Monday, April 12, 2010

Bloom Returns to Rare Books at 2010 New York Antiquarian Book Fair

Reporting 36,000 miles above somewhere in the Western United States: The long winter that has kept the rare book trade chilly has passed; Spring is in the air, the sun is out, the temperature is warming, green has returned to leaves and dealer bank accounts. The parting clouds observed at the California International Antiquarian Book Fair last February appear to have completely opened and moved on. The weather inside and outside the Fair was classic New York Spring. The season of renewal and growth is upon us.

While a few dealers complained of slow starts, low attendance, and lack of excitement, the general consensus was of a successful 2010 New York Antiquarian Book Fair for all.

Strange difference in perception. Virtually every dealer of modern material that I spoke to expressed positive degrees of success, good crowds, and buzz.

On Saturday, I often had to elbow my way down the aisles. The floor of the Park Avenue Armory, site of the Fair, was alive. It’s annoying when I can’t talk to colleagues because they’re involved with buyers. And buyers there were. As often as not, colleagues, politely or otherwise, invited me to get lost, they’re busy. The bum's rush has never been so pleasantly received and welcome.

But many of those specializing in higher end antiquarian material were not quite so pleased, did not feel electricity in the atmosphere, yet were happy to not have experienced the trauma felt at recent rare books fairs past; they did okay. They’re never happy.

Once again, the refrain from this group was that things ain’t what they used to be. News flash: They never are. Those in the trade who can’t let go of past memories when everything sold will remain disappointed into the future. "Past is prologue" may be true but past will likely become afterword as epitaph if golden-age memories remained enshrined. If there ever was a  time of easy money in the trade, it’s gone along with the gentleman bookman wishing to remain unsullied by commerce. Everyone has to work for the money now. It’s a hustle to find fresh material and buyers. But it can be done.

I continue to be impressed by dealers relatively new to the trade or ABAA-sponsored book fairs, and long-established dealers with vision. Eyes focused on the future, they are finding imaginative ways to present their books, often finding a new spin, twist or angle of relevance to material in standard genres of collection, and often in emerging subject areas, but all “modern.”

The trend toward "modern" rare books that appeal to a new generation, that hold personal significance, that they were raised with and are thus meaningful is gaining further momentum. Dealers who ignore this reality do so at their own risk. There will always be room for the great antiquarian books but the room has gotten smaller.

A brief digression about modern lit. This genre generally describes 20th century material. I recently looked out the window and noticed that the 20th century was gone. Within the next decade or so, the warhorse volumes of modern literature - Hemingway, Fitzgerald, etc. - will pass the 100 year mark and officially become antiquarian, and lose “modern” rare book status (though the difference between simply “rare” books and “antiquarian” books has always been fuzzy). Modern is getting old. The genre of "modern literature" is now far too broad to be meaningful; it needs to be broken down into high-concept sub-genres that clearly define what they are about. And that is beginning to happen in earnest.

It is time to stop blaming the general public for the woes of the rare book trade because the public isn’t educated or sophisticated enough to appreciate the “great books.” It may be that some dealers are not educated or sophisticated enough to adapt to a changing world and marketplace, continuing to chase an ever dwindling collecting base for the old classics rather than cultivate clients for the newer, potential classics, and volumes of more popular interest yet with no less significance if properly presented within their cultural context.

At the time of their publication, the great works of English and American fiction were not classics. I feel quite certain that some 19th century rare book dealers were griping, “Melville - can’t give him away. What’s wrong with people? Twain - popular, entertaining rubbish unsuited for cultivated minds; people are idiots.”

Based upon results from the 2010 New York Antiquarian Book Fair, the people are apparently smartening up. The trade is, too, but not yet with necessary alacrity by all.

Book Patrol will have the official attendance numbers from Fair organizers, Sanford L. Smith & Associates, as soon as available.

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