Shooting Quail: A Dispatch from the New York Antiquarian Book Fair
Elbert Hubbard, c. 1909
5:00 PM Thursday, March 9th
The 57th annual New York Antiquarian Book Fair preview. I'll attend wearing several hats simultaneously. The poet hat came first. En route to the fair on foot, I spied the renowned scop and critic John Yau counting a wad of bills on a park bench across the street from Nikola Tesla's Radio Wave Building. An auspicious start to a perfect evening to be sure: there was electricity in the air and the poets were counting money. My goal was to see how much treasure I could bring home with $100.
As a lucky talisman I carried a bookmark from my childhood book store, the PIC-A-BAC Paperback Exchange. I needed to muster an efficient, mid-western resolve to slalom through the seasoned pros and find the hidden bin of cheap stuff. The bookmark would soon prove a worthy charm.
I literally felt sheepish as soon as I entered the hallowed hall with my plebian outlook and (relative) pauper's purse. My game of small ball might be hard to play among these pristine association copies, signed first editions, unique ephemera and a mind-boggling abundance of fine art. Maybe they'll let me touch this stuff for $100, I thought. Far from big game, maybe my c-note would get me another antique bookmark?
Soon enough I found Seth Glick from Caliban Book Shop out of Pittsburgh. In short order and with his capable guidance my grubby paws surrounded a formidable stack of poetic collectibles, including a delectable promotional pamphlet for Jean Arp's second exhibition at Curt Valentin Gallery, which was on view on 57th Street this very month in 1954. Another writer and artist, Bob Heman was a discovery worth a sawbuck; prolific and playful, his [15 Structures], a chapbook from 1986 made me want to dust off my saddle stapler. Alternately, Ruari McLean's Modern Book Design made me want to change hats and pull out scissors and get busy slicing and start a collage. Add to that Louis Zukofsky chapbook Found Objects printed in Georgetown, Kentucky in 1962, George Oppen Discrete Series reprint from 1966, Elbert Hubbard's 1909 James Oliver from his fifteen year sequence Little Journeys into the Homes of Great Business Men and the crown jewel: a 1975 limited edition of Baudelaire's Bar Flowers by my undergraduate poetry professor, James Liddy. Irish, irascible, drunken, gay and brilliant, he was an inspirational foil to me while alive and remains a specter from the grave, always in the back of my mind as an ultimate reader. The group of books ran $120.00, but Seth struck a bargain at exactly $100. Not only was a trove to be had for that seemingly paltry sum, the task seemed predestined. I was no longer my mother's little boy tagging along to rummage sales. This was old New York like Ludwig Bemelman scratching onto the walls of the Carlyle, like Meyer Berger at the 1939 World's Fair. This was an unrivalled night in Gotham.Having accomplished the hard part. I was now free to browse among the countless baubles. Despite my covey of quail, I'd seen plenty of high end items worth waxing poetically over in three breezy hours. By the time I realized there was a bar, it was closing. As the guards ushered visitors to the exit, I was delighted to meet the Sackner Archive of Visual and Concrete Poetry in Miami and discuss a visit this December during the art fairs. There was still too much to see. The only problem with the New York Antiquarian Book Fair is that it ends at 9PM.
FRIDAY March 10th 1:00PM
By the look of the coat check line, the printed word is alive and well and cared for by very patient people. The civility in this queue is rivaled only by the oddity of the conversation. Overheard in my mandatory 25 minute wait (you can't bring a shoulder bag into the fair): "it's an extremely scarce pamphlet on gerrymandering" How can you not fall in love with this place?
Proposed advertisement for the 1966 film Harper, starring Paul Newman and Janet Leigh
Upon re-entry, I ran into artist Duncan Hannah, coveting a pair of original paintings of Janet Leigh and Paul Newman for promotion of the film Harper at Royal Books from Baltimore. I ran into dealer David Winter, on the hunt for vernacular photographs from Pittsburgh somebody told him were here somewhere. Browsing might not be the word for the principle activity here, since the fair itself began to cause a kind of fever akin to apoplexy in me. I wanted desperately to change careers, become a rare book dealer and join these ranks of quirky scholars of antique information. And I desperately needed several million dollars.
My mother also instilled in me a peculiar desire for a good deal in addition to a love of books. On particularly dull weekend days she'd suggested to the family that we go to the strip mall and each do our best with one dollar. Then we'd vote on the biggest bargain, the most for your money and the like. It was a clever lesson I recall every time I feel I've gotten a little more than what I paid for on a purchase. With this in mind, I approached Jesse Rossa of Triolet Rare Books in San Luis Obispo. He offered a second, posthumous edition of Frank Stanford's first book The Singing Knives ($250) and one of the 200 mimeographed copies Angel Hair Books made of Frank O'Hara's poem Oranges with illustrations by George Schneeman (again, posthumous) in 1969 ($200) and both were lovely to behold. As was a signed copy of Samuel Beckett's first thin volume, a marvelous poem from 1930 called Whoroscope and priced at £6000. Every booth had something to covet, but million dollar books make me nervous. I was more comfortable with the behemoth hidden on a bottom display case shelf at Lion Heart Autographs. 41 folios of musical manuscript written by Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn. The trove also included over 500 photographs of the two maestros priced at $225.000. I didn't necessarily want to touch it, but was content enough to know the thing existed. In the next aisle I returned to Caliban and spotted rare signed copies of SWEET END and WHERE TO GO/WHAT TO DO/WHEN IN NEW YORK/ WEEK OF JUNE 17, 1972 by concrete poet Bern Porter, priced at $250 and $175.
Several folios from a musical manuscript from Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn
Since I had no one to vote on who got the best bargain or most for their money, I lamented not making the dollar limit 20 times higher. And then I found my own personal Holy Grail at Michael Laird from Lockhart, Texas: an archive of 59 choice promotional ephemera for Mazda Automobile and Home Light Bulbs from 1910-1920, each slice of near mint paper in a Mylar sleeve, each sleeve slipped neatly into a delicious red presentation case ($1200). Suddenly, it seemed a good idea to leave before going completely broke.
SUNDAY MARCH 12th 6:30 AM
I awake in a jolt, dreaming of strolling the Armory bookstalls and unable to carry all the books I want to purchase. I need to go back to the fair at all costs. It's clear I'm developing a problem and need to look at that light bulb stash one last time.
By fair's end, dealers are hoarse and weary, but also amenable to making last minute sales happen. This is more an enthusiast's yawp than a market report, but it seemed that most dealers were pleased with the long weekend. I met the kindly folks at Kunsthaus from Prague, who's shelves were looking successfully barren. Among the early 20th century advertising delicacies were a lot of five coffin catalogs for the morbid sense of humor, they could be had for about $70 each. There was Andre Breton's copy of Richard Huelsenbeck's Dada Almanach of 1920, complete with Breton's hand written special order receipt at Jean-Baptiste de Proyart from Paris ($5,400). Just one last spin before the guards were again ushering me out the door. Here was Jean Arp's "Calligraphic drawing for George Hugnet" from the mid 1920's and a belly-bound Kurt Schwitters' Die Kathedrale of 1920, at Abeceda from Munich, of which the dealer writes "From utmost rarity, we could not trace any other copy with an undamaged label in the trade in the past decades" ($3,800 and $16,000 respectively). Having just refreshed my memory of Professor Liddy's early work, I was reminded his lines "Expanding infinitely like amber music... sing the paroxysms of intelligence and sensuality." Imbibed with literary and artistic mojo, this place is manna for the paper wonk, more fun than any art fair I've attended, and the people are nicer.
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