Over the River and Through the Woods
Argosy Bookshop, a traditional shop in Manhattan
By Bruce McKinney
What with the internet having apparently killed off the old and rare book retail beast you could be surprised to find that retail locations remain for collectors one of the best avenues of book buying. They haven't disappeared. They have simply more and more settled on the outskirts of towns and cities, often finding pride-of-place in country homes so it's simply more difficult to find them. During a mid-month sojourn I left the static fall of San Francisco [perpetual 55 degrees] for the honest-to-goodness fall [30 to 60 degrees] of New England, starting from New York and driving up to Maine before returning to Massachusetts for the 3 day Boston Book Fair and the 1 day Boston Books, Paper and Ephemera Show. Along the way I visited three outposts of antiquarian bookselling.
In New York I visited the Argosy Bookshop on 59th Street. It's a page out of Joseph Mitchell's New York portraits, a place in keeping with city in the early 20th century. On the main floor paintings ring the retail space, books occupying all shelves and images and ephemera filling waist high bins. Today I'm heading for the map department on the second floor to see Laura Ten Eyck. She, with Leah Kasell, organize the map department which includes more than 100,000 antiquarian maps, atlases and map reference books. The shop, which opened in 1925, is increasing its internet presence. That said, only 1% of the map inventory is online. To see the rest you have to visit.
I have been here before. In the 1960's Argosy and Carnegie were favorite destinations. They felt like libraries where all the books were for sale. Even twenty years ago you could still find at Argosy new sets of the Collected Catalogues of Dr. A. S. W. Rosenbach that was published in 1968. Not so long ago Eberstadt, Harper, Seven Gables, Dushenes, Schribner and Mott, to name only some, made New York City America's antiquarian capital. Today, while the trade moves upstairs and out-of-town, Argosy is one the few occupying prime ground level real estate.
For collectors lucky enough to know about the shop its a gem.
A few days later I'm on my way to Maine to see Joyce and Jack Hanrahan in Wells. They'll be exhibiting at the end of the week at the Boston Antiquarian Book Fair that is sponsored by the ABAA. They are long-time members and have been issuing catalogs and doing shows for almost five decades. From the 1970's into the 1980's they also had two open shops. These days, now in their mid 70s, they are part of the trend that increasingly sees antiquarian booksellers working from home. They have invited me to view first hand what it's like. My wife Jenny and I make the trip.
Over the River and Through the Woods
Joyce and Jack: a life with books
Along the Maine coast, 15 minutes south of Kennebunkport and 104 from Cushing, the scene of Andrew Wyeth's Christina's World, set into a pale November landscape the Hanrahan home, from the outside, provides no clues about the books and bibliographers within. The theme that animates their lives, books and the printed word, once through the front door, appears in all the expected places and then, for emphasis, occupies several sections of the house altogether. In many shops and most homes such volume and complexity overwhelm all good intentions for order. Not here. Rooms are devoted to categories and the material shelved logically. Upstairs, over the garage, the heart of the enterprise is a well lit workroom in which material is analyzed, described and priced before going into mail order catalogues, posted on line or set aside to be offered at shows. Even so, thousands of other pamphlets and ephemera are in bins, divided by period and subject. The only way to see this material and a substantial portion of their books, that are not online, is to visit.
In addition, within the stock there are 75 to 100 early English plays, more than 200 early almanacks, groups and collections of photographs, bookplates and newspapers. Much of the material was priced 10 to 20 years ago and remains unchanged.
There is also something unexpected: an entire room devoted to Maurice Sendak, the American writer and illustrator of children's books. This is Joyce's material. Only 15% of these roughly 1,000 items, including posters and ephemera, are online.
I spend some time sifting the bins for Hudson Valley material and am rewarded with an 1815 almanack printed in Kingston. Jack mentions they have a further group of uncatalogued early almanacks that he promises to unearth a week hence. For the moment he and Joyce are preoccupied with preparations for the book fair. It's Tuesday afternoon and come Thursday evening they'll be setting up at the Hynes Auditorium in downtown Boston. For the show they'll bring examples of their inventory, a taster menu that only hints at the bacchanal.
On Thursday we also head for Boston but divert west down Route 93. The goal is Eveleigh Books in Dover, Massachusetts, the location easy to find with Google Maps. There we meet Leigh Stein, 79 going on 40. He's invited James Gray of Cambridge over for the discussion. Jim is also a bookseller and they collaborate from time to time. Leigh will be exhibiting at the Boston Books, Paper and Ephemera Show on Saturday and Jim is helping him prepare.
Leigh is a late-to-the-party bookseller. Although born in 1930, he didn't get into the fray until 1994. In prior lives he built, acquired and along the way, sold businesses. Over the past 15 years he has created Eveleigh Books based on careful acquisitions and research and today employs a team of women who convert his passion for acquisition into online listings. Eveleigh Books occupies the entire lower level of his country home which looks out on a scene out of Thomas Hardy.
Leigh today is the new blood in the business. He entered the field as the internet was coming to life and does not live by or depend on old assumptions. For him, bookselling is the internet mixed with the occasional show. He occasionally issues catalogues and does shows but the internet is his primary sales milieu.
Over the River and Through the Woods
Leigh Stein at his office
He encourages visits by appointment and stresses that there is no obligation to purchase. The material is highly organized, divided by subject and category. His collections sit cheek and jowl among priced material but do not compete for the buyer's attention. They simply illustrate his skill and interest. Estimates of the volume of material range from 40,000 to 50,000 items including 6,000 books, 2,000 to 3,000 pamphlets, 5,000 pieces of ephemera, 2,000 maps, several thousand coins and more than 25,000 philatelic covers, mainly printed envelopes and letters from the 1840-1900 period. If you visit you'll be busy browsing. Only 4,000 items are online. You can spend a day here looking at reasonably priced material that no one ever sees.
The stock divides 75-25 between North America and Europe, is primarily non-fiction, virtually all of it antique, in the categories of travel, cartography, reference, history, and science.
Taken together, these three dealers suggest a world of collecting the internet only hints at. It turns out the net is robust but not remotely complete. Books are best represented. For maps, pamphlets, letters and ephemera the internet is still inadequate to the challenge. For these materials you need to travel. If you do, you will be rewarded.
Separately I have prepared a story about the two Boston book fairs. It appears elsewhere in this issue of AE Monthly under the title Affairs of the Heart.
116 East 59th Street
New York, New York 10022
Hours: M-F 10-6:00, Sat 10-5:00
Telephone: 212 753-4455
J & J Hanrahans
Joyce & Jack Hanrahan
Telephone: 207 646-1811
Eveleigh Books and Stamps
Telephone: 508 785-0931