An Upstate New York Perspective
Jenny and Bruce McKinney, partners in all things
By Bruce McKinney
In early July  Jenny and I spent eight days traversing New York State's northern tier in search of books, book dealers and information. We flew into Buffalo and home from Albany, spent a day in Canada and two at Worcester, Massachusetts, visited half a dozen dealers and had discussions with four. We saw and learned a great deal. I set out with the supposition that a significant portion of collectible material in the books, manuscripts, maps and ephemera categories is not on line and returned knowing much more about the relationship between the internet and retail business. I'll start by discussing the trip and then offer some perspective.
We arrived in Buffalo from San Francisco on Sunday evening July 9th and made straight for the Hyatt Regency Downtown, chosen because it is located in the old part of the city. We ate at the bar as the restaurant was closed and met Patricia, the first of many very open and helpful locals who were quick to answer questions and offer suggestions. On a bar stool we received an introduction to the city along with a handful of maps and guides.
On Monday we visited Niagara Falls, first the American and then the Canadian side. The American side is for those who wish to see the water disappear and the Canadian side for those who prefer to see it fall. We seemed to be about a century late for the American side that has a persistent worn feeling. This was probably once quite a place but urban renewal that has cleaned up decay in many cities hasn't made much of an impression here and it's an easy decision to cross into Canada for a view from the west. The Canadian side is Manhattan to the American side's Bronx and we may be the only ones in the area who didn't know it because the crowds on the Canadian side are Disneylandesque. This is a theme park and there are even rides. Maid of the Mist ferries carry a continuing stream of ready-to-get-wetters to their Niagara Falls baptism in the primal mist that is always rising from the crashing water. This is North America's Ganges. I make the requisite calculations about surviving the drop and conclude a turtle crossing an expressway at rush hour has a better chance.
Jenny and I have been married for 29 years but this is our first time here together so now we are officially married. Just in case at the gates of heaven they divide new arrivals by "all Niagara Falls visitors step to the right" we are covered. On the other hand my personal theory is that we don't die until we complete all assigned tasks so this visit may be a mistake as it shortens our personal lists of things yet to be done. As of this writing however nothing has changed. We move on looking for lunch time peace among the tourist pandemonium. We find it at Niagara-on-the-Lake, a beautiful old and upscale community a half hour into Canada. It's stunning how different the feeling is. It is clean and orderly. They don't need urban renewal here as the place is fresh and well maintained. We see an European outpost, the Prince of Wales Hotel and sit down to an excellent lunch, proof that Europe is an idea that flourishes three thousand miles west of Paris.
An Upstate New York Perspective
Tom Cullen, specialist in unusual Americana.
Early Tuesday morning we are off to the Old Editions Book Shop to see what a Buffalo rare book store has. It's early and also quiet. In this establishment you can buy both a cup of coffee and a book. On the second floor we meet Ted Manch who shows us Buffalo ephemera and explains that "better material is in other areas and accessible only under the supervision of the owner Ron Cossi" who isn't in. This, it turns out, is an open shop with only restricted access and we won't see the better material today. The place is nevertheless intriguing. Depending on who you speak to the inventory is 40,000 or 400,000 but there is no disagreement about what's online: 3,000 items or thereabouts. I speak with Ron by phone and learn he expects to have the full inventory on line in 5 years. Until then, if you want to see this material you have to come to Buffalo and have an appointment. The next time I'll make one. It's interesting.
Our afternoon appointment is with Tom Cullen, an ABAA specialist in manuscripts with a backdrop of very good books. He does business as the Rockland Bookman. Google Maps says it takes 59 minutes but we reach Orchard Park in 30. If the town name sounds familiar think NFL and the Buffalo Bills, Jack Kemp and Jim Kelly. Their stadium is nearby. We cruise N. Buffalo Ave and stop at Francie's Village Restaurant. No, they don't have Buffalo wings, the local delicacy, but they have great sandwiches, reasonable prices and come over to check that the food tastes good. For $10 here you get a generous lunch for two and a smile. On the way in we passed Custard Lite, a 50's rendition of the iconic ice cream shop and double back for a fix. Jenny wants a small cone and her wish is granted. I say I'll have a serious large and the teenage attendant responds with a full foot of ice cream. I graduated from Colgate in 1968 and experienced the ongoing question in class after class: Is God Dead? Today I see evidence of God and he issues ice cream cone challenges.
