“Are you sure you want a beer guy to order the wine?” said friend and bookseller Jay Rohfritch, as I scanned the vast and mostly incomprehensible (to me) wine list at Sauvignon Wine Locker & American Trattoria in St. Petersburg, Florida. It is Sunday night, March 12th, and the 2023 Florida Antiquarian Book Fair has just finished. Celebration is in order. I’m sitting with Jay, Dennis Melhouse of First Folio Books, and Bryan & Kelly Young of Grayshelf Books.
Dennis is a man who knows his way around a wine bottle. He asks if the restaurant has a sommelier. I’ve never heard this term actually spoken before. Only read it in books. We’ve already polished off the first bottle selected by Bryan & Kelly, a Napa red that I can’t recall the name of, but I drink heartily. Bryan and Kelly are into wine like I’m into craft beer, so the selection is a good one.
But now I’m feeling cheeky. I intercede and say I’d like to select the next bottle. There is a brief look of consternation from the others. I insist and I find a moderately-priced (okay, relatively cheap) bottle of cabernet from Paso Robles. Dennis diplomatically says he has had some good cabs from Paso Robles in the past. I seal the deal by guaranteeing to drink the whole bottle if it doesn’t meet expectations. The merriment continues as we talk books and Jay once again expresses skepticism of my selection abilities.
The waiter is an interactive, humorous fellow with hair like Albert Einstein. We don’t know if this is a trending fashion look, or he was simply running late to work and forgot to comb his hair. He arrives with my bottle and ceremoniously unscrews the cap, no cork removal needed. Muffled laughter ensues and the waiter places the cap before me and pours a glass to have me approve.
Bryan states in my defense that many better wines have screw tops nowadays, but I know he is lying. I swirl the wine around, inhale the bouquet (“Smells like wine to me”) and take a swig. Tastes pretty good, actually. The rest are soon swirling their glasses and sipping.
“It’s getting better as it opens,” Kelly says.
“I can drink it,” Jay smirks.
“It’s a bit tannin-forward,” Bryan chimes in.
I’m not sure what to make of this comment, but Dennis, who is sitting next to me, leans in and clarifies, “That’s not a good thing.”
More funnin’ continues at my expense, but I asked for it, and rather enjoy it. Just one of many memorable episodes from a bibliophile’s escapade to St. Petersburg, Florida. But how did I get here? That is a serendipitous story.
Jay Rohfritch’s bookstore Good Books in the Woods is the best open shop in the Houston area. Quality used books in all fields and a fine selection of rare and collectible material make up the approximately 50,000 volume stock. The bookstore is in an old home, now zoned commercial, and Jay lives upstairs. He’s been in business fourteen years, and over time the shop has developed a patina of cozy atmosphere, varied offerings, and bookish aroma that is nectar to book collectors.
Jay’s full-time assistant is Jacob Imerman. He is a young man, sharp, excellent with customers, and has a strong back. Jay is thus free to travel more than in the early days, and he wishes to expand the antiquarian side of the business. He has this in mind when he takes up Dennis Melhouse’s suggestion to exhibit at the Florida Antiquarian Book Fair. I first heard about his pending journey by chance (or serendipity?) when I was speaking with Jay on the phone.
“That sounds like a fun trip. Who’s going with you?” I ask.
“I’m going by myself,” he replies.
“That’s a lot of driving.”
“I know. But the show is supposed to be good, and I need. . . “
“What you need is a wingman,” I quickly interject, my mind more nimble than usual since it involves books.
“Sure,” he replies, after a brief pause. Our talk continues and enthusiasm builds.
What was a book business trip has now become an adventure. My wife offers no resistance to me going. In fact, she mentions something about it being easier to do home improvement projects while I’m gone.
A month later, I meet Jay in the morning at his shop, and help load up his Mazda SUV: four collapsible bookshelves, a couple of flat display cases, and many boxes of books filled primarily with modern literature and 19th-century African travel and exploration, two disparate areas of which he has strong holdings. Our suitcases barely fit. Then we are off, heading eastward toward Mobile, Alabama, our stopover for the first night.
In the many hours spent together on the drive, we discuss every possible nuance of antiquarian and used bookselling. We then have time leftover to solve virtually all the world’s problems if someone would just listen. The banter is lively, and there are few moments of silence. Jay and I over-indulge in fast food without regret, particularly DQ Blizzards. When Buc-ees is not available for a pit stop, we handle subpar bathrooms with aplomb, whereas my wife would certainly recoil in horror.
