On the Road in LA
The ABAA Show - a mosaic of interests
It never rains in southern California. That's how the song goes and that's the way it was in Pasadena, site of the Rose Bowl Parade and the Rose Bowl two months ago and the ABAA Antiquarian Book Fair a few weeks back. The weather for the fair was gorgeous, the hotels close to the convention center, the restaurants satisfactory. The hardest thing about the trip was controlling the TV remote in my hotel room that did everything it could to deliver a paid channel when the free ones were sufficient. The Oakland Airport, in the San Francisco penumbra, offered quick and frequent Southwest non-stops to the Bob Hope Airport in Burbank that is only twenty minutes by cab to downtown Pasadena. Getting there was easy. Not buying - that was more difficult.
This year the ABAA fair moved from downtown LA into the southern California countryside, to Pasadena, a place once nearby to the entire LA metro but now made distant by the heavy traffic. Landing at Burbank trumped the driving problem by being a slim 20 minutes by taxi to the recently rebuilt Pasadena Convention Center.
The show opened to the public on Friday, February 12th at 3:00 pm. Admission for the first day with return privileges for the next two was $25. Exhibiting members were given plenty of free passes that they tried hard to give to other exhibitor's best customers. Their own best customers were much less likely to receive one. After all, who would invite their best customers into a bookseller's feeding frenzy? Nevertheless, the traffic was solid, the $25 an insufficient barrier to keep the motivated away.
The entrance was at the near corner of the exhibition site and its position fed most traffic straight down isle one along the right hand wall. Lucky exhibitors in this row would see and be seen by virtually every guest. After a while the traffic, having rounded the turn at the end of that row made its way back up row two. At the top of row two the flow naturally turned to proceed down isle three. In total there were eight isles and as you might expect progress was slow. I started at 3:00 and by 8:00 pm, when the closing bell sounded, had browsed five isles. On Saturday the fair opened at 11:00 am and I walked to the far row and worked my way back. The final three rows took three hours, my visit concluding at 2:00 pm. I then caught a taxi back to the airport and took a Southwest flight at 3:20 arriving in Oakland at 4:05 pm. Efficient.
On the Road in LA
Charles Kutcher of Kaaterskill Books
The show felt like a main street, actually an upscale neighborhood, in the world of serious books. The disappearance of the rare book shop, long a trend, has transformed the occasional book fair from an option into a necessity for both booksellers and book buyers for this is now one of the few places where the two sides can meet without the embedded expectations of an appointment. Because fairs by default are replacing open shops the book fairs also need to provide more information on and about collecting. True, the shows are organized to sell but collectors can feel the ground shifting without necessarily understanding the tectonic changes that are turning serious collecting into something far more complex than buying costume jewelry. Dealers often ask high prices and it's logical a person writing a check for $5,000 or $50,000 is going to believe, and I think expect, the price to be justified by something more than "this is the best copy I've ever handled" or "you won't see it again." Such information however potentially undermines credibility and prices and so is approached gingerly. This is after all a selling fair, not a college course.
The show in fact struck me as two separate events, one for the pro and the other for the amateur. The less serious, I suppose casual, collector would more readily accept the asking price and be taken with pristine [although not always original] appearance. The serious collector, focused on connection and appropriateness, condition, provenance and price, if asked sotto voce, might suggest a price they would pay.
I sat with a serious amateur collector for fifteen minutes while waiting for the doors to open Saturday morning. He explained that he buys for fun and satisfaction and I said most collectors begin that way but time has a way of altering perspective and he should expect to someday care if his collection has made economic sense. "You'll have more options and fun if you collect well" I told him. He said he's thinking about it and headed off, anxious to scratch his collecting itch. The challenge for him today is acquisition. For serious collectors parsing the titles while chatting up the booksellers, it’s the rarity and value.
On the Road in LA
Jeff Weber of Weber Rare Books
For another dealer-collector with an eye on an appealing item the process was very different. He logged into the AED Sunday morning to see its current value and confirm its rarity. Armed with this information he then approached the dealer for a negotiation.
Yet another dealer-collector, pursuing a fresh approach to collecting, is acquiring things that fit into what he hopes will become a new category. In approaching his collecting this way he is able to acquire material less expensively. In time he'll publish a catalogue or book that new collectors may use to pursue the field he is defining.
For myself I saw several items. One, a map of the Hudson River in the 1820s, seemed exceedingly rare if also possibly unimportant. Such maps are usually hand-colored, this one uncolored. Its appeal is that Rondout at Kingston [New York] is not shown and that's consistent with the emergence of Rondout, a now forgotten place, as the exit/entrance for the Delaware & Hudson Canal to the Hudson River in the late 1820s. What's strange is that Kingston, an already important place in New York state history and soon to be the alpha to Rondout's emerging omega, is also omitted. If the mapmaker was paying any attention Kingston would have been shown - thus leaving me wondering if Rondout was also an omission, not just the last gasp of New York State mapmaking before Rondout springs to life. In any event I may be the only person on the planet who cares.
Another item, a book of engravings, was also interesting. The book has no title page and I believe was simply the binding together of various woodcut drawings of New York. If so, its probably one of a kind and the images are pristine.
A third item, in fact a category, is a new catalogue of pocket maps issued by Donald Heald. I collect material relating to the Hudson Valley and Mr. Heald typically handles exceptional examples. I’m considering two items. This catalogue and two others recently issued will reward a careful reading.
As to exceptional items I ran across that are outside my collecting scope but I think of potential interest to very serious collectors the first is a keep-sake script of King Kong that is inscribed by the director. It is both absurdly rare and the very definition of 20th century iconic. One suspects someone will climb the Empire State Building to get it. In fact, it is easier than that. L. W. Currey of Elizabethtown, New York offers it. The price is $125,000.
The other item is more expensive, a Caxton printing of the Bible in latin. This copy is rebound but is among the rarest and most desirable of early printings. It's offered by Heritage Book Shop for $1.5 million. This book lives in the same neighborhood with the Columbus Letters and Audubon Birds. Most of us will never get there but its interesting to look in the windows.
In this fair three planets exerted their gravitational pull and knowledge was the invisible force. Dealers, casual and knowledgeable collectors mixed it up to great effect. For myself it was a rewarding experience, the weather was great and the flights were on time.