Fairs | April 2009 | Stephen J. Gertz

The 2009 New York Antiquarian Book Fair: The View From Twin Peaks

After packing books, traveling, checking-in to a hotel with an unfamiliar and uncomfortable bed, awaking jet-lagged, haggard, with lower and upper back muscle kinks, or with a serious case of post-cross country driving fatigue, then unpacking books and setting up, most dealers start the Fair exhausted, this writer included, and it's downhill from there. As a consequence, one begins the Fair in a twilight dream state prone to hallucinations, mild to major, and a peculiar sensitivity to events generally associated with the occult, surrealism, or Rod Serling. But maybe that's just me. Probably.

The Fair opened last Thursday evening, a private showing to benefit the Morgan Library. This year the benefit was not as crowded as in prior years, no doubt due to the Madoff Effect and the general economic thrill-ride to hell leaving the well-heeled worn-heeled, their Baroni suits with frayed collar and lapels. The only benefit they were truly interested in, apparently, was that which TARP funds might reap. Clearly, the mega-bonuses were being saved for a rainy day. Yet though it rained in New York that night there was no concomitant shower of simoleans inside the Park Avenue Armory, specifically within the Armory's Wade Thompson Drill Hall where the Fair took place.

"The Armory was built by New York State's prestigious Seventh Regiment of the National Guard, the first volunteer militia to respond to President Lincoln's call for troops in 1861. Members of what was known as the 'Silk Stocking' Regiment included New York's most prominent Gilded Age Families including the Vanderbilts, Van Rensselaers, Roosevelts, Stewarts, Livingstons and Harrimans. Built as both a military facility and a social club, the reception rooms on the first floor and the Company Rooms on the second floor were designed by the most prominent designers and artists of the day including Louis Comfort Tiffany, Stanford White, Herter Brothers and Pottier & Stymus. The Armory's 55,000 square foot drill hall, reminiscent of the original Grand Central Depot and the great train sheds of Europe, remains one of the largest unobstructed spaces of its kind in New York. A marvel of engineering in its time, it was designed by Regiment veteran and architect Charles W. Clinton."

Though the latter-day Greedy and Gulled Age Silk Stocking regiment marched in louche-step around the hall in close order, they had holes in their socks, feet blistered by current events. Very sad. I was offered an apple by one of the recently fallen but though it was deeply discounted from its $250,000 asking price, I had to decline; my mother taught me to always have a dime for an emergency phone call and I needed it, no matter that a phone call hasn't cost a dime in decades and phone booths are history.

After doing the N.Y. Fair and the Morgan Library benefit for years, old, familiar faces are seen. Fashion designer Mary McFadden was in attendance, still defying age and 20-20 vision, her hair a shade of black not occurring in nature but matching her outfit and overly Mabelline'd eye-liner and lashes, her facial structure and derma surgically preserved as a living death mask, her skin a shade of white generally associated with Dracula's daughter, here Dracula's grandmother. We're talking Morticia Adams with a Louise Brooks bob. She was accompanied by her ninety-one year old paramour, Marquette de Bary, who didn't look a day over eighty-five.

And She was there, again, parading the aisles. She being a tall drag queen, her pate covered with a huge platinum blond wig styled ala Vidal Sassoon on steroids. She wore a tight, hips and enhanced-breast enhancing Valentino-red dress with straps that highlighted her daddy-was-a-fullback shoulders, and stilettos that reached for the Hubble telescope. I will pass over her make-up job. Suffice it to say, My Fair-To-Be-Charitable Lady was a sight to behold, a parody of alluring womanhood. In fairness, this person is a noted and knowledgeable collector of art books with an excellent eye and though my mother taught me to always play in traffic, talk to strangers and accept candy from them, I've yet to strike up a conversation with this individual.

The Fair finally opened to the public on Friday. Dealer expectations for trade and public sales were very low and were met. One dealer, a British firm with a long and noble history, sold a total of one book during the entire weekend, a $3,000 volume. Their profit margin barely covered the cost of a glass of orange juice on their hotel's breakfast menu. Expensive books forlornly sat on shelves. It was reported to me that some dealers with high five-figure books were offering discounts up to 50% yet still had no takers. Few dealers were selling books at their posted prices, with most adjusting for grim reality and plane-fare back home. The action, such as it was, was in the $2500 and below range, and dealers who had interesting material at a price did alright, particularly if their booths were located to the front and middle of the Armory floor. If you were on the side aisles down toward the end of the hall, you'd have been better off if your booth was located in Ulan Bator. While I haven't checked the official figures, attendance seemed to be down from last year

2009 New York Antiquarian Book Fair, Park Avenue Armory, Saturday April 4th, 1PM. Or so it seemed.

From The Big Book of Rare Book Trade Jokes, appropriate to this year's Fair:

?? One morning on the way to opening up, a rare book dealer is walking down the street where his shop is located. There's a long line of people snaked up the block and around the corner. He follows the line to its origin, which miraculously begins at the entrance to his shop.

