The Brooklyn Pilgrimages, Concluded

New York Book Poster

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A binder’s tool from Talas.
For more, read Day 1.

When I went back to the Honey and Wax booth, it was still there in the glass case. Booksellers use glass cases to highlight (and protect) their very best treasures. I had stopped in and browsed the booth a couple hours earlier. This little gem had caught my eye.

I asked permission to look at it. One should always ask for permission to handle glass case books especially. Heather O’Donnell, one half of Honey and Wax—I’ve never found out who was which—reached in, withdrew the book and handed it to me with that amazing smile and glowing countenance. I opened the book and magic poured from the pages. Page after page of wondrously executed original drawings in sepia ink led me on and through the pocket sketchbook. The style and the ink and the paper bespoke me thus:

“Mid 19th century.”

(I use flowery language for a flowery era.)

It was bound in vellum and gently used. No children had handled this for moral edification mitigated with amusement. Did the artist/author create this work for herself only? Was there hope it could be published at some time? Perhaps it should be now. Then everyone could share it.

I sighed at the end and handed it back.

“I’ll think about it.”

I was violating one of my fundamental book laws:

“The only book you regret is the one you didn’t buy.”

Alongside the treasures I’ve acquired over the years are vivid memories of books I’ve walked away from and regretted at some time in the future. Even worse is when at a show or a shop you find something and don’t snap it up. You return minutes or hours or days later and, of course, it is gone.

At the astounding New York Antiquarian Book Fair a few years ago, I stopped Jeff and Jennifer Marks booth soon after it opened. There was a striking oil painting with ghosts and spirits among actors on a stage. It stopped me in my tracks. It was a painting that would stop me at any museum. And it was affordable—sort of. They were busy with customers so I moved on. I circled back in minutes only to see it being wrapped in brown kraft paper atop their glass cases. I had only been gone a few minutes! I can still see that painting in my mind’s eye. I wish I could see it on my wall every day.

[box type=”shadow”]A corollary to that law is:

 

“Careful! You may regret the book you have just sold.” Of all the books I’ve sold over the years, the most vivid ones are those I wish I hadn’t parted with. I miss them. Sometimes it was necessary in order to pay the rent or make payroll.[/box]

The happy ending is I DID stop back at Honey and Wax a couple hours later, and it was STILL there. I asked and got permission and reached in and withdrew it. I only glanced inside it a second time for a couple seconds before I handed it to Rebecca Romney (the other half of Honey and Wax.)

“I’ve got to have this.”

We chatted for a couple minutes. Small talk about the fair and books.

Then she asked me: “Why do you want this?”

As she did so, she gave me a look like she was looking through my outer self, looking inside my skull. It was also a Sherlockian look as if she had already deduced the answer. But I didn’t have an answer. I didn’t know why I “had to have this.” The words that came out were:

“It spoke to me.”

I guess I knew what that meant. Actually, inside my head there may have been a bit of a questioning inflection to that statement as well.

She cocked her head and gave me the look she would often give when she was the rare book expert on the HISTORY Channel’s long running TV show Pawn Stars. (She had been manager at Bauman’s Rare Books Las Vegas then.) Whenever some pawn store client brought a book or manuscript in that they or the television cast felt was very special, she would be called in to evaluate it. If she had good news for the book’s owner, she would give the camera a knowing look. A countenance that conveyed it was the real thing. If the book was bogus, and the owner refused to accept “bad” as an answer (essentially telling cast and camera that she didn’t know what she was saying), she would cock her head and give the poor bobo a withering look.

Fortunately, I got the former look of acceptance and affirmation. And not “that” look.

“Jumping into the deep end?”

Ah, my Book Muse. You’re in pretty early in this narrative aren’t you?

“Narrative? Yer often laying far too much ‘ground work’ or ‘stage setting’ or whatever euphemism of the moment yer using for droning on too much. In this Brooklyn Conclusion, I have no idea what got you to that book. A ‘Pilgrimage’ must, by definition, have a beginning, middle and an end.”

I bet you know exactly what got me to that book. When I sat down to begin the Conclusion, I had some of the books I’d found in Brooklyn next to me on the couch in my office. I suppose this little book spoke to me once again. It seemed to demand that its story go first.

