Tuesday, March 6, 2012

The First American Antiquarian Book Fair

by Stephen J. Gertz

The first American antiquarian book fair was held in 1960, eleven years after the founding of the Antiquarian Booksellers Association of America (ABAA) in 1949.

It took place at Steinway Hall, in an unair-conditioned showroom space on the 3d floor measuring 1,000 square feet.

Twenty-two antiquarian book dealers exhibited in twenty booths. The booth fee was $250.

Tickets for the public were free.

Hours were 5PM - 10PM opening day; remaining days 10AM - 10PM. The fair ran for six days, April 4-9 1960. That's five twelve hour days following a five hour evening.

A small keepsake-souvenir directory of dealers and their specialties was printed for distribution during the Fair. ABAA ashtrays were also available as souvenir gifts.

The cost for mounting Book Fair #1 was $4,750. Some dealers questioned the need for so high an expenditure.

"Its modest scale was in inverse proportion to its success" Madeleine B. Stern reported in The Professional Rare Bookman (No. 4 1982, pp. 3-11; reprinted from AB Bookman's Weekly, May 4, 1981). "Fair No. 1 was as memorable as it was influential."

Steinway Hall, 109 W. 57th St., Manhattan NYC.

Madeleine B. Stern (1912-2007) was, with her partner,  Leona Rostenberg (1908-2005),  a legendary antiquarian bookseller and respected scholar. Her discovery of Louisa May Alcott's early, pre-Little Women, pseudonymously written stories and novels "forever altered Alcott scholarship" (New York Times obit). At the time of her report she was a past-President of the ABAA and current ILAB representative. Madeleine B. Stern was Chair of the Book Fair committee for this, the first antiquarian book fair held in the United States and what would evolve into the New York International Antiquarian Book Fair, now entering its fifty-second year and occurring April 12-15, 2012.

Its genesis was right out of a Mickey Rooney-Judy Garland movie.

"At a MAC [Mid-Atlantic Chapter] meeting," Stern recalled, "the suggestion was first proposed: 'Why don't we have a book fair?'"

The success of English antiquarian book fairs was the spur. A few ABAA members, impressed by what the British had accomplished, were confident that ABAA colleagues could pull it off: no event organizer was employed. "Every detail thus decided was implemented by Committee members," to the extent that one Committee member, Ann Klein, hired her carpenter to build display cases after a failed expedition to the Bowery to inspect what vendors had to offer. (For 20 they paid the carpenter $400). Every necessity was considered and implemented, and the decisions made then established the pattern for every Book Fair that has followed.

Total sales were $40,000 - $50,000. "Today we add a zero or two," Ms. Stern wrote in 1982.

"No one knew whether it would attract any visitors," she continued. "Very few believed that it would...[Shortly before opening] Leona decided to duck out to see if anyone had come. She returned - her expression a mixture of radiance and disbelief. 'They're standing in line to get in! There are crowds outside!!' Despite rain and storm, the jams of people on opening night filled us with incredulity and exuberance. Publicity had paid off."

AB (American Bookman's Weekly, May 2, 1960) reported, "No count was kept of persons attending, with estimates running from 3,000 - 5,000 for the week. On opening night the Fair was so jammed that there was a waiting line in the adjoining cloak-room."

Steinway Hall Recital Room.

 "As a result of this long week of togetherness," Stern wrote, "we developed a genuine fondness for one another and missed our colleagues sorely after the week was over."

Everyone was sore after five twelve hour days. "We all realized the folly of that time schedule which was promptly humanized the following year," Stern dryly noted.

"Many dealers remarked that they had a fine time, enjoyed themselves hugely, better than a Broadway show, got to know one another during the week, swapped stories - and customers, and had pleasure and profit, too!" the AB article said.

Sol. M. Malkin, the legendary bookman's bookman, summed it up in AB. "The Fair was the best single incitement to book collecting and book-buying. Every major city should examine its potential for a similar Antiquarian Book Fair." Every major, and a few minor, cities in the United States did so, and now rare and antiquarian book fairs, whether ABAA-sanctioned or independent, are a staple of American metropolitan culture.

Along with the crowds, one celebrity attendant, pianist Artur Rubinstein, was very pleased. He bought two musical manuscripts.

But not everyone was thrilled with the Book Fair.

"A genuine prima donna swooped majestically into her concert hall," Madeleine Stern recalled,  "saw the alien purpose to which it had been rededicated, and exclaimed:

"'What have they done to Steinway Hall? -


The participants in the First Antiquarian Book Fair in America were:

• J.N. Bartfield
• Robert K. Black
• Caravan Book Service
• Emily Driscoll
• Burt Franklin
• Goodspeed's Book Shop, Inc.
• K. Gregory
• House of Books, Ltd
• House of El Dieff, Inc. [Lew D. Feldman]
• Maurice Inman, Inc.
• Howard S. Mott
• Alfred W. Paine
• Bernard Rosenthal, Inc.
• Leona Rostenberg - Rare Books
• Walter Schatzki
• Schulte's Book Store, Inc.
• The Scribner's Bookstore
• Seven Gables Bookshop
• Stechert-Hafner, Inc.
• Geoffrey Steele
• Richard S. Wormser

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