Looking back - Bison Books at the 43rd ILAB Congress
Air travel. I used to loathe flying, anxious to escape the purgatory of waiting to arrive, but I’ve learned to enjoy the opportunity for sleepy reverie. This time though, not so much: a wee-hours start, delayed flights, and a missed connection left me aggravated.
But – when I stepped out the doors of LAX and into the warm Cali air on a Friday night, a friendly face in a red convertible was waiting outside the door, and the ill temper fell away. Casual toss of the bag into the back seat, hop into the front, and down the Freeway to the soundtrack of a local rapper for some authentic flavour, scanning past about a million palm trees silhouetted against the lights of downtown LA. Top down, to my absolute delight, and to the disdain of chilly locals hermetically sealed in their SUVs. Into Pasadena for a mediocre burger and a beer, and to fall into a gratifyingly plush hotel bed.
Saturday, the only unscheduled day of the trip, and a beautiful sunny one. Being my inaugural trip to Cali, the obvious starting point was Hollywood Boulevard, then a sunny walk over to Sunset for a Mexican lunch, flaming margaritas all the better for the dim lighting, tacky paintings hanging over the red vinyl booth. Then a saunter over to The Standard, poolside cocktails amongst the beautiful people, cleaner and hipper than expected but the drink was delish; and a slightly tipsy stroll to Santa Monica Blvd. And that was enough of that, so a little break before heading off to Jumbo’s Clown Room for an eyeful, great music, friendly bartenders, and maybe a few cocktails.
Slept late Sunday, got happily lost on the freeway, some aimless wandering through the pleasant streets of Pasadena, a brief observation of Super Bowl fandom; then back to the hotel, to check-in to the International League of Antiquarian Booksellers’ 2018 Congress! So proud to be included in this group, humbled to be there at the grace of the ABAA scholarship fund … and the swag bag was dreamy!
I was so nervous and intimidated as I got ready for the welcome reception, but true to name, the reception was indeed welcoming! The ice quickly broke as I connected with friendly faces familiar and new, a glass of wine, and the cheese buffet. The string quartet covering metal songs was a nice touch. And these bookseller events don’t end early so we all went back to the Presidential Suite for some “networking opportunities” and bourbon on the 10th floor balcony.
Monday morning. The beginning of the official congress programme! And off to The Huntington for the most jaw-dropping hours of my week. The curators had set up a “reverse book fair” for us: don’t be fooled, this was Show and Tell, though elevated many levels from the grade school version. Staffers were welcoming and friendly, genuinely and contagiously enthusiastic about their books. It was a unique opportunity to make genuine connections with like minds; and when we tore ourselves away it was to head over to the library’s exhibition room, which began, as it would, with no less than The Gutenberg Bible. A Shakespeare First Folio. The Ellesmere manuscript of Canterbury Tales. The manuscript of Walden.
These and so many other things that had only ever existed for me in the realm of imagination. Beautiful, important, historical materials which made my trip a success in the space of the first few hours, and necessitated a solo stroll through the Japanese Gardens so I could pull myself together before a lovely outdoor lunch and more connections made; and a stop in the Orbit Pavilion, whose haunting echoes mirrored the magnificence thundering around in my head. Then, afternoon visits to private libraries so curated, focused, impressive; their owners charming, seemingly as pleased as we were to share their treasures with our sympathetic minds. Dinner at the Rococo room, more new friends adjacent.
Tuesday, and up early to see Gamble House. Arts & Crafts being one of my favourite esthetics, I think I could live there! Through the morning fog and magnificent trees and inside to admire glowing stained glass, gleaming woodwork, lush carpets. A masterpiece of design and a privilege to see. Then over to William Andrews Clark Memorial Library, friendly and welcoming in their newly renovated space, boasting world-class collections of Oscar Wilde, fine press books, and displaying illuminations and illustrations, globes, architecture, and a necessary break for an al fresco lunch and a few minutes in the sun.
For contrast, that day was cold in Winnipeg, like, really cold. Afternoon and over to the Getty for more behind the scenes spectacles, and passionate curators expounding about their treasures. Followed by an in-depth tour of the Caravaggio exhibition, a thought-provoking conversation with the Getty Research Director, discussing the future of the trade, provenance, ethics, the importance of professional associations like ILAB; more wine and cheese, more faces becoming friends, dinner, home.
Wednesday, and a lighter program, starting at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Margaret Herrick Library: movie posters, photos, letters, stills, and other fun stuff to view; afternoon at the Petersen Automotive Museum and it’s undulating steel-ribbon exterior; I’m not a big car fan but it was fun to see Herbie and the Back to the Future car, send the kids a snap of me with the “Cars” cars; and got motion sick on the virtual reality race simulator! A walk in the sunshine fixed me up in anticipation of the evening’s Gala Dinner. Booksellers in their plumage, champagne, flowers made from the leaves of Frankenstein (presumably not a noteworthy edition), speeches, a photo booth (uh-oh), a swing band. At what we dubbed the “kids table”, the company was wonderful, simultaneously easy and challenging. Fulfilling.
Looking around, I was touched to realise that the room was full of friends. A hundred or so people, some legends whose names have been in lights for years, others I hadn’t known at all just a few days prior, but without exception all lovely, warm, and welcoming humans, willing and able to offer up invaluable advice and friendship.
And then, the 51st Annual California International Antiquarian Book Fair!
A shift in the crowd as some faces left and others arrived; at setup I was literally shaking in my boots waiting to check in, shy to open my boxes and set up my humble wares for the book glitterati who’d promised (threatened?) to come by my booth! But of course, it was just fine. My booth mate, Austrian Antiquariat Kainbacher was gracious and friendly, seemingly unbothered by my naivete. More #funwithbooksellers and margaritas in the evening; more setup on Friday and then: opening night! Buzzing anticipation in the air, customers lined up to take in the wares of all 200 booths. Books and objects dizzying in their scope and variety, several times over. A safari tour of books!
The celebratory opening night dinner with some more new friends, was a show-stopping 20-course dinner at the fanciful Bazaar Beverly Hills. Adria olives, caviar, octopus… copious amounts of wine, conversation ranging across the heights and into the gutters of civilization.
The second day of the fair was steady. The crowds so friendly and pleased to be at the fair, the odd opportunity to sneak away and gape at friends’ booths, an Instagram follower became a friend and even came bearing an amazing gift! The warmth of California apparently not limited to the spectacular weather. The day capped with good sushi and good friends. Closing day was Sunday, the fair was steady again, and the evening called for comfort food, Italian, and a last hurrah at the appropriately named “Blind Donkey”. Ouch.
Monday morning traffic, two flights and a layover. 14 hours – but bathed in serenity at the first glimpse of the sweet faces of my sleeping children, and my own bed to fall into.
And here I am, home, in the isolated and cold centre of Canada, physically but not yet philosophically extracted from this immersive and transformative experience. Buoyed by warm feelings from an expanded web of friendship and camaraderie, and walking around with my feet in two worlds. My head in the clouds, distilling the experience, a process that will, hopefully, have an enduring half-life.
Three weeks until New York.
This article was first published by Aimee Peake of Bison Books, Winnipeg (Canada) and is reposted here with permission of the author.