperate helpings of food and drink at the sorts of restaurants which, though generally above my pay grade, seem suddenly (alas, illusorily) within reach after a day spent selling high-priced rarities. But in New York I never had the chance, or even the inclination, to take any of my customary photos, despite the fact that I’m toting a spanking-new iPhone with what’s reputed to be the best built-in digicam on any phone anywhere. (Well, okay, I did take one accidental snapshot of my left shoe while fumbling around looking for an old picture to show a customer…but that was it). No friends, no booth, no food – nothing. Why? you ask. Well, call me paradoxical, but the reason is simple and clear: the New York Book Fair is too important to be photographed.
Sure, okay, some of what distinguishes New York from any other book event can be captured on camera. It’s true, for example, that the New York Book Fair is an order of magnitude bigger than just about any other similar event in the United States – 210 dealers participated in this year’s show, while most other “large” fairs top out at around a hundred exhibitors. That’s a photographable fact. It’s also true that the New York Book Fair attracts more of the very best dealers in the world than any other book fair anywhere - legendary firms like Maggs and Quaritch of London, Reese and Heald of the U.S., Lynge of Copenhagen, Chamonal of Paris, to name just a few – along with a host of lesser lights like myself who, though we operate in the deep shadow of such august companions, work all year to put together a book fair inventory that won’t make us feel embarrassed to be in the same room with them. It’s even true that there are celebrities – real ones, I mean, aside from the big-shot booksellers. Steve Martin, Yoko Ono, Lucy Liu, Chelsea Clinton – all were spotted at this year’s fair (though none, I confess, were spotted by me: I wouldn’t be able to pick a movie star out of a police line-up if my life depended it). The presence of these giants (and dwarfs) of the rare book world is another easily documentable fact, and you’ll find that most of those who do take the time to document the event with pictures concentrate their efforts on portraits of these greater and lesser luminaries, a sort of biblio-papparazzic exercise which to my mind misses the point entirely.
Because what the cameras can’t capture is precisely what makes the New York Book Fair special. From the opening bell at 5:00 on Thursday to the dimming of the lights at 5:00 on Sunday, the Park Avenue Armory throbs. It vibrates in a way I would have thought no longer possible for an event that, after all, caters primarily to the antiquarian, the librarian, the scholar, the bibliophile – entities not widely regarded for their, er, vibrational energy, engaged in a trade that is supposed to be dead, the first great casualty of the digital revolution. You couldn’t prove it by me. The energy is, on the one hand, literally palpable, an audible, sensory thrum that bubbles up from the floor of the show, bouncing and bumbling among the venerable rafters of the Seventh Regiment Armory like a swarm of intellectual bees. It is, on the other hand, existential, intangible, neurological: an invisible haze of astonishment and joy generated by the presence of a thousand people having one of the best days of their lives. There are very few places in the world where the true bibliophile can count on seeing – on handling, even owning! – something she’s never seen before or, better yet, something she never dreamed existed. The New York Book Fair is such a place, is perhaps the place. But it’s not its size, not the stature of its dealers and customers, not even the substantial transfer of wealth that takes place within its walls that make it so. These are only the preconditions to its greatness. It’s the simultaneous snap of countless synapses registering surprise and excitement; the intersection of the right books with the right minds in the right setting at the right time: that’s what energizes this place, and makes it, for four days each year, the dense center of the rare book universe.
But wait – as the late-night pitchmen will not hesitate to tell you, there’s more, much more to it than that. In my headline I made a promise to explain why this event is important, not just to the rare book universe but to you, too, gentle reader, who for all I know may be a jet-ski salesman in Dubuque who’s never handled a book more out of the ordinary than a Tom Clancy novel (nothing against Dubuque, or jet-skis, or even Tom Clancy, you understand – I’m just reducing you to a stereotype to make a point. Don’t take it personally). Why should you, Floyd, give a tinker’s damn what goes on inside these Upper East Side walls one weekend a year? What possible bearing could this world – my world – have on yours?
Well, Floyd, consider this: somewhere in the middle of America there’s a flea market. Near the flea market lies a suburban subdivision, of the upper-middle-class variety. One May morning a bereaved widow, nameless, too depressed to make better arrangements, puts all her late husband’s books and office files on the curb. He had been an engineer. He had lots of books, lots of papers. She doesn’t want them around – they’re heavy, they take up space, and they remind her of him. Better they should go to the dump than sit around depressing her.
On his way to the flea market that morning, your namesake, Floyd (the other Floyd), who has been setting up a stall at the flea market every weekend for the past twenty years, spots an enormous pile of books and papers on the curb. Being (like all Floyds) a polite and upright fellow, he knocks on the door and asks if he may take these things to sell at the flea market. “Be my guest,” says our widow. “They’re of no further use to me.”
At the flea market, another fellow – oh, hell, let’s just call him Floyd – looks things over. The books don’t interest him very much, but those old engineering drawings – they’re interesting, even if he doesn’t know what they are. He buys two boxes-full for twenty bucks and leaves, smiling. He knows exactly what to do with them: he heads straight down to the local country auction house, where he puts them in the queue for next week’s sale. He figures to double his money, at least.
