Making the Rounds with Dr. Flamm at the New York Antiquarian Book Fair
The Grolier Club president talks to us about booking in New York City
By Nate Pedersen Nate Pedersen is a contributing writer at Fine Books & Collections.
Andy Rooney of 60 Minutes once declared the New York Antiquarian Book Fair to be the “best book fair in the world,” a fact not missed by the fair’s promoters. What is it about the New York fair that draws such enthusiasm? To help answer that question, we spoke with Dr. Eugene Flamm, chairman of the department of neurosurgery at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, president of the Grolier Club, and prominent public bibliophile. Flamm has made it a habit to attend every New York Book Fair for the past twenty-five years.
“I think the quality of the books is much better at the New York fairs,” said Flamm. “There are more interesting books, not necessarily for me personally, but I think dealers tend to bring their better books. The European dealers sort of save everything for the New York Book Fair because it’s twice as far for them to go out to California.”
Flamm laughed when he said he started accumulating books when he was “about three years old.” But his sincere collecting efforts began when he served a residency at the National Institutes of Health in Washington, D.C. “There was a bookstore there called Old Hickory that was nearby, and I started buying some books from them and gradually it got out of control.”
Flamm collects extensively in the printed history of medicine—in particular books about the brain. Flamm’s collection of early medical books, especially from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, is robust. Flamm said, “Quite frankly, the books I would like to add to my collection now are priced well beyond what I can pay for them.”
Flamm, who has lived in or near New York City for much of his life, began attending the New York Book Fair in the 1960s when it was held at the Commodore Hotel (now the Grand Hyatt). In the early days of his collecting, the fairs were useful for finding books to add to his medical collection. Today, dealers are more likely to phone him if they have something they think he might like.
But Flamm’s other area of collecting—books about books, bibliography, and auction catalogues—still lends itself well to browsing. Flamm said, “Bibliography is most of the time quite affordable. I enjoy it a great deal and feel that it’s germane to my interest in the book world.”
That interest in the book world was codified recently by his election in 2010 to the presidency of the Grolier Club, America’s largest and oldest society for bibliophiles. Flamm’s position as president adds another role to his book fair visits: ambassador. Now he attends book fairs in part to “represent the home team,” he said. Flamm elaborated, “The bigger reasons I go to the fairs these days are to socialize with people I consider my friends—many of the booksellers there—and also now that I’m president of the Grolier Club just to be making the rounds wearing the Grolier tie and making sure everybody remembers the Club.”