Monday, February 20, 2012

The 2012 California ABAA Book Fair: A Book Hunter's Holiday

The 45th California International Antiquarian Book Fair would be called in sports terms “A Super Bowl of Books.”  The Fair was held this year in Pasadena, California, at the Convention Center, February 10-12.  It alternates yearly between the Los Angeles area and San Francisco.   Some 200 of the top book dealers in the world gathered to tempt bibliophiles with a plethora of rarities, meet clients new and old, and network with fellow members.   One woman dealer observed in amusement that during set-up before the show the booksellers were colorfully dressed in quite a vast array of casual wear from cut-offs to tennis shoes, t-shirts and mismatched fashion statements.  Come opening day, however, the group had miraculously transformed themselves into spiffy, polished, book selling gurus.  
                It was this crowd that my wife and I entered into on Friday afternoon, the first day of the show.  This first day drew the most serious and eager book people.  There was a buzz of excitement in the air and quite a few booths already had patrons.  Imagine a museum quality display of thousands of rare books in every conceivable category and they are all for sale.  This convention center venue was a good one—open, airy, well-lit.  The rows of dealer booths were lined up with military precision.   It would take me all three days of the show to get through them.

                My wife, Nicole, is a book enthusiast with a particular interest in architecture but she is not a collector (thank God).  However, the first booth we stopped at was that of Joyce B. Muns (Berkeley, CA), specialist in art books and architecture.  She had some inscribed Frank Lloyd Wright material that gave my wife a book thrill that lasted through the weekend and continues to flourish.   Nicole literally became teary-eyed with emotion as she handled one of the volumes.  Considering it was priced at $7,500 this was not a good sign for our bank account.  Joyce’s husband, Jan Novie, an architect by trade, and a board member of the Frank Lloyd Wright foundation, was present and he and Nicole soon launched into an hour long conversation about Wright that should have been recorded for posterity.  Needless to say, Nicole was preoccupied so I excused myself and continued my own hunt.
                I know many of the dealers from my days in the trade and as a collector.  My well-thought out plan of systematically going row by row through the booths was soon shot to hell.  Distractions abounded.  I waved to John Crichton of Brick Row Books (San Francisco) and Stuart Bennett (Northampton, MA) whom were sharing a booth.  John showed me a couple of bibliographic rarities and I soon noticed a small stack of Bennett’s own, just published biblio-novel The Perfect Visit.  It looked interesting and Bennett commented that Crichton had read it “with no ill effects.”  I promised to buy one later as I didn’t want to carry it around all day.  Little did I know I would be lucky to get the last copy in the booth as it became a Book Fair bestseller.  I’ve read the first three chapters already and I’m hooked.   
                I soon encountered Michael Vinson (Afton, WY) and Michael Heaston (Wichita, KS), both Western Americana specialists, who have known me since I was a mere pup of 23, working for Dorothy Sloan 20 plus years ago.  Vinson is a kindred spirit when it comes to association material and was kind enough to jaw drop me with a book on display inscribed by Mormon leader Brigham Young to another early leader of the Church—a rare example in commerce ($25,000).  I said hello to good friend and book appraiser, John R. Payne (Austin,TX) who had made the trip with wife, Ann, as he scanned for important bookseller catalogues for his upcoming book as well as any T.E. Lawrence items to enhance his growing collection.  Nearby, John Durham, proprietor of Bolerium Books (San Francisco), gave a nod when he saw me.  Durham is one of my favorite booksellers because of his creative approach and ability to develop previously unexplored subject areas.  Bolerium specializes in materials “related to the history of the labor movement and other social movements, including the struggles for Black and Chicano equality, the gay liberation movement, feminism, and Asian-American activism.”   The description from their promotional flyer doesn’t do justice to colorful and downright unusual items that continually flow through the store.  Institutional buyers are his main clients but he does sell significant material to private collectors.   John’s wit, sense of humor and amazing ability to recall vast amounts of information instantaneously would frighten any Jeopardy game show winner.   