“That’s neither here no there but conjecture if you wish. You stated it ‘spoke’ to you? Talking books? Next you’ll be conversing with a phantom. Hehe.”

Do you remember “Priscilla”?

“Of course. Yes.”

What happened…

“I cannot.”

Were you…

“No. Not… No. I cannot…”

I sensed she was gone.

I’ve been advised I should restart this particular tale at the beginning. I guess it is actually the middle since Brooklyn Pilgrimages, Day 1 was offered here two weeks ago. That story chronicled the marathon day before the trip and that first day in Manhattan and Brooklyn. If you haven’t read that this story, this “Conclusion” will still stand alone.

I ended that story with my head hitting the pillow in my tiny odd shaped room on the 10th floor of the iconic Algonquin Hotel. I had just finished a memorable dinner alone at the massive original Round Table in the eponymous restaurant. I’d had a third Gin Gibson (up, very dry) as a nightcap. When I closed my eyes, I was out immediately. I have no idea how many miles I walked that day. That was Friday, September 7. I awoke about 7:30 on Saturday. I had been told at Check In that there was complimentary coffee in the lobby. I made my sleepy way down the elevator and crossed the dining room over to the service area between the Blue Bar and the lobby that fronts on 44th St, Manhattan. It wasn’t just any coffee maker. It was one of those very complex Italian contraptions. I think it was Lavazza. Anyway you had a choice of about twenty hot drinks with the push of a button. The choices ran from Cafe Americano to Double Espresso to Decaf Mocha Chai… If it was a coffee drink, the process would begin with beans being automatically ground. I started with Americano—black.

The lobby was sparsely populated. I was able to grab a plush seat facing out at the antique etched glass windows. In this part of the lobby with heavy dark wood carved moldings and panels, one could easily be transported to 1902 when the hotel opened. Only the clothing you were wearing would be out of place. Thick wooden pillars soar throughout the lobby and dining room to the ceiling high above. Between the top of the wood paneling and the dentil molding around the ceiling’s perimeter is a four-foot band of gold wallpaper. A couple dozen large Hirschfeld drawings line the room within that space. I had deduced who about 2/3 of the caricatures represented.

The old glass before me was so heavily decoratively frosted that I could not look out on the sidewalk. So I turned and surveyed the room a bit. But if I squeezed my eyes a bit, I could imagine the writers and actors and producers stumbling out of the elevators or bumping down the old stairway hungover from the previous night’s carouse.

The coffee flowed through my veins, and I felt more energized and motivated with each sip. After a couple espressos and another Americano, I was ready to go.

I stepped to the front desk and asked for subway directions again as the book show was located in a different part of Brooklyn than yesterday’s pilgrimage. I’m glad I did because the concierge told me the line I used the day before was closed for the weekend.

“Walk over to 8th Avenue and look for the green globes. You’ll be near Hell’s Kitchen. Take the C or E south to 14th St. You’ll be near the Meatpacking District. They you can switch to the L over to Brooklyn. Get off at the Bedford Station. It will be about a mile from there unless you Uber.”

“Ummm…can you write that down?”

It was about 9 when I stepped out into the pleasant cool sunny Saturday. I walked west on 44th, and beginning a block away, the streets were blocked off. Though it wasn’t Labor Day, the Labor Day Parade was to take place a little later. Floats lined the streets. Some had bands or DJs on them warming up. Large groups of hundreds of people were wearing brightly colored t-shirts. Each color represented a different union. Tables along the sidewalk had t-shirts and placards available for union members to pick up and wear to show unity (and to make sure they marched with the right float.) School Unions, Trade Unions, Hospital Unions… There was a celebratory air abounding as well as plenty of music and noise and people bustling and bumping and in motion.

Down 8th Ave, I soon espied the green globes that led me underground. The C train took me to 14th St. It was a long walk through an underground station to get to the L line. The wide passageways were filled with all kinds of people. Musicians were busking here and there. Tragic people hobbled painfully or rolled their wheelchairs slowly. But most of the underground population were in a hurry to get from one line to the next. I tried to stay in my stream as best I could. Then it was down some steps to the next platforms. The train came, and I got the L out of Manhattan. Zooming into the tunnel under the East River my ears popped. When we stopped at the Bedford station, I exited the train and walked up the steps into the light.

