Affairs of the Heart
Leigh Stein: a campaigner
By Bruce McKinney
Comets will not be diverted from their paths. Neither will those in the embrace of books be turned back from their natural course. Recently economic uncertainty and bad weather paled to insignificance for the perhaps one thousand stalwart dealers, collectors and institutions who gathered in Boston for an antiquarian weekend of discussion, pursuit and purchase, just as they have each November for more than three decades. Here, over a fall weekend that can by turns be balmy or frigid, sunny or stormy, sometimes all in a single weekend as is the case for this the 32nd second running of the ABAA fair. Come early Friday morning the ponies are in the starting gate, completing their set-ups ahead of the 5:00 pm launch. In past years dealers have been avid buyers in the pre-opening hours. This year there is less interest because sales have been soft. The show, the first of two this weekend in Boston, will open on the wings of anxiety.
Down the street at the Radisson Boston, the shadow fair organized by Bornstein Shows, is being set up. It will open at 9:00 am Saturday and run to 5:00 pm, a one day high pressure event sandwiched into the ABAA's three day run: Friday 5:00 to 9:00 pm, Saturday noon to 7:00 pm, Sunday noon to 5:00 pm. The shadow fair, on Saturday, opens 3 hours before the ABAA fair and attracts both audiences for a red hot morning that goes flat in the afternoon.
Although these shows are staged near each other they are worlds apart. The ABAA fair is at the tony Hynes Auditorium, the Boston, Book, Print & Ephemera Show occupying a warren of congested rooms. The ABAA fair is floated in a large space it can not fill this year, the shadow fair sited in a giant sardine can, every crack and crevice of its barely sufficient space filled to overflowing. Between the two shows about 200 exhibitors are participating, a handful at both fairs. Both fairs, based on estimates provided by those who attended last year and this, suggest a somewhat smaller attendance but those attending seem committed. Both shows attract the true believers. In tough years that is the way it is.
The shadow fair, as it is called, costs exhibitors only a fifth for comparable space. Only ABAA members and associated organizations can exhibit at the Hynes. The shadow fair is open to all exhibitors with a convincing story and a checkbook.
At both fairs, as the hours and days progress there will be many reports of sales, some substantial, and by many accounts, better than last year. Such fairs, while portrayed as retail events, also play a critical role in providing a window for regional dealers to offer material to visiting national dealers. These shows are all about critical mass.
I have come to Boston to see two exhibiting dealers: The Hanrahans of Wells, Maine who occupy booth 219 at the Hynes and Leigh Stein of Eveleigh Books & Stamps of Dover, Massachusetts in booth 1 at the shadow fair. I have visited both at their home offices during preparations and now come to the fairs to see how they are doing.
Affairs of the Heart
The Hanrahans: life is a shared adventure
They are busy and will be the entire time. Selling is a series of trapeze leaps ["I'm interested, I'll come back later;" "Do you have a card?", "Wow Jimmy, this looks good."] Some orders will be written, some will close the following week. Many leads will evaporate. It will take a week or more to measure the outcome.
On Friday night Jenny and I walk the ABAA show. Many exhibitors are AE members and we stop to say hello. I see an item in the Bartleby booth that one of our members will be interested in and make a note to contact them about it.
We then stop in at the Hanrahan's booth and am surprised at how small their inventory seems. Of course they couldn't bring too much: 1 or 2% of their stock by volume, a higher percentage by dollar value. This is some of their important material but nothing to compare with their complete inventory. I want to see a series of images on the back wall that convey what I already know they have, a substantial and appealing inventory back home. If people walking by see such images some will inevitably ask about visiting. Their lifelong commitment and dedication to old and rare books, evident in their manner and speech, is not reinforced to the casual passerby by what they see.
On Saturday morning we're up early for the satellite show. The wind is blowing and it's raining. Umbrellas invert instantly. The two block walk becomes a $5.00 taxi ride with a few "it'll be better [for whom?] if we turn here." Leigh, at 79, with some help set up his booth Friday afternoon. Lots of passes have been given out. It turns out these passes give you the right to buy a ticket. Thank you! Once here of course there is no turning back. The place is crowded. It feels like an emporium in Istanbul or the subway in Rome, only more crowded. I put my wallet in my front pocket.
The traffic is not greater than the ABAA fair but the isles are congested. Somebody saved money on signs and it's a bad idea. Identification is important. Who am I talking to? They are acting like I know them. By my squint I ask Jenny for help. If she knows them she'll say "hi Jim or Bob." This woman has been saving me for years.
The material is very mixed. Important maps are only a few feet from unimportant Abe Books debris.
It takes about three hours to get from the first room to the last. Toward the end we speak with Leigh who has brought thousands of items, 3,000 by his estimate, been visited by major players, made one substantial sale and a group of small ones. One person has come by, examined a book and expressed the opinion it may include a map in facsimile. Leigh removes it from sale. Everyone who buys or sells material has experienced this. As a serious dealer Leigh backs his material, and if sold, issues refunds. It rarely happens but provides insight into the man.
Affairs of the Heart
The Ticknor Society on a recruiting expedition
Later in the day, after spending the afternoon at the ABAA fair, we fly home to San Francisco. Over the following week, as the Hanrahans sort through the leads, suggestions, promises and commitments Jack concludes it was a tough fair. "People are cautious. We are too."
Leigh, who did well, is also sanguine. "A single sale made this a good fair. I brought the right item and the right buyer saw it."
Joyce and Jack Hanrahan and Leigh Stein, between them are 232 years old. They are a bit above the average age at the ABAA fair and twenty years older than the crowd at the Shadow Fair. They are the lifeblood of the business and will remain active into their 80's. But this is a passage, the ending of an era and all who love books and the chase should pause to appreciate these people and their commitment to the field. They are part of what makes it great.