Tom is just around the corner. He's been selling books for much of his life although his bookselling was only ever a pinky among a fist of possibilities. He's a chemist by training and his family's business is banking so he's had choices. It's fair to say Tom is a dealer, not a collector as has been evidenced by his ability to acquire and sell inventory. His relationship to his material is mainly that he owned, not that he owns inventory. He has sold a great deal and today maintains a lean inventory- about 5,000 items with an emphasis on manuscripts where he years ago sought safety against the rising tide of internet book inventory. He brings a businessman's perspective to his book business, looking for unique and unusual material that he prices to sell. He issues 2 to 3 well written catalogues a year and sells about half his material quickly to an active mailing list of almost 600. He also does shows. Of all the people we visit this week he has the leanest inventory although the material is strong.
An Upstate New York Perspective
Wil Monie: A 21st century bookman.
At 4:00 pm we are on the way to Cooperstown. We take the New York State Thruway east. The road is fast, the traffic quiet and scenery familiar to a guy who grew up in the Hudson Valley. In Cooperstown we check into the Inn at Cooperstown. Then it's dinner at Nicolettas Italian Cafe and later a walk between raindrops around the Hall of Fame village. The queen size bed is for royalty of a different century. Twentieth century monarchs hardly fit although proximity has its virtues. At 10:30 am Wednesday morning we walk into Willis Monie Books finding Wil and Willis, father and son, stacking orders to ship. There is a sense of motion to this place, a feeling not often present in antiquarian book shops. We first spend a half hour at Schneider's Bakery introducing ourselves, speaking of this writing project and about specific material. Then it's back to the shop to search the New York State shelves for books and next their extensive ephemera files. In the latter I find some gems and curiosities and sense the breadth of possibilities. New York ephemera are broken down by counties and the prices are attractive. There is simply no way not to buy here. Later we tour the place, seeing how they manage a successful book business in an era when booksellers are closing retail premises at an alarming rate. They have about 300,000 books of which 50,000 are in the shop, 70,000 on line and the balance available by appointment at their warehouse. Ephemera are an additional 100,000 to 150,000 items. I asked Mr. Monie for a description of their material and he replied, "Our strengths in paper are historical pamphlets, mostly Americana, literature and theology. In books, we specialize in baseball, Americana, literature and theology, but have a good general selection in all fields."
Material in the shop is not online, a powerful incentive to visit where significant portions of the inventory are sold without word of their existence ever reaching the net. The shop is a full day experience. Toward the end of the visit we join Wil on a tour of the upstairs where the online material is neatly arrayed on shelves, clean and antiseptic as an operating room. They list on a variety of sites: Abe, Alibris, ILAB-ABAA, Amazon and on their own site: www.wilmonie.com. They are experimenting with eBay. Listed material sold mainly on line, is no longer part of the shop's open stock although it's available in their computerized searches. On a typical day they ship around 75 items.
Location is an important factor in their success. Cooperstown is a tourist destination and the season runs from April to October. As does everyone in town they sell some baseball material but the surprise is that opera is a strong suite. This place for book collectors is "a keeper." No one goes home empty-handed. Next stop is Worcester, Massachusetts, home of the American Antiquarian Society and their ongoing endeavor to record and digitally photograph all titles printed in America from 1639 to 1877. For the collector of American printing this is Mecca and membership an honor.
An Upstate New York Perspective
Professional support at the AAS.
AAS is arguably the repository of American printing. Other institutions have some of this material. It's the Society's goal to have one of every printing. Over the years they have received as gifts and by purchase extensive examples of Joel Munsell's work and I'm hopeful of finding a substantial portion here. Joel Munsell was an Albany, New York, printer whose work spanned five decades in the mid-19th century. I'm tracking appearances of his material on the net as well as copies in libraries and comparing the quantities found to the print runs he recorded in his bibliography "Munselliana." In theory I should be able to develop a formula for predicting the frequency of future appearance of his many works once sufficient information is gathered. Even more significantly, I hope to use the ratio of copies printed to copies still held in libraries and on the net to estimate original print runs of all books for which this information was not recorded. Munsell's meticulous record keeping may make such an undertaking possible.
The AAS online inventory shows only about 375 Munsell items for the period 1828-1870 for apparently the same reason I'm having trouble finding much of his work elsewhere. It lacks printer identification. So for this trip I shift my attention to another AAS holding, Munsell's notes from his personal copy of Munselliana, his accounting of books and pamphlets printed during his first 40 years as a printer. Here he corrects entries and adds others while noting biographical information about authors and related parties. In two days I transcribe his entries for the period 1828 through 1857 and plan to return in the fall to complete the rest. Tom Knoles, Head Librarian, thoughtfully agrees to my adding these notes to AE's online catalogue of Munselliana.
Friday night sees us on the way to Albany and to the Crown Plaza Hotel at State and Lodge. It's an excellent location for exploring the downtown and only a few steps from several State Street addresses that Munsell occupied during his career. Jack's at 46 State is the concierge's dinner recommendation and it's a very good suggestion. Think meat when you eat here and you won't be disappointed. Around the corner after dinner we walk by the Capitol Bookstore, a rundown location with plywood over the door and a Munsell sammelband in the window. I may have been at Oz at noon but by dinner time it's strictly Ozzie and Harriet.
