Writer and Researcher
Amy Gale
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amygale@amygale.com 212-787-5971
“Early Memories of a Book Fair” AntiqueWeek 40 (June 2, 2008) For antiques collectors, the fall is the start of the show season. Book collectors have a longer wait.  Apart from Chicago and Boston—the big autumn shows—it’s only after the New Year that things take off. The succession of winter and spring shows culminates in the big one: The New York Antiquarian Book Fair, which is held in April at the Seventh Regiment Armory. Many years ago, I helped out at the fair. I worked as an assistant to a bookseller specializing in women’s history and literature. It’s a field with strong crossovers to gender theory and labor studies, but that’s not what this dealer liked to sell. Instead the focus was on the 18th and 19th centuries.  Memoirs by aristocratic ladies made up a big part of the inventory. Plentiful, too, were the epistolary novels bound in gilt-tooled tan calf. “Oh yes, one of the lesser fairs” was the breezy dismissal of one picture dealer, whom I told about my experiences. Rare books have historically lagged in social cachet, associated as the field is with the earnest and introverted.  Still, I have fond memories of those days. In the months leading up to the fair, I helped research and edit the catalog. Sometimes I would meet the dealer for lunch, while other times I would go to her apartment, which was located across the street from where I worked. The fair is organized by the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association of America, but she never mentioned this fact. It was simply “the fair”—as in, “Would you like to help at the fair in April?” I met the most delightful people on these occasions.  There were the collecting couples.  One stands out: the Hogarth Press for him and Virginia Woolf for her. They bought a few things—only a few, because there was not much left to acquire—then stayed to chat about Mrs. Dalloway.  Another favorite was the college president, who came back every year to add to his Willa Cather collection. He played in an amateur orchestra. New York was only just emerging as a livable city. It was safer and cleaner, but the day when Times Square would become a destination for a family outing had not yet arrived. So it was a source of wonder that all this bookish refinement flourished side-by-side with the squalor. We also made sales to modest collectors, who would fasten on a suffrage pamphlet for a hundred dollars. That’s a lot of money, especially when you add in the sales tax. Often they had to walk around to think it over. Sometimes they came back resolved to buy. After the bills and coins were exactly counted out, I would wrap the item in a plastic bag and seal it with an official sale sticker. Then I would affix the corresponding sticker to the receipt. These transactions tended to be a little solemn, as if something more momentous than buying and selling were going on. Of course, not all sales were at this emotional pitch. The esoteric and scholarly book world attracts its share of the stupid rich. These people have to spend their money somewhere and it’s no surprise if some end up at a book fair. We did a thriving business in Victorian gilt-stamped bindings, thanks to them. I remember holding up copies of Cranford and Evelina while one lady asked her husband, “What do you think, dear? Should we take the blue or the red?” Most dreaded of all were the bores.  While the fine arts attract the fatuous, with rare books you get the bores.  You could conveniently, with no loss of precision, divide them into two groups: men and women.  The men talked about Samuel Johnson.  The women made silly claims for some deservedly obsolete authoress.  The men were obtuse and condescending, the women easily provoked.  They never bought anything. Evergreens of the trade: that’s what these anecdotes are. Some of my memories, though, have a period flavor. It was the 1990s, when all those movie adaptations of the Jane Austen novels were being made. We flogged early—and not so early—editions of Pride and Prejudice.  They sold quickly.  Every few hours, it seemed, I was told to “put another P & P in the case.” On one occasion, I sold a set of Jane Austen novels.  The bookseller was making the rounds, so I was left in charge of the booth. The buyer was a retired Microsoft executive, who wanted a present for his daughter. His attention was fixed by a green cloth-bound set that was so much prettier, I freely told him, than the leather bindings. Before paying, he needed to call his wife. This is where things get hazy.  Where did he make the call?  Could it be that as recently as the last decade millionaire software engineers were using the pay phone?  Or perhaps he had one of those bulky phones stashed in his briefcase, which he had to retrieve from the coat check.  The one thing he did not do was whip out a thumb-length thingy and yak away in front of me.  That evolution in mores was few years in the future. My triumph at selling the Jane Austen set was diminished by my inability to point out the buyer to my boss.  “What does he look like?” She was skeptical of the sale, notwithstanding the check in the cash box.  “I don’t know what he looks like. He’s just your typical retired Microsoft executive,” I answered unhelpfully. A Seattle native, I was nonplussed by a rich techie’s impromptu splurge. The following year, she hired different assistants.   For the catalog, she laid hold of a New Yorker copyeditor, while someone with UN experience helped out in the booth. New York abounds in such people, who even at the lower level have accumulated two or three degrees and held prestigious, if not powerful, jobs. Perhaps this year, she will be overseeing someone with both UN and New Yorker credentials. I’ll stop by to chat, but most of my time will be spent looking at the books.