New York: the city that never sleeps. Densely packed with splendiferous things I’d seen before only in pictures. Taste, touch, sight, smell, hearing: all senses inundated, constantly. Like mental Tetris.
The New York Antiquarian Book Fair: same.
I’d never been to NYC before last week. I had always yearned to visit the city, and somehow never got there despite international travels. I’d been hearing about the famed New York Rare Book Week for many years, and the penultimate headliner thereof, the New York Antiquarian Book Fair. It was not a matter of if, just when. Opportunity arose: exhibiting at the 2016 Toronto Antiquarian Book Fair, I met and became friends with jet-setting international rare book dealer Douglas Stewart, of the eponymous Douglas Stewart Fine Books, and was given the chance to help out at his booth at the 2017 NYABF.
Tuesday: I flew into New York, spent 3 mirthful minutes in my hotel watching the pigeon on the windowsill before hitting the streets, soon finding myself in the bustle of Times Square, with the sound of a sax busker and the smell of belgian waffles to pad the experience, which is not exactly in the wheelhouse of my bookish desires. A brief wide-eyed pause. Then off again, among the throngs. People line up on the curbs at the intersections in droves. The light turns and the fronts advance as if part of a big-budget war movie, in my imagination we were all about to draw swords and battle it out. But somehow, seemingly against the laws of likelihood we all wove through each other without incident, replayed each intersection. My evening’s first purpose was to weave my way toward the Strand Bookstore, the obvious nerd pilgrimage. But in New York one cannot go anywhere without bumping into famous landmarks, so the journey unexpectedly took me through Bryant park, which is like standing, mouth agape, at the bottom of some brick/concrete/glass canyon and views of the Empire State Building; gaze down the street for a glimpse of the brilliantly lit Chrysler Building (my fave); pause at the feet of the lions flanking the New York Public Library, full of regret that it wasn’t early morning so I could spend the whole day inside (next time…!); through Union Square, taxis honking, cabbies swearing; and Strand Books’s somehow familiar awning in sight! Inside, the first 10 feet is packed with merch, good (but mostly new, shrug) books. Immersed myself in Taschens on the mezzanine, was buoyed by the attendance, and bought a Hemingway paperback, because I should have something Strand. Food being my co-first priority and it being dinner time, I skipped over to the nearby Casa Mono, to meet Doug for a catch-up over goat, mackerel, brussels sprouts, salad, wine; not quite enough wine because booksellers are like that, so across the street to the elegant and intimate Dear Irving for more, in a cozy dimly-lit banquette, and meeting with another friendly international-jet-setting bookdealer.
Wednesday. In my few free morning hours I managed a too-short visit to the astounding Met (egads I could spend weeks in there), via Central Park (striking for the contrast of the pastoral scenery against the stark backdrop of skyscrapers, a surprise to the uninitiated like myself); a scrumptious $25 cucumber sandwich at an adorable deli (E.A.T.). Then, to the Armory. Up Fifth Avenue, observing towncars pulling up to sparkling highrises to let off schoolkids greeted by tuxedo’ed doormen. My first glimpse of the book fair banners waving along the doors of the Armory, which is actually a CASTLE. Gasp. But the exhibitors enter through the rear door, through milling workers with NYC accents, a bustling and disarmingly un-glamorous scene, until you look around and absorb the enormity of the event, the soaring ceilings, the architectural detail. Brought briefly back down to earth by the sight a couple of familiar bookish faces, and then set to spinning again by hundreds unfamiliar. Dealer photo ID is a necessity so my astonished face is immortalised. Headed straight to Doug’s booth to help unpack books I felt trepidation about handling. Xylographically printed books, original manuscripts, a unique and pristine set of the fascinating South Polar Times, a printing block from the time of Kublai Khan. The truly lovely Sally Burdon of Asia Book Room as our booth mate, busily unpacking handpainted Japanese scrolls and accordion books. Dealers from around the world whose names I’ve long admired, strolling past and sometimes stopping in to visit. Surreal. This, for a few steady hours – and I was rushing off to take myself to the Metropolitan Opera House for Romeo & Juliet. Throngs in jeans or ball gowns, streaming up the cinderella staircase, past the lit fountain outside and into another incredible building. The music tragic and heartbreaking as it should be, voices aiming at your gut and finding their target. Champagne seemed like the right choice. A chat with the kind lady beside me who’s been attending the Met Operas for 60 years and gave me chocolate. Afterward, a serendipitous stroll down Broadway through Columbus Circle, almost but not quite too tired to grab a bottle of wine and a bag of chips to destroy whist semi-upright on the hotel bed, one shoe off and one shoe on.
