At the annual New York Antiquarian Book Show, even the paper within a bookseller’s catalog, has a refined air. A fragrance if you will, of expensively printed sheets of paper, beautifully bound with my favorite illustration from In Powder and Crinoline by Kay Nielsen’s hand.Within its pages are detailed descriptions of tomes I’ve never heard of from so many years ago, it’s fascinating any exist. Blackwell’s Rare Books, Antiquarian and Modern, lists book prices in pounds, something that always throws me when calculating if I can afford a title. My initial reaction is, oh, that’s not so terribly high, then reality sets in and I double the price seen, and find not only can I not afford it, I can’t think of anyone who could.
Apparently there are quite a number of collectors who not only can afford what’s within that particular bookseller’s inventory, but many other dealer’s wares within the walls of the Armory Building off of Park Ave in the lower 60s. The building itself is impressive. Pomp is its particular style with grand staircases and various paraphernalia standing in shadowy corners. Why the lighting is kept so abominably low at all times is a puzzle to me. I’ve been to this book show many times in the past, and I’ve never been able to see a hand in front of me when in the lobby. One is drawn by the light at the end of the hall, civilization seems to be thriving within there, and I hasten towards the living, leaving the remnants of past wars behind in the dark. My husband and I have not been here in a decade, not much seemed changed. The booths are erected within the huge space, creating a more intimate setting than it has in reality. There are numerous publications laying on tables as you enter, including the aforementioned catalog, and I stupidly pile them in my arms, thereby assuring I will be burdened with them throughout my time perusing, because quite rightfully, book bags, large purses, or bags of any kind are not permitted within. My left arm became numb from gripping the slippery things as I tried to maneuver my right to open and examine valuable volumes.
My first stop was a favorite dealer, one with whom I’d bought from in the past, when I was more gainfully employed and could afford to spend the allotted disposable income on rare children’s books in pristine condition. There are two first rate antiquarian children’s books dealers and they both attend this show. The first, Aleph-Bet Books have been lovely to myself and my husband. We purchased The Ship That Sailed to Mars, our prize possession, from them, they allowed us to take the book with us and pay off the last 100 dollars over time . I’ve also bought some first rate perfect condition Volland Art Deco illustrated titles in their original boxes.They’ve sent us catalogs, gorgeous things with pictures of each cover, over the years. Even when not able to purchase, they would still send them. But costs being what they are, they now need for potential buyers to pay a subscription fee, which I feel is justified, considering the high quality of their catalogs. These and the ones from the other premiere seller, JoAnn Reisler, are almost an education within themselves. Ms. Reisler also sells the original art used for illustrated children’s books. Some, vintage, others from contemporary illustrators such as Michael Hague. Tasha Tudor is greatly featured within her catalogs. We were saddened to learn of her husband’s passing. Each catalog would give us a glimpse into their lives, we’ve seen their grandson grow up from catalog photos. In true bookman’s style, she is carrying on, sans catalogs for now. Both of these booksellers are the ones to visit if you are looking for pristine copies of antiquarian children’s literature.
I was hoping either of them might have brought along a copy of In Powder and Crinoline. Although I’d seen copies in Aleph-Bet Books booth in the past, I’d never the nerve to ask if I might look inside, even though they encourage people to view their stock, carefully, of course. We had brought my friend along, and I wanted her to see up close the original prints from a magnificent volume, so I did ask to see the Kay Nielsen classic. The owner’s daughter brought the book out of the locked glass case, and was wonderful enough to turn the pages for me, because I was too nervous to touch the book myself. The price tag was $5,000 due to it being one of only a few that contained the two extra illustration plates. The illustrations were breathtaking. The delicacy of line, the vibrant hues can only be hinted at in reproductions I’ve seen in other books and online. If I was the recipient of an inheritance from some heretofore unknown relative, a partial of it would purchase that book!
Such a great number of dealers wish to attend, a lottery is drawn to see who gets in, at least according to one dealer. Many booth’s specialties are not within my collecting criteria, so I glide on by. Those contain ancient manuscripts, or, ancient to me-1700s and older. Some dealers provide titles within my interest, but are so expensive I tend to drift by them too, perhaps glancing just a little at the unattainable stock. Peter L. Stern and Company is a modern first edition dealer, and has amazing pieces. I was acquainted with him when a book seller, but never attempted to purchase a book, I’d have had to go hungry for months, years, maybe a lifetime. Between The Covers have an equally outrageous price range. And rather make a point of making you feel unworthy. My mother and I once entered their portals when the actual store was within a few miles. Either it’s because they knew me as a bookseller and one who helped her boss with a catalog mimicking their layout and were therefore hostile, or the individual bookseller was simply hostile. Doesn’t matter. I don’t visit their booth at any show at any time any more. Not so my husband. He gets a thrill out of handling $50,000 books, just to drive me to distraction, or them maybe. To give you an idea of their stock, on the front page of their differently
designed catalog, The Great Gatsby, first printing, first state, in first printing dust jacket is yours for a pittance–$200,000.000. And is probably almost worth that, given its rarity. But on other more common pieces, their prices are just a smidgeon pigeon higher than the average bookseller.
My friend went into shock when first encountering the dollar amounts attached to books. She had no idea people would spend that kind of money on what is after all, just print on paper, bound in reinforced boards. She appreciates the beauty and gets collecting, she does some herself, but not on this grand of a scale. Very few people do. But many must, because the book show which has existed for many a moon, is still going strong. My husband almost, almost, succumbed to the book fever when spotting dust jacket art by the artist he collects–Gene, one he’d not known of. Naturally, it was a hefty price, but not undoable, if we were willing to sacrifice, something. And guess who the dealer was? Yep. They did give him a better price, but better is not affordable for us at this point, so sadly, he had to place it back on the shelf. I told him, it was either that book, or our vacation, and he decided wisely that traveling around taking pictures of Muffler Men and weird roadside attractions was more important than the book gathering dust on our shelves, as the other Genes are doing. We three left empty handed, but satisfied to have been voyeurs of rare pieces of literature for a few happy hours.