In fact, he does better: as it happens, a professional picker (I bet you’ve already guessed his name) shows up at the country auction and senses something unusual, maybe even important, about these drawings. Being an out-of-towner, he’s spotted immediately as a shark, and the local lads run him up a bit. He has to pay $200 for the two boxes, but he still leaves happy. Immediately he gets on the phone to a colleague, a guy he’s known for years who sells old books and paper. He describes the drawings and his buddy says to send them along and he’ll see if he can get a decent price for them.
The boxes arrive, and the dealer recognizes immediately that he’s onto something good: in addition to schematics and nicely-done renderings, there are notebooks full of equations, some patent documents, and even some photographs of what appears to be a finished, working prototype. They’re not really old, but given the subject – jet-skis – they are certainly old enough to possibly be foundational. In fact, that’s exactly how he describes them in his quote to another colleague, a specialist in books and manuscripts on science and engineering, who snaps the archive up at $1500. A steal!
Next stop: the New York Antiquarian Book Fair, where our specialist, after careful research and cataloguing, has devoted an entire glass display-case to the Archive Relating to an Early (1930s) Prototype for the Modern Jet-Ski, Previously Unpublished, Including Working Drawings, Renderings, and Photographs. The price is, by Floyd standards, astronomical – $30,000. But that doesn’t even raise the left eyebrow of the curator of a major New England research institution, who immediately sees the necessity of adding this archive to his collection. Notebooks, drawings, and photos of some 1930s swimsuit model on an antediluvian working jet-ski – what’s not to like? The deal is done, and, lo and behold, what was once a useless, depressing pile of paper on the sidewalk is now an important archive in a major research institution.
And this, Floyd, is where you come back into the picture. Are you ready?
One day a customer comes into your dealership complaining that every time he hits the wake from another jet-ski or a speedboat, water gets into his carburetor and his motor croaks. Serious bummer for a jet-ski enthusiast, especially on those big, ugly midwestern lakes where it’s really no fun to be stranded looking out over hundreds of yards of carp-infested waters between you and the cottonwood trees. Can’t someone do something about it? You hem and haw, say it’s really not your problem, and send the fellow on his way. But in the middle of the night you get to thinking. That carburetor thing really is a problem. You’ve been left stranded a few times yourself. Why hasn’t anyone addressed it? Someone must have thought of this somewhere along the line, mustn’t they?
You can’t sleep, so you get on the internet. You google “jet ski carburetors.” About a thousand hits come up. One of them refers you to a large New England university research library which has assembled the largest extant archive on the history of the jet-ski. “Really?,” you think. “Librarians give a shit about this kind of thing?” On a whim, you drop an e-mail to the curator of the collection and ask if it might be possible to see the Floyd Papers next time you’re in Boston. The curator (who is frankly relieved that someone has taken an interest, since he was beginning to get some friction from his boss over this whole jet-ski fixation) says “Sure, no problem, we’d love to have you. Just drop me an e-mail before your visit so I can retrieve the boxes for you.”
God only knows, Floyd, why a jet-ski salesman from Dubuque makes regular visits to Boston, but let’s not argue the fine points. For whatever reason, there you are, in a Special Collections reading room in one of the most prestigious institutions of higher learning in the country, and spread out before you is a veritable treasure trove of documents that no one in the world is more qualified than you to interpret. And interpret them you do. Who would have dreamed that, in 1938, an unknown engineer would have solved the whole water-in-the-carburetor thing so elegantly, so adroitly, so…cheaply?
Fast-forward two years. You’re in a penthouse office suite, chairman and CEO of the Floyd-U-Retor Corporation. Your net worth is twenty million and climbing, and as you recline and gaze out your window overlooking Greater Dubuque, you wonder: to what do I owe this tremendous good fortune? Well, I’ll answer that question for you, Floyd: you owe it to the rare book trade, which from its very lowest to its uppermost ranks is engaged in the task of preservation. You owe it to the collectors – in this case, the prescient librarian who saw the utility in making the history of the jet-ski available to the public, even if that public consisted of only one person, you. And you owe it to the one place in America where the two come together to achieve an apotheosis of knowledge-sharing, imagination, and creative enterprise. And guess what? It’s not just jet-skis! (for yes, Floyd, there is a world beyond jet-skis). Imagine an enormous room full of such transactions, many with equally humble beginnings, involving medicine, art, printing, politics, ornithology, eschatology, scatology – the whole universe of knowledge compressed into a few million cubic feet filled to brimming with the murmurs of a thousand enthusiasts.
Now: is the New York Book Fair the only place where things like this happen? No, not at all – just as there are thousands of booksellers, ranging from flea market hawkers to Park Avenue salonnieres, there are hundreds of book fairs around the world, some no more than swap meets, others bringing together the best dealers and collectors the world has to offer. But New York in April is the one place you can be sure, every year, that the very best books will have migrated into the hands of the very best minds in the business, to be seen and appreciated by the most sophisticated collectors and curators in the world – and from there, eventually, circuitously, sometimes incrementally, back to you. There’s nothing like it.
Enjoy your cigar, Floyd.
(Posted on Minivan of the Revolution, presented here by permission of the author.)
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