Thursday. Opening night day. But first more setup, polishing, perfecting, tweaking. Dealers meeting, gossiping, greeting, and dealing. Floor coverings going down, the detritus of unpacking cleaned up (somehow unobtrusively amidst the bustle), the ebullience of the room on the uptick. Break for a hot dog stand lunch, quick walk down Madison Avenue, past the fancy shops and sobering Trump Tower. A quick change because there isn’t time for anything that isn’t quick; back to the Armory for the hotly-anticipated grand opening. This time a grand entrance through the palatial front doors into the wood-paneled, art-bedecked grand lobby, past the lineup of eager collectors in various degrees of sweat, and into the drill hall: now gleaming and resplendent, sellers dressed to the nines and their books in the spotlight: booth after booth of illuminated manuscripts, signed modern firsts, maps, vellum, hand-coloured engravings, my jaw permanently residing on the floor. The doors open. And business starts in earnest. This place is no joke. The edge taken off, for some, by the infamous opening-night wine bar. The next few hours a blur of books, faces, business. Afterward, dinner at the Arlington Club. Footed silver bowls piled with ice and seafood! Hot yorkshire pudding. A magnum of wine. Swish! More long-esteemed colleagues becoming friends. The obvious next location for this bunch: Bar and Books. Really good scotch and laughs.
Friday. Up and at ’em to head to the first of two “shadow” fairs, this one the New York City Book and Ephemera Fair, just up Park Ave. Some friendly faces, a lot of nice books and things, dealers from the “big fair” vacuuming up the wares. And back to the Armory, the bloom still fresh on the rose, enthusiasm undimmed. So many more people to meet, things seen. Watching the pros wheel and deal, learning. Watching the customers on the hunt, focused. A friend from home joins me and we are off, with more of the names that now come with faces and stories and friendships – to dinner at Altesi, a quiet Upper East Side pasta joint. All these people are just so nice; providing new perspective on so many aspects of the trade. A cold wind made it too unpleasant to walk all the way home so we of course had to stop at the Plaza’s Rose Club for a bottle of champagne and an eyeful of some fascinating demographics.
Saturday. Started at the second shadow fair: the Manhattan Vintage Book & Ephemera Fair & Fine Press Book Fair. The lineup rife with faces now familiar. More books, more dealers, more horse trading. Dizzying. Quick salmon brunch nearby to fortify us for the busiest day at the book fair. Good thing: many mythical institutions represented; whales on the floor; hustling dealers; spirits high; stakes high; buzz at a fever pitch. My brain reaching capacity. Brief decompression c/o The Plaza’s Palm Court and a ridiculously priced cocktail worth every penny. A whole lobster at Maloney & Porcelli because really at this point what else am I going to order? There may have been karaoke but I’d rather call it networking. All business!
Sunday. Necessarily quiet morning. Calmer day than the others. Purchases confirmed, invoices issued, loose ends tied up, numbers exchanged. Packed up Doug’s beautiful books for their trip to Australia: no pressure! The Michelin-starred yet decidedly low-key, unpretentious Cafe China for a spectacularly yummy, varied, yet accessible meal with a few close friends; and a few cocktails at a few nice spots, a bit of jazz, a few more neighborhoods checked off the list.
Monday. Home. A day in the limbo of air travel, to allow my brain to start to absorb the inundation. Such an extravagant overabundance of experience. This will take time to sink in. Like, 51 weeks: just in time to go back. 😉