Our series profiling the next generation of antiquarian booksellers continues today with Joe Fay, manager of the rare books department for Heritage Auctions in Texas.
How did you get started in rare books?
I’ve visited a bookstore at least once a week since I was 11 years old. There is a chain of used bookstores founded in the Dallas area called Half Price Books. There were two in my childhood hometown of Arlington, Texas. Between HPB, the little paperback shop down the street from my house, and the school library, my interest in books started young. My interest in rare books and manuscripts, however, began while in college in Austin, specifically the day when I learned that I could go to the Harry Ransom Center and hold in my hands the original manuscript for a Sherlock Holmes story (“A Scandal in Bohemia”). I couldn’t believe that I could just walk in the building, show them an ID, and get to read what, to me, is a priceless artifact of literary history. Later, while working at Half Price Books just after college, I ran into the Nicholas Basbanes books, the books about rare books by the Goldstones, the Rosenbach biography, and many other books-about-books in that vein. These tales of the rare book trade, the landmark auctions, and the people who inhabited this world further stoked an interest in working in the field of rare books. Then, after working a “real job” for awhile in medical informatics (yeah, it’s as exciting as it sounds), an opportunity came open at Heritage for an entry-level position in the Americana department. I jumped at the chance to work with objects of all types that ran the gamut of American history. Six or eight months later, my current boss, James Gannon migrated to Heritage Auctions from the recently-closed (and now revamped) Heritage Book Shop in Los Angeles. I volunteered to be his lieutenant, and the rare books department at Heritage Auctions was born.
What is your role at Heritage? Do you have a particular specialty?
I currently serve as the manager of, and one of the consignment directors for, the rare books department. I solicit consignments of rare books for our catalogs and also our weekly Internet auctions. On top of that, I manage our catalog production, serve as the main customer service contact for our department, and generally do whatever is necessary, including cataloging books for the main sales once the deadline has passed. I also handle appraisals, purchase the occasional collection for re-sell at auction, and travel all over the country securing consignments, and attending book fairs and appraisal fairs.
As an auctioneer, it really doesn’t pay to specialize. We see such a broad spectrum of material in printed books and manuscripts of all eras, maps, prints, original art, and more that we have to be generalists. I especially enjoy handling handpress period books and early American imprints, and have been able to learn more deeply about each from classes at Rare Book School at the University of Virginia. My particular personal interests are in genre fiction from the Romantic period to the present, including science fiction, fantasy, mystery, and most importantly, horror: Polidori and Shelley; the Sherlock Holmes books of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle; Arkham House imprints; H. P. Lovecraft, Ray Bradbury and Stephen King. And then all of the side roads, back alleys and dark, deserted streets that fork off from those subjects.
What do you love about book auction events, or more broadly, the book auction business?
There are many things to love about the book auction business. First, I’m lucky enough to work with books each day. I get to travel quite a bit, too. Also, as some of the other book dealers who’ve appeared in this series have said (and it holds true for the auction business), I just never know what I’m going to see next, what’s going to come across my desk each day, what kind of collection will be revealed in the next phone call, or what that Excel file attached to the next email will contain. No two days are remotely alike. Further, I generally just love talking about books with collectors and dealers, finding out what someone collects and trying to fill vacancies for them in their holdings. I often get to do this once the catalog is completed, and we start “selling the sale.” Lastly, there’s an excitement to auction day that is almost electric, at times. Sitting in the room last week in New York when the Francis Crick Nobel Prize medal sold for over $2 million, my hands were shaking as the increments climbed. Then, when the hammer fell, I felt my heart start again as the applause rolled through the crowd. We also set two world records at auction last week, one for an unsigned first printing of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone and one for an inscribed copy of H. G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds (inscribed to W. W. Jacobs, author of “The Monkey’s Paw”). Those are the kinds of results I’ll remember fondly even decades from now.
Favorite rare book that you’ve handled?
On a personal level, my single favorite book that I’ve handled at Heritage was the first book Stephen King ever signed, an advance proof copy of Carrie that King inscribed to his former college roommate, Phil “Flip” Thompson. It sold last year at our New York auction for $11,250. The inscription reads, “For Flip and Karen - two of the best there are - and I mean that - by the way, this is the first book I’ve signed in my life - it’s kind of fun. All the best, no matter what. Stephen King February 4, 1974.” Are you kidding me!? I’m a nostalgic fool, and sometimes it seems like Stephen King WAS my childhood. His books, and the films made from them, permeated the culture when I was growing up, and to hold the first book he ever signed was a religious moment for me.
What do you personally collect?
It’s changed over the years. At some point in the past, I’ve collected baseball cards, comic books, bookmarks, Star Wars toys, foam fingers from sporting events, chess sets, craft beer, movies, movie posters, silk-screened music posters, and Mr. Potato Heads. I still collect movie posters (generally genre movies and anything printed in the early days for the original Alamo Drafthouse), art made by my kids (which all but wallpapers the house and I LOVE it!), and a friend of mine recently introduced me to the wonderful world of mid-century furniture. I think I’ve finally settled on a few areas of book collecting, namely books about books, Lovecraft, Bradbury and King, scholarly works regarding the Sherlock Holmes stories, McSweeney’s publications, and any imprints, posters or ephemera published by the Harry Ransom Center (or the Humanities Research Center as it was once known).
I have a grand dream that someday I’ll have the time and wherewithal to collect together in one place every single printed and recorded expression of horror from the 1980s: novels, story collections, periodicals, posters, videos, ephemera, you name it. But I probably won’t live that long, make nearly enough money, or be able to stretch my wife’s patience that far.
Thoughts on the present and future of book auctions?
First of all, the “book” is here to stay. Period. And I’ll stand up and fight (with words, of course) anyone who says differently. Every generation sounds the death knell of the book, and it ain’t happened yet. Book auctions are only going to get better, I think. With the Internet and tools like the Heritage online bidding platform, Heritage Live!, anyone, anywhere, at any time of day or night can bid from his or her home, office, or wherever he or she can catch a wireless signal. As technology like this helps more people grow comfortable with bidding at auction, I think you’ll see it become an even bigger and more muscular vehicle for transmitting books directly to collectors and institutions.
Any upcoming auctions you’re particularly excited about?
I’m always excited about our next sale, which is October 10-11 in Beverly Hills. You can see it develop at www.ha.com/6100
. It is early yet, but we’re working on some fantastic single items and collections for that catalog. Personally, I’m also always interested in the Illustration Art auctions (next one in July) and Movie Posters (also July, but I pay most attention to their weekly Internet auctions). Needless to say, there’s always something afoot at Heritage.