From there my phone led me east on 7th St (Brooklyn.) At Franklin St, I was instructed to turn right. In a short time, I had already passed about two-dozen restaurants I really wanted to try. The neighborhoods were clearly gentrifying, and the hipster social buzz was palpable. New buildings or massive renovations of old buildings were taking place nearly every block. This route took me close to the East River. There was a sports park along the way. I walked into it and past the small children kicking soccer balls. Dads and moms lined the sidelines. Coaches tried to teach the groups of little kids. We used to call it Amoeba Ball. The ball would be the nucleus near the center of the group of children. The children would cluster around like cytoplasm, and the shape of their group would morph constantly as the ball progressed (or didn’t progress as often as not.) Other kids would strike out on their own and just kick the ball and chase it. At the east end of the field, there was access to the river. It was largely boulders with rambling strips of sand between them. I walked out to water’s edge and took in the view. What I saw was stunningly beautiful. It took my breath away. I shot some pictures. The Brooklyn Bridge was just…beautiful down river. The east coast of Manhattan stretched as far as I could see to the right up river.

I turned and headed back to Franklin St. It angled along always not far from the shore. There were some derelict factory and warehouse buildings. Some of the same had already been converted into brewpubs, sports bars, bistros or condos and apartments.

Although it was about a mile, it felt less—a completely pleasant and interesting late morning stroll to the Brooklyn Expo Center on the corner of Franklin and Noble. The building is almost entirely glass, so I was able to look in at the booksellers and their booths like they were a giant ant farm (don’t take offense, please.) There weren’t many customers inside yet as the show had just opened. The entrance is about a half block down Noble toward the river. I went in and up the steps. I had a coupon for free entrance from a bookseller friend but was surprised to be told it wasn’t any good as the first two hours were “preview” hours. The admission was $30—cash. I wasn’t going to wait two hours to get in free, so I paid up. All for charity, I think. I walked up a few steps, showed my ticket and entered the 2018 Brooklyn Antiquarian Book Fair.

The first booth was my friend Jeff Bergman. It seems he often gets the first booth. Must be the New Yorker in him. He has an amazing bookseller history. He used to have a chain of new bookstores in Manhattan. An EXCELLENT string of boutique shops. Jackie Kennedy and Caroline and John John would shop there. That tells you all you need to know. Then a giant Big Box bookstore came in and put him out of business. The movie You’ve Got Mail was loosely based on Jeff’s own story struggling with a corporate giant. In the movie, Jeff was played by Meg Ryan. I can see the resemblance. Can’t you?

There are some booksellers who seem to “have my number”—that is they have an instinct for what I might want before I even see it. Jeff is one of those. But I think Jeff has a LOT book lovers’ numbers.

When I walked into his booth, he was busy writing up a sale for about a dozen great looking books that a customer had stacked up in the opening minutes of the show. I didn’t want to interrupt him, so I just said:

“Hi Jeff.” As I entered his booth and began browsing.

“Chuck! Welcome. Don’t leave! I have something to show you. Be right with you.”

Jeff has excellent taste and instincts. He is the kind of bookseller who will buy a lot of books at a show as well as sell a lot of books. Every book on his shelves or in his glass cases is virtually demanding to be taken down and inspected.

In a couple minutes, he was at my side.

“Hey. I wanted you to see this.”

He held out a tall octavo volume bound in early 19th century leather. He held it out so I’d be compelled to take it from him.

My first book mentor—Carl Sickles—taught me early on: “If you get a book into a customer’s hands it is half sold.”

“Look inside,” he said almost confidentially.

I carefully lifted the front cover.

(One must ALWAYS be gentle with old leather-bound books. A bit of mishandling—letting the cover splay open for example—could result in a tight binding becoming looser or, worse, a hinge cracking or even splitting. I was taught to cradle the spine in the palm of your hand if the book is small enough. Like you would hold a small baby. Don’t let the book open more than about 45 degrees.)