                I was just getting warmed up.  A few more booths down I encountered Ken Karmiole (Santa Monica, CA).  Our chat was brief but friendly—he sporadically has offered me nice bibliographic association copies and I’m grateful.   Minutes later, I was talking with Bill Reese and Nick Aretakis of William Reese Company (New Haven, CT).  Bill Reese, the top Americana dealer of his generation, is to me like meeting your favorite rock star.  He’s probably still trying to figure out this Zimmerman guy who collects him but that’s okay, someday I hope to have a more leisurely chat outside the book fair setting—I’ve always been hesitant to rev up my conversation when he’s busy selling and dealing.  Not so with his assistant, Nick, who, besides being tall enough to play center on the Book Dealer basketball team, shares a number of common bookish interests with me.
                Gathering myself, I focused on the task at hand and made a beeline for the booth of Randall House (Santa Barbara, CA).  Proprietor Ron Randall and long-time assistant, Pia Oliver were busy selling books.  Both mentored under famous bookseller Warren Howell of San Francisco in the early 1970s.  Ron Randall’s father, David Randall, was a highly regarded bookseller and author of the classic rare book selling memoir, Dukedom Large Enough (1969).  Reading that book led me to Ron and Pia and a fine friendship with both.  Nicole and I were going to have dinner with them that evening after the show ended at 8:00 pm and I wanted to say hello.  And what a fine dinner it would be.  Pia’s husband, Thomas, had made reservations for the Terrace restaurant at the Langham-Huntington Hotel in Pasadena.  One of Pasadena’s grandest spots, originally built in 1865, the sprawling hotel was first class.  I’m not accustomed to valet parking and it was too bad our sturdy rental was a Ford Focus.  I imagined something Italian and exotic.
                I sat with Ron and Pia, sandwiched pleasantly between eighty plus years of rare book experience.    The excellent food was barely remembered as I listened to them tell book stories new and old.  I added a few of my own.  This essay would turn into a novel if I detailed such a night but suffice to say it doesn’t get any better for a book person.  Nicole and Thomas held up admirably well.  I must admit it was a bit disconcerting to tip the valet upon leaving,  drive away from the hotel extraordinaire, and a short time later arrive at our massively more modest motel lodgings—free breakfast included though!
                Saturday’s adventures stretched from a meeting with the Chief of Rare Books at the Library of Congress to working a deal for a box of books in the parking lot outside.  Let’s roll with this and you can vicariously experience a breathless book fair day:  Enter the doors at 11:00 am with the masses,  I paused briefly at the exhibit showcasing private collectors as diverse as Henry Huntington and Sarah Michelle Geller of Buffy the Vampire TV fame, thinking how unexpectedly the book galaxy revolves, then entering the grand arena, hunting hard, yes, hunting, encountering greatness in the form of Lewis and Clark’s History of the Expedition (1814) in the original boards for $285,000 (Rob Rulon-Miller, St. Paul, MN), and of course, Joyce’s Ulysses (1922), 1 of 100 signed, bold blue original wrappers at $425,000, dealer forgotten, me recalling struggling to read the tome in college—most famous, least read novel??—and then a small oasis of F. Scott Fitzgerald letters—two to be exact—written in grandly witty style to a movie actress that Fitzgerald embarrassed himself over, happily shown to me by George Houle (Los Angeles), price $30,000, take a deep breath and wish for a time machine, and then the booth of Donald Heald (New York, NY), huge, beautiful plate books of birds, cornering the market on Audubon, rare atlases, stunning folios of Natural History & Botany, a dazzling display, but must be hell to pack, I think, and then a phone call, answered, a dealer couple, Dave and Jan, from San Diego who had sold me books via the internet from bibliographer R.W.G. Vail’s library, a hero of mine, final editor of Sabin’s monumental Bibliotheca Americana, who said they are in the building, we meet and friendlier people you could not hope for, a box of Vail outside  in their van, a brisk walk, a quick, tantalizing browse, letters, ephemera, inscriptions spilling forth, an offer, a deal, and away they go, returning to San Diego, and I sprint back to catch the 1 pm seminar by Mark Dimunation, Chief of Rare Books at the Library of Congress, as he speaks animatedly for an hour and a half on Thomas Jefferson’s library, major benefactor Lessing Rosenwald, and much more, and I listen, the room overflowing—how often a packed room of 100 + for a book seminar??