A Letter from America XXV: The New York Book Fair 2004 (June)

From the Rare Book Review

Spittle flecking his lips, the seemingly berserk man rushed towards me, eyes rolling, his ample belly struggling to escape through the gap between his sagging belt and inadequate T-shirt.  “What do you think you’re doing?” he cried, “No, no, no, not there.  Not there!”  I rolled up my car window and ignored him.  We had pulled into the loading area of the New York Book Fair, and the Teamsters were trying to direct us.

Regular as the swallows to Capistrano, we head every April for the Seventh Regiment Armory on Park Avenue for five days in the weird greenish glow of its vast Quonset hut interior.  No one who has experienced its bathrooms (although the cognoscenti know the secret location of nicer ones) would suspect that rich people with money to spend would hang out here.  But the Armory is the high school gym of the Upper East Side – it may be nasty, but it’s as comfortable as an old shoe, and no one seems to mind. For exhibitors, you can drive right in the back if you can get past the Teamsters.

After about twenty New York book fairs at the Armory location, with a few antique shows thrown in, I reached the grim calculation that I’ve spent four months of my life inside its sickly dome.  The odd light, the hum of the air system, and the detached timeless quality peculiar to all trade shows, makes it a truly other-worldly experience.  As I sit here on the final day of this year’s fair, it becomes hard to remember how long I have been here.  It was still winter when I came in, and they tell me it is now spring outside, but I won’t know until we tear down and move out.

The vagaries of the building aside, promoter Sanford Smith did a superb job, as usual, in organizing this show.  For the first time the Fair added a benefit component, so that on opening night tickets cost $250, with the money going to The New York Public Library.  While this is standard procedure for the nicer antique shows, such a tariff was untried at a book fair, and many were concerned that it would kill the gate. The opposite seemed to be true; few real buyers begrudged the contribution (although some were pretty unhappy with NYPL’s refusal to mail out the tickets, resulting in a crush at the pick-up window) and if anything it made it easier to show books to actual buyers.

The Duke of Wellington said that the history of a battle was like the history of the ball; each person was so concentrated on what they were doing that they could have no idea of the larger story. The same is true of a book fair on the scale of New York . There are so many good books, so many exhibitors, and so many customers, that it is hard to move beyond one’s own impressions. I am a reasonably comprehensive comber of fairs, and my personal areas of expertise allow me to exclude the large modern literature world from my perusal, but I was still seeing booths for the first time on Sunday afternoon. By the third day, I was running into some determined customers who had been there since Thursday night, wandering the aisles with legal pads of notes and dazed expressions on their faces. As with battles and balls, it is important to keep moving, make decisions quickly, maintain a lively sense of self-preservation, and trust to luck. Otherwise you never make it out the other end.

The general buzz, though, was that it was a very successful fair for most of the trade. The 2003 event was not nearly as chipper, coming at the beginning of the Iraq war and the nadir of the stock market. This year things seemed to be much better; the aisles stayed full even on the first really spring-like weekend in New York, there were buyers to the end (I made two sales in the last hour, a point when most book fairs have a fork stuck in them) and I never once saw that sure indicator that a book fair is done for, a baby stroller in the aisle. The spectacular prices paid at the Neville sale two days before the show opened were much discussed and served to make virtually everything look cheap in comparison. And for any non-book person dragged into the fair, there was the giant chair in the James Cummins booth. It was so inviting I had to sit down and read a book.

– William S. Reese