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Oh, and I also bought a signed limited editions of some of Ezra Pound’s Cantos from Jeff. Pound’s often multilingual, often convoluted, poetry was written for what he called “the select few” (i.e. he didn’t expect the common reader to understand it.) Some years ago, I came across a run of books he signed while a psychiatric—some say political—inmate at St Elizabeth’s Hospital in Washington DC. I thought something with a verified signature to go along with them would help with their provenance.

So, in the first minutes at the fair, at the first booth in the fair, I had found two books irresistible.

There were only 99 more booths to go.

“Only 100 booths!”

Rare and collectible book shows are delicious potpourris. Some booksellers specialize in specific genres. Others bring a little bit of everything. Some booths will only have a couple hundred select and/or expensive books. Others bring a couple thousand books in all price ranges. The Brooklyn Fair was especially rich—diverse in breadth and depth and scope. It would prove to be a long day.

For a while, I was methodical. I went up the far side of one aisle and then down the near side. Some stops were brief. Some booth inspections were more methodical. I tend to avoid “Book books”—my term for modern trade editions. I see so many every day in the warehouse. Plus I already have a lot of the ones I want in some condition or another.

One of the best treats of this particular show was the all the “fresh blood.” About 10 years ago, the book trade was spiraling. In large it was because of the lack of confidence within the rank-and-file booksellers then. The Kindle or Ebook was shining its diabolical battery powered glowing eye upon the world of the printed word.

“The printed book is doomed!”

“The bookseller is an obsolete profession!”

“Abandon all hope…!”

There was serious talk amongst professional booksellers that soon no more books would be printed. I guess they’d all just be streamed at a certain point. Only the very rare old books would have a market. Of course, that led to serious debate that we were the last generation of booksellers. It would be folly for anyone to enter the book trade much less open a bookstore when the precipice was obviously so near.

I fought this malaise. Hard. Even as more and more bookshops closed, and I was called to pick up the last pieces of so many. They failed mostly due to competition from internet book sales. I staunchly maintained that the human hand and eye and mind was a too comfortable fit for the warm, three dimensional, tactile friendly printed book for it to give way to a cold plastic screen of glowing electrons. It was a continuous battle on chat lists and wherever booksellers gathered. I battled to try to buoy the booksellers. I also struggled not to be drawn into the whirlpool of despair.

Walking the many, many aisles of the Brooklyn Fair, I was warmed by the diversity of the 100 booths. Many of the booksellers were young people I’d never heard of before. Some were couples. Some were solo. Some were conservatively dressed. Some had brilliantly colored clothes, hair and tattooed skin.

There was plenty to choose from. Old books. Old booksellers. Young booksellers and a rich diversity of new or recent press or handcrafted books. (Not necessarily in the order.)

Beautiful books are still being made. New “old” booksellers are evolving too.

It was about an hour and a half into my show exploring that I revisited Honey and Wax and nearly made a BIG mistake of omission. (See the opening paragraphs.)

Then on I rambled past and through booth after booth.

I circled back to Lizzy Young’s booth. Something had caught my eye, but another person had grabbed it from the display before I could get my hands on it. Lizzy does some amazing work with culinary and “libationary” books and other media. She was an editor at Gourmet magazine and really knows her stuff. She had the book in question standing open on an eye level shelf show one could see the dry-point etchings. It was entitled The Tipplers Vow by Lee Fairchild. The etchings were by Jean Paleologue. The 26 plates are so evocative of man in the thrall of alcohol (and demons and spirit women.) It is a cautionary volume. She was so busy writing orders; I just stuck a business card in it and whispered, “Can you ship it?”

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About 3 hours in, it was time for Lorne Bair’s talk. There were a number of intriguing talks throughout the day, but I could only budget one. It was quite interesting how he juxtaposed the relative worth of blue chip classics like The Great Gatsby and the Bay Psalm Book versus the, perhaps, equally rare but eminently more affordable exotic social movement ephemeral material he finds the sole surviving copies of on occasion.

After that, I was ready for a beer and break from the sensory bombardment of looking at so many wondrous treasures. I stepped out into the beautiful neighborhood of Greenpoint Brooklyn and went looking for a good option. Even within a couple blocks there were too many choices for food and drink. But I did manage to choose one and sipped a Sixpoint DIPA while eating a piece of Brooklyn pizza from Franklin’s—a classic hole in the wall carryout place.