—and the talk is over too soon, the crowd thins, and I linger, introducing myself to this big bookman, a brief, fruitful dialogue, with common friends and common interests, an exchange of cards, and a holy grail invitation of a private Library of Congress tour on my next visit to Washington, D.C., and I’m thinking of cheap flights searching for and rearranging schedules and. . . the stomach growls and the Zman must eat, and drink, and I do, hastily, and my adrenaline is pumping fast as I think of Thomas Jefferson who “could not live without books,” me neither—and back into booths, the din of the show, the smell of fine leather, a relaxed stroll now, browsing, legs tiring but ignored, not really finding anything for me, and a tap on my shoulder, friend and bookseller Alfonso Vijil (Redlands / San Francisco), he scouting, he a masterful book dealer in Latin American material, another interest of mine, I recalling years ago, 1989 to be exact, a purchase of dozens of scarcities from Alfonso, the prices so low we don’t revisit the transaction and we talk of current events, and he disappears in search of coffee, and the next Saturday seminar is upon me, “A Love Affair with Books: Personal Stories of Noted Collectors,” and I sit in the same seat as the Library of Congress talk, and three collectors, Tony Bill, Mary Murphy, and Kenneth Turan,  express a kindred spirit with humor and insight, and Tony Bill mentions he first collected beer cans as a kid and I let out a spontaneous whoop, as I did the same, some 3,000 cans still stored in my parent’s attic, and afterwards the crowd stays too long for meet and greet and my impatience to get back to books, and I spend the last couple of hours with Kevin MacDonnell (Austin, TX) one of the rare dealers who collects in the area he specializes in—Mark Twain—and does it well, and then young gun Rob Fleck of Oak Knoll Books (New Castle, DE), able son of founder Bob Fleck, and dear to my bibliographic collecting, although I chide Rob a bit on no new association items for me lately, thinking perhaps I’ve been buying all of them myself on the market and figuring that’s not a conversation starter, and more and more booths and booksellers until my vision blurs, my back aches, and I sit, sit for just a short while, and Nicole calls, happy with a day of architectural touring with her  brother who lives close by, and I meet them out front for pick up, and stumble into the car, and we talk about lots of things not books, and that’s okay, and we soon settle into a booth for dinner at the original Bob’s Big Boy (1949), and it’s been one heck of a ride as the burger is engulfed and I think of Sunday and the books I haven’t seen yet, and Nicole asks if I’m planning to be at the show all day tomorrow and my jalapeno burger is going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes.
                The last day of the show was more leisurely paced.  Sort of.  I was determined to get a least a cursory glance at the rest of the dealers’ offerings.   There was a strong international flavor with thirty-two dealers from Great Britain, five from Germany, three from France, three from Canada, and others representing Australia, Austria, Denmark, Italy and The Netherlands.  I heard French, German and Dutch spoken as I walked the isles.   Their material was refreshing to see and spiced an already excellent show.  However, I had yet to find anything for my bibliographic collection, and it was getting late in the game.  There is a certain itch a collector develops when an acquisition is needed and I was damn well trying to scratch it.
                The booth of William Butts (Main Street Fine Books & Mss., Galena, IL) and John Michael Lang (Seattle, WA) finally offered me something interesting I could afford.  Bill Butts and I spoke at length.  His common interest in the history of book collecting was refreshing.  He’s written numerous articles and reviews on the topic.  Perhaps his most well-known work is on the Eugene Field forgeries Absolutely, Mr. Sickles? Positively Mr. Field! (2001).  I leafed through his autograph binders and found a good letter dated 1887 from the Library Co. of Philadelphia to S. Austin Allibone (1816-1889), thanking Allibone for donating his manuscript of his classic reference work  A Critical Dictionary of English Literature and British and American Authors Living and Deceased. . . Containing Over Forty-Six Thousand Articles (1854--).  Allibone had added some annotations to the letter giving more details.  He was a heck of a bookman, bibliographer, and librarian of the Lenox Library in New York.  My itch had been scratched a little!  John Michael Lang had a small batch of books about books in the same booth and minutes after I discovered the Allibone I found John Winterich & David Randall’s A Primer of Book Collecting (1946) and Fred Rosenstock’s Small Miracles in My Life of as a Book Hunter (1965), each inscribed to prominent Los Angeles bookseller Maxwell Hunley (1900-1990).  Hunley was a mover and shaker in his day making these nice association items.  I was feeling energized!