It's Saturday morning and I'm back to see Ozzie. It's 10:00 am and the lights are out but I knock anyway. In a few moments the door opens a crack and the current proprietor offers admittance in much the same way a carnival fortune teller might say "Welcome to the Casbah." The material is strange, old, mostly broken sets with an occasional glimmer of possibility. Is this where all broken sets go to die? He explains he doesn't really want to sell and as I look at his prices I believe him. God would need to mortgage heaven to buy vol. 17 of World Book. He tells me famous people come to buy here and when I press he says I can only tell you about people who are dead. To myself I'm thinking brain dead. Okay. Red Skelton. Hum. He mentions that his good material is upstairs but that the fire marshal prohibits second floor access. From outside I see the second and third floors are overflowing but he's adamant: no admission. I then begin to notice pornography sprinkled around and conclude the upstairs may have a different inventory than I'm expecting. After an hour I'm off, the mystery unresolved. Upstairs it's Captain Cook or Captain Kook -- I may never know.
An Upstate New York Perspective
History is alive in the eye of the painter.
We drive over to Dove & Hudson, a second hand bookseller. Dan Wedge, the owner, is helpful but doesn't handle older material. He explains that he sells used books -- often to college students but offers useful advice on who to contact for old and rare material. Unfortunately most dealers are closed on Saturdays. We decide to drive to Troy and find in the "antique district" a few shops, a bookstore, two or three art galleries and the Illium Cafe which serves a nice lunch. It's only 3:00 pm so we head north on 87 to Saratoga Springs to visit Lyrical Ballad Bookstore at 7 Phila Street. I've bought from them on the internet and found them firm about prices. I expect this to be a brief visit and am soon proven wrong. They have a very good eye for stock and the inventory is deep. You can not always tell what condition standards are for a seller and it's quickly apparent here they're high. I look through their New York inventory and ask about Munsell. They direct me to a second set of shelves and in time to a third. Someone has been through the early Munsell pamphlets because there aren't any. Nevertheless they have some rare and unusual material that is reasonable: a pre-Munsell 1844-5 Albany directory in superb condition and an 1851 Munsell printing of a library catalogue with no identifiable connection to Munsell but which I remember as one of his printings. I borrow the house copy of Munselliana to confirm and bingo -- we have a match. I'm very happy to find an example of an unmarked Munsell imprint. This will be useful for identifying similar printings.
The owners John and Janice DeMarco are very nice. They can't get many requests for Munsell but they know exactly where such material is. They have about 75,000 items in open stock and a great sense of organization. The next wave of inventory waits in the back for space on the retail floor. In a separate warehouse new arrivals receive pre-induction physicals. The material is well chosen. This is an exciting find, the kind of bookstore that changes the direction of weekend jaunts.
At 6:30 we're having dinner with the Lenny Tantillo and his wife Corliss, both high school classmates of mine at New Paltz in the 1960s. Lenny is today a leading American painter of historical and marine scenes and focuses on Albany and the Hudson River. His gallery on Broadway in Albany is a step back in time. Lenny and I were neighbors in the early 1950s, both residents of Ohioville, a tiny footnote on only the most detailed local maps and the potential answer to the million dollar question on Do you want to be a millionaire? The question: Where did the artist Lenny Tantillo grow up? For a few minutes we sit outside the hotel continuing to talk. We have compressed forty years into a few hours and part company at midnight.
On Sunday we return to San Francisco refreshed and aware the book business is in transition but that some dealers are riding the big waves off Maui. No dealer we spoke to had more than a third of their stock on line and the average is 25%. In total they have 570,000 items for sale and a large but indeterminate quantity of additional material that will be put out for sale over the next 2 to 3 years. For collectors this suggests that visiting dealers can be very worthwhile. The net gives the impression almost everything is on line. This trip and my visit with Ohio dealers two months ago confirm this is not the case.
Links and Contacts
Old Editions Book Shop
74 East Huron St.
Buffalo, NY 14203
Tel: (716) 842-1734
Fax: (716) 332-6949
P.O. Box 429
Orchard Park, NY 14127
Tel: (716) 662-2082
Willis Monie Books
139 Main St.
Cooperstown, NY 13326
Tel: (607) 547-8363, (800) 322-2995
Fax: (607) 547-7128
American Antiquarian Society
185 Salisbury Street
Worcester, Massachusetts 01609-1634
Lyrical Ballad Bookstore
7 Phila St.
Saratoga Springs, NY 12866
Tel: (518) 584-8779
Fax: (518) 584-6815
Leonard F. Tantillo
Albany, New York
Tel: (518) 689-1212