We learn things about each other during the hotel stays. He finds out quickly that I snore (“but not as loudly as my mother did on family vacations” he adds.) I discover that he snores, so we are even. Neither of us will dare enter the bathroom after one of us answers the call of nature. He forgot his hairbrush and must use mine. He notices, as I had not, that the price tag is still hanging from the handle. “I’m going to return it when we get back,” I say.
Overall, our travel experience is amicable and easy, just two guys on a road trip, handling whatever comes our way. We do secretly worry that if we break down somewhere here in the deep south that locals might utilize us for entertainment.
The Florida Antiquarian Book Fair has been going on for forty years, one of the longest running shows in the country. It is held at the Coliseum, a venerable venue built in 1924, that originally served as “The Best Ballroom in the South,” with the likes of Glenn Miller and Tommy Dorsey performing. The building was later acquired and renovated by the city of St. Petersburg. It is well-neigh perfect for the fair: spacious with soaring ceilings, well-lit, and easily accessible. It also retains the charm of its past, a large stage providing a spot for live music during the fair on Friday and Saturday including a pianist. A nice touch by the book fair organizers.
The first day of the fair opens Friday March 10th at 5:00 pm. Exhibitors must be ready by 4:00 pm. Most arrive much earlier in the day to set up, including us. There are over 80 booths at the fair and we aren’t sure how chaotic it will be during load in. The organizers supply porters and equipment to assist. The fair is very well run with few hiccups – the result of seasoned people in charge, numerous capable volunteers, and the use of the same venue year after year. Jay notes that the booth cost of $500 is quite reasonable.
Set up is pretty quick. I concentrate on the manual labor so Jay can organize the booth. We fuel ourselves with organizer-supplied donuts and coffee. We are done by 11:00 am and many booths are still being loaded.
Set-up is often prime shopping time among dealers. Jay has heard that pre-fair sales are usually good at this event as several upper-end ABAA dealers attend and buy from the other dealers. In fact, many dealers count on these sales to make their fair successful. For example, Bauman Rare Books, with offices in New York, Philadelphia, and Las Vegas, is present. Their three representatives, Erin Mae Black, Steve Moosbrugger, and Tom Posey are roaming the booths, friendly book carnivores in search of a meal or two. They consult their in-house holdings on a laptop, occasionally confer with the mothership back at headquarters, and buy liberally in many fields. Several dealers sigh in relief as thousands of Bauman dollars are exchanged for some of their best wares. And not a single civilian has entered the building yet. Other dealers are shopping and buying, a 20% discount to fellow trade members is common, and sometimes a book will simply move from one booth to the next, price raised as it journeys up the book food chain.
A collector or special collections librarian may read this with furrowed brow. Unfair, he or she thinks. I don’t have a chance to get the book, or it will be priced higher when it does reappear. Yes and no. For some do not realize that a significant portion of sales in the rare book trade are between booksellers. Collectors and institutional buyers can be fickle or occasional, but booksellers in search of new stock are the steadiest customers. Does one bookseller briefly begrudge another when he or she sells a book for $1,500 to a fellow bookseller, only to find it price at $3,500 a few minutes later? Maybe, particularly if the book sells quickly at the higher price. But this is the game, and the original bookseller knows he or she’s rent was just covered, or now there is money to buy another item.
The furrowed collector must keep in mind that as sympatico as a dealer can be with your interests – and one should always cultivate good relationships with dealers-- selling is the thing for them, as it must be. So, in this spirit, as a collector or special collections librarian, if you are offered a freshly found item directly from a dealer before it is offered elsewhere, hesitate not in your decision, and thank the book gods you have favored status.
Our own booth, however, sees little pre-show sales and Jay is feeling down and disappointed. (Although later, Jay buys two early Stephen King books, including a decent copy of Carrie, that feels he can sell easily to a customer back home.)
“Cheer up,” I say to him, assuming the role of biblio-therapist, “It’s early and the show starts in five minutes!”
We are situated in the back of the exhibition hall, furthest from the entrance doors, and we hear a rumble like the approach of a herd of wildebeests, and we soon watch the crowd spill haphazardly among the booths, followed by the din of activity; conversations ignited, semi-polite jostling to view books, and smiling booksellers, some already writing up sales receipts.