Then it was time to return to the show and do justice to the fifty or so booths I had not yet seen.

I stopped in a slightly scruffy booth. They were nice books, but a lot had condition problems. The display was haphazard. A lot were rather common for an advanced collector such as myself. (LOL) They were just general used booksellers as I had been for so long. But a shiny leather spine caught my eye. It was French book in a French binding in a marbled paper covered slipcase. Hardly the kind of book that would interest. I’d passed dozens if not hundreds of such things already without a second glance. Why did I pick it up and tip it out of its slipcase? I dunno. I’m glad I did. When I lifted the cover brilliant colors shone out. The endpapers were woven silk (I think.)

“That’s 35.”

“Ok.”

I opened my wallet and paid cash. I don’t remember the bookseller’s name. I think it was a Long Island concern.

More and more and more. The afternoon was wearing on. Though the show went on until 7, I wanted to leave about 5.

I was getting to the end of my tour which would be the East Wall which is almost entirely glass. Something made me return to Roy Young’s booth. I’d glanced in, but it was a bit crowded with browsers so I didn’t want to interfere and so moved on. Roy is so genial, and his books are always intriguing. He greeted me warmly and began pointing out things he felt I might like. They were all wonderful but none were the reason I was there. For, indeed, something told me there was a book here I had to see. I peered into his case and there was a massive tome with a blank leather spine. I asked him to retrieve it because I could just see me creating some kind of clumsy avalanche.

He laid it on the table. It was a modern book. Clearly a well executed press book. The front cover read: A Dante Bestiary.

“Let me show you this.”

Roy knows his books, and he knew what was in this book that would be a hook. He gently flipped through the pages until he got to the one he was looking for.

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“Wow!” (That was me who said that.)

“Go ahead look through it,” he urged.

Wow. Wow. Wow. Wow…

Yep. I had to have it.

“Can you ship it?”

“Of course.”

I wandered a bit more, and then it was time to leave. I exited and retraced my route—with the assistance of the woman in my phone—to the Bedford subway stop. The train pulled up, and I got the L out of Brooklyn.

Back at the Algonquin, I stopped in to the Blue Bar for a well-deserved Gin Gibson.

Then I had an equally well-deserved second Gibson.

I went up to my room and freshened up a bit. Time for dinner. I’d chosen Sardi’s. It a Broadway classic. The walls upstairs and down are covered with hundreds of caricatures of actors and directors etc. There’s a movie where a tradition is portrayed of the writer, director, producer and cast of opening night meeting there and awaiting the first newspaper reviews—I think at midnight. If the reviews panned the production, it became a mournful night. I’m pretty sure more than one show closed the first night because of those first reviews read upstairs at Sardi’s. If the reviews were raves, the joy and libations flowed.

There are jokes about Sardi’s food. One review of it called Sardi’s “the longest running gag on Broadway.” I had Cannelloni au Gratin, and it was fine. I also had a couple glasses of a nice Rose. Why? I dunno. I rarely drink Rose, but I understand it is “trending,” so I hopped aboard that “wagon” for the evening. Sardi’s is on 44th just like the Algonquin. So it was easy to find my way back. A nice straight line.

One more Gibson at the Blue Bar with the spirits of Dorothy Parker and Christopher Morley and some the rest. Maybe I was just seeing things. Then up the antique elevator to my quirky room and sudden sleep.

Sunday I needed to get back early. Merry and Pippin would be lonely rambling through the vast warehouse. I stumbled down for a number of assorted coffees (but no Decaf Mocha Chai—I’m not that advanced.) I checked out. The bill took my breath away. Well, bucket lists can be expensive. I pulled my rolling suitcase down the sidewalk. It bumped along behind me like Pooh to Penn Station. I caught a late morning Amtrak and swayed and shook and rattled back to Maryland—my Brooklyn Pilgrimage completed.

EXCEPT I only had one book in hand. That sexy French number. The rest I would have to wait to be shipped. They did, and when the final one arrived about 10 days later, I had my own little private Christmas in September.

Cheers!

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