Published: March 21, 2017
Review and Photos by Greg Smith
NEW YORK CITY – Everyone agrees. The collectors, the institutions and, always known for their blunt honesty, the dealers who sell there – all share the same opinion. The New York Antiquarian Book Fair, put on by the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association of America (ABAA), is the finest book fair that the world has to offer. More than 200 domestic and international exhibitors convened at the Park Avenue Armory March 9-12 to offer their finest examples of rare books, manuscripts, ephemera, autographs, maps, art and photography.
Their collective exhibition, up for three days only during Rare Book Week, provides more range, quality and scarcity than even the finest institutions have on view in a yearly calendar. In short, it was a feast.
“It was the best book fair that I have had in 28 years,” said show manager Sandy Smith. “And it was it was the highest attendance that we have ever had.”
More than 10,400 people attended the event this year, up more than 20 percent from last year’s numbers. Attendees include collectors, students, librarians, museum institutions, universities and even the casual reader. Smith attributes the spike largely to social media.
“We saw a lot more people this year in their 20s and 40s. We had 400 students come through and pay, compared to about 175 last year.”
Due to scheduling conflicts with the armory, this is the first time that the show has taken place in March instead of its usual slot in April. Prior to the show, many dealers were uncertain how the change would affect sales.
“I think moving it to March was a good thing,” said William Reese of William Reese Company, New Haven, Conn. “Some of us were concerned about that move, but everyone agreed that staying in the armory was the best choice. It was about the busiest weekend, in terms of traffic, that I remember. I think we all benefited a little bit this year.”
At a time when the publishing industry is going through uncertain times, the veritable strength in this show is reassuring. It demonstrates that physical goods and the printed word show promise.
“So much of what is read today is read electronically,” said Smith. “You can read any novel you want on a Kindle or iPad. I read all the newspapers online in the morning before I get out of bed. But what we’re finding today is a lot of people are going back to books and away from electronics. People like books, they like the feel of the books and the smell of the paper. They like putting a bookmark in and coming back the next day and picking it up again.”
The ABAA show possesses a magnetism. People come from all around the world to attend, which in turn raises the bar for quality of merchandise. While there are affordable prices found throughout the fair, as low as $75 for a casual collector, dealers will almost certainly have on hand their best and most prized material that can climb from the tens of thousands on into the millions.
Colonial and Americana documents found buyers across the board at the fair, with many dealers reporting sales of some of their best offerings in this area.
“We sold a set of De Bry’s Grand Voyages, a 12-volume set published between 1590 and 1609,” said William Reese. “And a number of important pieces of Colonial and Revolutionary Americana. Those were some of the best things that we had at the fair.”
Jeff Bergman from Fort Lee, N.J., is a generalist. “When you don’t specialize in a certain area,” said Bergman, “You have to know everything.” The dealer brought and reported sales on an early Dr Seuss work, signed copies from Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie and a John Locke work.
“It was amazing,” said Bergman. “The camaraderie from other dealers and the buzz in the room was absolutely phenomenal. Everybody did well.”
Donald Heald, the chairman of the show and a New York City bookseller himself at Donald A. Heald Rare Books, specializes in illustrated works from the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries, including Americana, natural sciences, travel and voyages, photography and others.
“The fair was a great success,” said Heald. “I, myself, did very well, but overall we saw a wide range of things selling. The inventory is very diverse at the fair: children’s books, modern literature, etc. I haven’t heard from one category that got more attention than any other; exhibitors are reporting record sales.”
“We were excited by the traffic,” said Seth Kaller, who along with University Archives presented a significant collection of Alexander Hamilton and Revolutionary War documents. “It just seemed like there were a lot more people at the show than I’ve seen in prior years.”
The collection of documents featured letters from the first three American presidents, original printings of acts passed by Congress, pamphlets, publications and even a lock of Hamilton’s hair. One of the most revealing Hamilton documents is, of course, the most personal: a rare love letter to his wife, Elizabeth Schuyler. In one excerpt it reads, “You have made me disrelish every thing that used to please me, and have rendered me as restless and unsatisfied with all about me, as if I was the inhabitant of another world…”
Priscilla Juvelis, Kennebunkport, Maine, found success in selling from her wheelhouse, contemporary book art and signed bindings. When her artists provided more political-leaning material for this year’s show than in years past, Juvelis was intrigued.
“One of the things that was extremely interesting is that a number of artists sent with me books with political interests,” said Juvelis. “One of them, Verdigris Press, did a book of Walt Whitman poems titled Poems for Democracy. I have six orders for that book, I’m sold out. I also sold some Emily Dickinson books. Both of those writers are still totally relevant to today’s world.”
When asked what buyers seemed attracted to this year, Juvelis said, “Beauty. Real art.”
The show will be back again in March of next year.
For additional information, www.nyantiquarianbookfair.com or 212-777-5218.
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