The quantity of the crowd is exceptional by book fair standards. (I am told later this is typical of the Florida fair.) I don’t have attendance figures, but traffic is heavy over the entire three days, even on Sunday which is normally fairly quiet. This is uplifting to me; the interest in collectible books retains a solid heartbeat. What further amazes Jay and me is how many young people are present—real, live book enthusiasts in their 20s and 30s, some with small kids in tow. A stroller randomly bumps me. (But keep the youngin’s out of the booth, please. No touchee, rare books.) The human form itself is apparently a canvas to this age group, as we can’t help but notice the myriad tattoos on display, a rotating art gallery of sorts, as the crowd flows in and out of the booth.
The dealers at this show fall into roughly two categories: many are primarily used booksellers, with offerings in the $10-100 range, and then a smaller group offering antiquarian, rare, and collectible titles at higher prices. We quickly discern this fact as most lookers do not turn into buyers, as Jay has brought more expensive books. It makes no sense for him to bring cheaper material halfway across the country when he can simply sell those books in his store or online. But the local Florida dealers have more leeway in this regard.
There is some tension in our crowded booth as patrons handle expensive items with inexperience and Jay intercedes as politely as he can. I see some steam pressure building, but we have no explosion from him. We move a few more fragile items to safer ground.
Jay is a fine salesman and more patient than he claims to be. Soft-spoken, he asks a couple of polite questions to a potential customer, “What do you collect?” for example, and gauges their reaction. If there is a response he can work with, he quickly explains the importance of the item in hand, or of another item in the booth that is related, and tells some interesting tidbit associated with this copy, or the book’s history. He’s a good storyteller, no embellishment needed, and simply brings the items to life. His blend of dry humor and almost instant recall of facts grabs the attention of customers of all stripes from rookies to jaded book people. I’m an advanced people-person myself, and watching Jay in action was impressive, although he’d never admit to any special skills in this area.
One exchange sums it up – I watch as Jay writes out a receipt and bags a fine copy of Ewart Grogan and Arthur Sharp’s From Cape to Cairo: The First Traverse of Africa from South to North (1900), priced at $600. The book details a walking journey across the entire continent of Africa, involving love, bravery, and incredulous happenings. The customer turns to me and says, “Jay’s story about the book made me have to have it.”
I naturally do my own shopping during the fair. There is not much in my field of biblio-books, but I do snag a copy of Norman Strouse’s The Pleasures of Packing a Library (1968), presented to a Ford executive. Strouse was an advertising executive by vocation, and one of his main accounts was Ford Motor Company. He writes in the essay of a fellow book collector at Ford. So, nice! Then I stumble across General Sir William Howe’s Orderly Book at Charlestown, Boston and Halifax June 17 1775 to 1776 26 May. . . Collected by Benjamin Franklin Stevens. . . with an Historical Introduction by Edward Everett Hale (London: Benjamin Franklin Stevens, 1884), this the copy presented by Stevens to Hale with letter laid in. Hard to beat that association. And of further interest to me in the book, Benjamin Franklin Stevens, also a bookseller, was the brother of the famous rare bookman Henry Stevens. My only other find of note is literary – a copy of Eudora Welty’s Losing Battles (1970) inscribed to author Linda Kuehl during the time Kuehl interviewed Welty for the Paris Review.
I seek out the Florida Bibliophile Society booth where I acquire several of their recent publications including the impressive “I Contain Multitudes. . ..” Selections from the Ed S. Centeno Walt Whitman Collection (2022). More impressive is meeting three of the club officers first-hand: Charles Brown, Ben Wiley, and Gary Simons. We have Zoomed together and exchanged emails on a variety of subjects over the last few years. I also gave a Zoom talk to the Club, introduced by the late, lamented FBS member and biblio-writer Jerry Morris. The FBS is a very active club and uses the booth to promote membership. As we bibliophiles stand and chat, it is pointed out to me that I am featured in the booth on a blown-up version of an FBS newsletter with my picture on the cover. It serves as one of the booth promotions. I like it, of course, but remain semi-humble, and I really hope Jay will not see it. But he does. (Okay, I showed it to him.) And soon he has the booth in stitches saying it would make a good dart board and exclaims this idea throughout the show to any other book person who knows me. He is my ride home, so I can only grin and take it.
While I’m out and about at the fair, Jay is selling books. On Saturday, I return to the booth after a hot dog snack at the concession counter and find Jay in unusually optimistic spirits.
“I sold my group of inscribed Vonnegut’s to the Bauman crew. They also might have an interest in my book from Ulysses Grant’s library.”
Shortly after, he sells a couple of good books to collectors and gets a few leads for post-fair follow-up.
“I’m lazy about follow-up,” he says.
“You better follow-up,” I reply.
