A Letter from New York
The ABAA NY Book Fair
By Bruce McKinney
Book fairs serve many purposes. They are site, catalyst and barometer, a place for booksellers and book buyers to cross paths, find material, exchange ideas, and access the changing playing field. The recent ABAA book fair in New York was all of this and more, many of the leading dealers and collectors meeting at the storied 7th Regiment Armory at 643 Park to see old friends and old books and explore new possibilities. The world of printed material is rapidly changing but for a few days it felt like life as it has been even as it becomes life as it will be.
Two hundred and three members of the ABAA, the American Antiquarian Bookseller's Association, and ILAB, the umbrella organization that encompasses the ABAA and various international bookseller groups, spent four days in April exhibiting their best and most interesting material to their best and most interesting clients and would-be clients. The well-lit space, built in 1861 in response to President Lincoln's call for troops to suppress rebellion, provided an appropriate setting for antiquarians to contemplate the bloodless revolution now over-taking the field. For these few days the dogs of war were at bay even if the sounds of gun-fire are everywhere about.
This show is not only America's finest book fair, it is also catalyst for many other events; this year nine book, manuscript, ephemera and photography auctions as well as another fair, the New York City Shadow Show. In the week leading up to, and for a few days after, New York City became world capital of the antiquarian book field. For those in love with collectible works on paper it's an extraordinary opportunity. For those who feel isolated with their passion fair week is the chance to feel included, so many odd ducks all flying in the same direction, reconfirmed in their passion.
It also had the feeling of Paris in 1939.
Outside the world has been changing. New York, once home to hundreds of great old and rare bookstores now counts down toward the single digits, the Google search for rare book dealers in New York City, open shops by one count, now fifteen. Many more dealers remain and others regularly enter the field but today they sell on line. Few open stores, instead they open emails.
What once most separated dealers from collectors was information and that too has been changing. Twenty years ago, herculean memory, connections and extensive records gave dealers an unbridgeable advantage over collectors and institutions. Today databases amass information into searches and sorts that instantly calibrate rarity, relevance and price. Dealers who were once the gatekeepers of antiquarian knowledge now find themselves less aware of specifics than many collectors. It turns out that collecting subjects have always been deeper and more complex than bibliographies suggested. Today this complexity is accessible to those who understand that breathtakingly focused collections are the potential sum of what emerges day by day, not just what's available at shows, in catalogues and online. It is a world more different, exhilarating, exciting and frightening than anyone imagined: the man in a canoe confronting a title wave, a world in which the ability to collect efficiently soars while the men and women who sell books in traditional ways are forced to relentlessly adjust as old formulas fail and untested possibilities emerge, many of them mirages to the thirsty. The truth is that traditional book selling declines and the faceless, nameless reality that replaces it, although hardly visible, suggests acres of wild flowers as an alternative to the vase of prize tulips dealers now provide.
A Letter from New York
Bonhams during their Space History Sale
Dealers did nothing to deserve this bad luck. They have more or less continued to do what dealers have done while behind them a Greek chorus, 20,000 strong of mostly at home book sellers have stuffed the listing sites with similar sounding items. The Chinese have a saying, in fact a curse: "may you live in interesting times." Louis the XV may have been speaking of the internet when he said: "apres moi le deluge." Listings on line now exceed 160 million offers. Most sellers these days list material somewhere. Countless others want to. No one knew that listings would explode, listing times extend and so many items sink into an oblivion of countless options. On Abe today there are 1,526 copies of Mark Twain's Life on the Mississippi, more than 30 of them first editions. Only a decade ago few understood there was such an imbalance between the copies available and buyers for them. But we know now and dealers own many of them.
For this show, and others like it, the news is better; the material first rate, most of it the valuable, obscure and desirable. Dealers know what to bring and collectors increasingly know what to buy.
Back home, the common and out-of-favor await online inquiries or eventual tough decisions. Rank and file books have already entered a severe bear market, the bad news leavened only by continuing reports of strong sales at the top. Signed copies and uniquely bound examples do well, the rest compete in an increasingly congested electronic marketplace.
Around town, in the run-up and aftermath of the show hammers have been falling in the auction rooms. Nine sales have been offered and 84% of all lots sold, raising $20,283,251 plus an additional $506,000 if the 1917 Curtiss MF Flying Boat that Bonham's sells is included. Results of the book fair are not disclosed but, by all accounts, the participants also did well.
The auctions have it easier. They rarely own what they sell and so more easily shift with changing taste and expectation. Their job is to transact, not fret over the last dollar. They select consignments from the many offered and otherwise pursue the highly salable if they know where it is. Dealers must dispose of what they have.
These days collectors are increasingly knowledgeable about their subjects while dealers continue to have an edge in their understanding of condition and its importance to value. But this gap also narrows, the learning curve from first mistake to knowledgeable buyer now a year and sometimes less.
A Letter from New York
Sothebys selling photographs on the 13th
Taken together it is a riveting picture, incomplete though in one significant regard, the absence of new buyers. Yoko Ono showed up as did many of the biggest players in the field. They are looking hale and hearty and that's important because, at least for the time being, the next generation is the current generation living longer, continuing to find life, excitement and pleasure in collecting. For those whose collecting passion endures, many will continue in the traditional way, relying on stellar dealers for perspective and help. This suggests there will be many New York Book Fairs to come even if the collecting experience outside the walls of the armory continues to adjust at the speed of light.
It was a wonderful week, the weather generally warm and accommodating. Looking at the tulips in bloom, the skies blue, the Armory and auction rooms filled, the air pregnant with rebirth it is easy to miss the drama, the Perils of Pauline moment that looms. Book collectors and booksellers for a few days were living in the moment and it's just as well. If it's 1939, what's next?