"What's going on," the shocked dealer asks the first person in line.

"All of us who've ever said to you, 'Let me think about it,' and then left have actually returned to buy a book."

?? How do you retire from the rare book business with a million dollars? Start with five million.

?? Definition of a rare book shop: Where old books go to die.

Saturday and Sunday brought another interesting person to my -  and everyone else's - attention. She was a short woman, circa 60+, who  appeared to have stepped out of 60's counterculture comix: An aged, hippie chick with natural, parted down the middle semi-frizzed hair past her shoulders; beaded bangles and leather bracelets on her wrists, poured into a tight, spaghetti-strapped floral mini-dress that just barely covered once generous now stingy breasts and extended to just millimeters below the female gift to mankind, her thighs and caboose strong and bountiful if no longer sturdy, forelegs ensheathed in funky, knee-high leather boots. In short, R. Crumb's wet dream.

There were, to be sure, three highlights at the Fair this year.

A first edition, first printing, first issue copy of H. Rider-Haggard's King Solomon's Mines (1885) surfaced. The bibliographical points to the extremely rare first issue of King Solomon's Mines are simple, revolving - as these things often do - around the date of the advertisements found at the rear. It's a scarce, low-five figure book, David Brass reporting that in over forty years in the trade he'd seen only three first issue copies. So, what's the big deal about King Solomon's Mines, the basis for six film adaptations, at least two of which were really bad movies? It is, simply, the prototype for the modern adventure novel, that's all; a major book, and the genesis of the Lost World genre of literature.


The biggest book to surface at the Fair was a first edition, first printing copy of Kenneth Graham's The Wind in the Willows in dust jacket. In dust jacket: alert the media. Like The Great Gatsby, fairly easy to obtain without dust jacket with prices hovering between $8500-$12,000, the price for a first edition copy of The Wind in the Willows with the dust jacket in just about any condition skyrockets into the $100,000+ stratosphere.

The final highlight was the brownies offered by Lux Mentis, Ian Kahn's firm from Portland, ME. These were not just any ordinary brownies. Rich and chocolatey, they were topped with very tasty, firm vanilla icing that sported the visually satisfying, full color and cool Lux Mentis logo illustration. I have no idea how this is accomplished but I presume by some sort of black magic or offset-icing lithography by Betty Crocker. By this one sweet giveaway and Mr. Kahn's predilection for minute to minute Facebook status updates that have made me more aware of his daily life than my own, Portland cements its reputation as an up and coming book town to be reckoned with.

I end this impressionistic account by relating a foreboding incident that occurred upon deplaning in New York. While waiting at the baggage carousel, I spotted someone who looked familiar but due to acute post-transcontinental flight derangement I did not immediately recognize. Standing next to a baggage skycap neatly dressed in a clean, dark suit with crisp white shirt and tie, the man was a shamble of wrinkled, ill-fitting and worn pants, white shirt buttoned at the collar that appeared to have been slept in for week, sport jacket that for politeness could best be characterized as loose construction fit from better days, three-day beard, eyes puffy enough for him to be charged for excess baggage, with a deeply cragged face and a shock of near-white hair that seemed to be attempting a desperate flight from his scalp. I know this guy, I thought, but who is he? Samuel Beckett's ghost? Then he opened his mouth, and I knew. Now, in retrospect, everything about the 2009 New York Fair falls into place.

Though the Log Lady was not in attendance, Special Agent Dale Cooper wasn't waxing eloquent on the virtues of a good slice of pie and a nice cuppa joe, Laura Palmer's dead body was not found in a dealer's booth wrapped in clear plastic sheeting, there were no reports of surreal dreams involving a one-armed man named Mike, no one wore blue velvet or compulsively huffed on a bottle of nitrous oxide, and the Elephant Man was a no-show, the strange, dream-state quality that permeated the Fair was assured by the portent of the shabby man all alone at night in J.F.K. airport's baggage claim zone, the man who Mel Brooks once characterized as "James Stewart From Mars," and who haunted the Park Avenue Armory like Eraserhead haunted (and halted) my desire for a child.

I presume that David Lynch made it to his hotel that night without detour to the Lost Highway.

ehhead1.jpgPortrait of the writer, post-2009 New York Antiquarian Book Fair