Bright Young Booksellers: Helene Golay

Our Bright Young Booksellers series continues today with Helene Golay of Lorne Bair Rare Books in Winchester, Virginia:

helene golay lorne bair.jpg

How did you get started in rare books?

I think I fall somewhere between the categories “It was a complete accident” and “I was born to do it.” I graduated from Bowdoin in the spring of 2009, which was at the time the worst year on record to be out looking for work (Great Depression notwithstanding). I moved to Texas for sentimental reasons and, after a few weeks of waitressing, was offered a position at the rare books and special collections library at Texas A&M. This meant I got to catalogue some truly beautiful and intelligent private and curated libraries, including those of my former boss Larry Mitchell and the late Robert Dawson, as well as part of the University’s Cervantes collection. Everything changed in the summer of 2011 when I managed to hitch a ride to the RBMS pre-conference in scenic Baton Rouge, where I spent the first heady day amongst ABAA dealers at the bookseller showcase. It was my first encounter with the rare book trade, and Lorne swears to this day that he overheard me say to a colleague: “What’s the f***** deal with all these booksellers?” (This would have been two years before he even met me.) We both know now that this what I was really thinking was, “[Blasphemous epithet], how the hell can I get into this racket?” As will sometimes happen with first love, I ditched my pride and sent my resumé to every ABAA dealer in my hometown of New York (because after two and a half years Texas had finally worn thin). Fred Schreiber took pity on me and recommended me to Jim Cummins, with whom I interned through the spring, and from Jim Cummins I plied Rob Rulon-Miller with beer, which led to two and a half years of employment with him in St. Paul, Minnesota, from whence I made the obvious transition, in the fall of 2014, to Lorne Bair Rare Books.

What is your role at Lorne Bair Rare Books?

My fellow worker Amir Naghib has a broken hand as I write this, so I’ll say that I’m currently the brawn of the operation. But like most booksellers, I’m a bit of a jack-of-all-trades. Officially I think I’m the “Head Cataloger,” or at least that’s how Lorne sometimes refers to me when he’s on the phone with a stranger. I’m also the self-titled Alfred Jarry fangirl in residence. 

What do you love about the book trade?

Oh lord, the people. I find that the younger generation of the trade is especially salty and intelligent--a pleasure to spend my life with and thankfully I work for Lorne, the best of them. It’s very hard to be a successful bookseller right now and I think as a result the trade has attracted a lot of very idiosyncratic and blindingly intelligent people who probably “marched to their own drum” as children. I obviously can’t ignore the books, they tend to be as interesting as their sellers and I take an embarrassing amount of pleasure in sitting at my desk with a pile of uncatalogued books, passing them through the sieve, so to speak, and learning from them. 

Describe a typical day for you.

I like to start the morning squabbling with Lorne over whose turn it is to make coffee and tend to the office cat’s hygienic needs. Then I spend the rest of the day cataloging, editing images, selling books, and doing my utmost to avoid hard mylar and the phone when it rings.

Favorite rare book (or ephemera) that you’ve handled?

I admit I enjoy a challenge. Currently on my desk is possibly the earliest published appearance of the Haitian dictator François “Papa Doc” Duvalier, inscribed by him both as Duvalier and his Action Nationale pseudonym “Abderrahman.” A previous owner has rather ominously redacted throughout the entire book the first name of one of the co-authors, Arthur Bonhomme, who would later serve as a Haitian ambassador to the United States. The book itself is an important early contribution to the négritude movement and is exceedingly uncommon--my guess is that older “livres brochés” (this one is dated 1934) don’t tend to thrive in the Haitian climate. In the grand scheme of things this probably wouldn’t be what I’d refer to as my “favorite” book, but it is certainly the one that’s freshest on my mind.

What do you personally collect?

In terms of reading material, I have a relatively healthy collection of World War I history. As for items I’ve accidentally collected which are on prominent display in my apartment, I have about twenty booklets of Tintin decals (ca. 1960); a racy pulp novel titled Assignment Helene, bequeathed to me by Amir and Lorne on my first day at Lorne Bair Rare Books; a French ad for fezzes marketed to colonial African shoppers; and a pair of vintage cat photographs. If there’s a theme, I don’t know what it is, though of the items described, two of them happened to be uncharacteristically colorful things I found chez Garrett Scott.

What do you like to do outside of work?

When there’s money left over, I’ve been learning to ride a horse “Western” style (which means you don’t need to wear those fancy pants) and I write the occasional review for the local film club. I also cook quite a bit. Last winter I decided to roast a duck after work on a week night--it took until midnight and was a bit of a preposterous undertaking for a woman who lives alone, but I did feast for three days after, grease fire in my oven notwithstanding. It goes without saying that I also try to read like a vacuum. 

Thoughts on the present state and/or future of the rare book trade?

I’m a pretty firm believer in apprenticeship. When I decided I wanted to be a bookseller, I wanted to be able to start off on my own immediately, though where the money was going to come from was a vast and unsurpassable mystery. I don’t think a penniless youngster, no matter how smart, should really consider diving in without at least a few years with a seasoned veteran. There’s not much room for big mistakes if you’re starting out on your own without any previous knowledge of the trade.

Any upcoming fairs or catalogues?

We’ve just sent out an online list of postcolonial literature, of which I’m rather proud. Catalog 22 mailed in September and Catalog 23 is already in the early gestation period, though the marathon of cataloging, editing, and layout hasn’t yet begun. I’m hoping to make it to the Boston fair for the first time this year if only to contribute absolutely nothing to the annual trivia competition. I’m also co-curating with Lorne an exhibit at the Yale Law Library on the Tom Mooney trial, which will open in March to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the San Francisco Preparedness Day Bombing.

Nominations for entries in our Bright Young Booksellers series can be sent to nathan@finebooksmagazine.com

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