Fred Rosenstock. Small Miracles in My Life as a Book Hunter. Inscribed to Maxwell Hunley & wife
  Only two hours left in the show but I sensed more good things ahead.  I briefly introduced myself to John Howell (Los Angeles) and noted some tempting books about books in his booth I’d seen online.  I didn’t pull the trigger though.  The mixture of interest and price wasn’t quite right.  Time was ticking down.  I spoke with Jennifer Larson (Jeffrey Marks Rare Books, Rochester, NY).  She had been kind enough over the last year or so to do a “layaway plan” for me on a large group of association items from Jacob Chernofsky’s library—Jake being long-time editor of the now defunct, but once essential pre-Internet magazine AB Bookman’s Weekly.
                One hour left.  A quick glance through the booth of Jerry Showalter (Ivy, VA).  Alarm bells.  A worn mid-19th century volume in half leather, the spine reading Ternaux Compans Voyages en Amerique.  I opened it up and yes—it was an inscribed copy to a Baron something or other (not yet deciphered).  Didn’t matter.  I bought it.  Henri Ternaux-Compans (1807-1864), a Frenchman of broad learning and travel, was one of the first to collect early Americana—a real pioneer in the field.  His famous bibliography Bibliotheque Americaine (1837) was a key reference for years.  His books eventually passed into the hands of 19th century Americana dealers Obadiah Rich and Henry Stevens and many now reside in the John Carter Brown Library and the Lenox Collection at the New York Public Library.   Ternaux-Compans issued a series of reprints of important memoirs on the conquest of America published in Paris in the 1830s and 40s.  They are scarce.  What I had purchased was an inscribed example—the first I’ve encountered.

                All these purchases—the Allibone, Winterich, Rosenstock, and Ternaux-Compans—were tasty but my appetite wasn’t sated yet.  Would the book gods favor me at the very end?   They tempted me with a nice Robert Hoe association item in the booth of Michael Thompson & Carol Sandberg (Los Angeles) but it was a bit too expensive.  I have it on the mental want list, though.  Thirty minutes to go before closing time and The Book Shop LLC (Covina, CA) booth offered up Lawrence Clark Powell’s early title Philosopher Pickett (1942) inscribed to Huntington Library rare book curator Carey Bliss.  Nice.
One final quick scan of the last unsearched booths and I found myself at Alcuin Books (Scottsdale, AZ), proprietor, Richard Murian.  There on a shelf was a copy of Barton Currie’s Fishers of Books (1931), with an interesting contemporary letter from Currie to prominent book collector Myrtle Crummer laid in.  This was definitely a serendipitous find considering I’d just written my most recent blog essay about Currie.    Richard kindly pointed me to his case containing For Whispers and Chants (1927), the first book by legendary Los Angeles book dealer Jacob Zeitlin.  Zeitlin (1902-1987) was an amazing bookman who had a strong artistic bent witnessed by this book of poetry.  His bookshop was for decades a magnet for serious collectors, dealers, artists, printers, and rare book librarians.  One friend in particular in this last category was famous UCLA librarian Lawrence Clark Powell—of whom I’d just found the Bliss association item above.  Powell’s other writings included Island of Books (1951), A Passion for Books (1958), Books in My Baggage (1960), Southwestern Book Trails (1963), etc.
                He and Zeitlin were very close friends.  Zeitlin gave young Powell his first book job in 1934—a job that lasted two and half years until Powell decided to go into rare book librarianship.  Powell’s subsequent authority as a bookman was established during that time.   And, yes, as you might have seen this coming—the copy of For Whispers and Chants had a lengthy inscription not only to a contemporary collector but later to Lawrence Clark Powell—his copy with bookplate and a warm friendship recorded on the front flyleaf by Zeitlin, an association copy of the first rank, and the highlight find of my trip.
Jacob Zeitlin.  For Whispers and Chants. 1927. Inscribed to Lawrence Clark Powell
                The last few minutes whirled by:  a quick adios to Ron Randall and Pia Oliver, and a reunion with my wife, Nicole, as she was photographed with the inscribed Frank Lloyd Wright book, one in which we have since contemplated selling a couple of our kids for, and a warm smile from her as we exited the convention center, she holding my hand, my other hand gripping tightly my book purchases.  This had been a Book Hunter’s Holiday, indeed.
Nicole Zimmerman shares a moment with an inscribed Frank Lloyd Wright book.  Notice acquisitive glint in her eyes


  1. I felt like I was there...thanks! (RMB is in Saint Paul, not Mpls.)

  2. Excellent, Kurt. Like VU, I felt I was there. I actually WAS there; I can attest to your observations, so comprehensive and keen.