Saturday evening, immediately after the close of that day’s fair, the organizers throw an on-site party for attendees, complete with heavy hors d'oeuvres, beer, and wine. We mix and mingle with dealers including Bryan & Kelly Young, and Bob Lakin, an eighty-year-old dealer from Chatfield, Texas, as well as Steve Moosbrugger and Tom Posey from Bauman Rare Books. We discuss many things, not all of it bookish, and enjoy the camaraderie.
I note the show has more modern literature than I’ve seen in a while (a specialty of the Young’s, for example), and the word among them is the market for modern literature is making a comeback. The internet decimated the modern literature field two decades ago by flooding the market with more copies than buyers. High spot items in great condition by Hemingway, Faulkner, Joyce, etc. have continued to find customers over the years, but much of everything else remained in the doldrums. Now it appears the continuous fishing of the biblio-pond for a long period has created scarcity once again for a broader range of titles. I use the term modern literature loosely in this context, and include contemporary genre fiction, such as horror, science fiction and fantasy, which are also seeing a resurgence, especially among younger collectors.
The hottest current area is ephemera and original documents related to women, African Americans, and LGBTQ, or some combination thereof. Many dealers are looking for it and offering it. Prices are high, and much of this market seems to be driven primarily by institutional buying rather than private collectors.
The party winds down and the groups scatter. The party organizers do their best to foist upon departing attendees surplus Yuengling beers that are iced in a large cooler. Their efforts are successful.
On Sunday morning, Jay and I say hello again to the men in the booth next to us. I will not call them booksellers because they aren’t – or at least this is a one-and-done experience for them. Both are retired judges. One has been a book collector for many years, the other a good friend helping him out, but not a book collector himself. The collector is planning to sell vast quantities of his collection at the fair. His focus has been big-game hunting, African exploration, and related travel. He is well off, and this is not so much a money-making expedition as a space clearing one. The two men haul in full-size bookshelves and recreate a cozy library setting in their booth – the major issue being the towering shelves completely block a view of our booth from one side. Jay fumes. This is poor bookselling etiquette and technically not allowed, but striving for congeniality we do not protest, and the fair organizers let it go.
Jay quickly scouts their booth during set-up and returns, “Most of the good stuff is way over-priced,” he opines, correctly.
The two men spend the fair talking to many but selling little. They are friendly guys and are soon chatting frequently with us as well, seemingly fascinated by the whole process of selling rare books for a living. I’m on the receiving end of much of this conversation, as Jay feigns other duties when one of them appears. I explain I’m not a bookseller myself anymore, just a wingman, but this does little to slow the questions. The show turns into a grind for them. By Sunday, I hear the comment, “There is no way we could do this full-time.” And later, “I’m going to see if I can sell my collection as a whole. This is too much work.”
At the end of the fair, Jay and I quickly disassemble the shelving and load the SUV. Meanwhile, our booth neighbors are still struggling mightily to move the heavy shelving and figure out boxing of books. We wish them bon voyage as they pack their over-sized U-Haul trailer. We have the collector’s contact information. Jay expresses interest in a few books at the right price. It won’t surprise me if the collector reaches out to Jay at some point.
Jay is personally thanked more than once by the organizers for doing the fair, and he is happy overall with the results. He puts down a deposit on a booth for next year. Maybe I’ll also be back for a reprise in 2024.
Mid-day Sunday, I borrow Jay’s car to make a personal trip. My step-grandmother Betty lives in Bradenton, only about 30 miles from the book fair. (She has outlived my paternal grandfather by over thirty years.) The family stays in regular touch with her by phone, but I haven’t seen her in person in a very long time. Betty’s small, one-story house with carport, neat yard, and fruit trees, is much the same as I remember it, memories of our vacations as a kid to see Betty and my grandfather bubble up from deep recesses. Betty greets me warmly and we have a meaningful, if all too brief visit, highlighted by family talk, reminiscences about my grandfather, meatball subs shared at the dining table, and the surprise appearance of my Aunt Judy.
“There is something I want you to have,” Betty says.
I soon hold in my hand a photograph of my grandfather in high school, ca. 1929, posing on the athletic field in his leather helmet and football uniform. He played running back for his team. He has a hint of a grin and a mischievous look.
I drive back to the book fair Sunday afternoon, crossing over Tampa Bay to St. Petersburg on the Sunshine Skyway bridge, enjoying the brilliant day, the boat-filled waters beneath, the soaring seagulls, and the smell of the ocean breeze from my open car window. I can’t wait to show Jay and anyone else who will humor me my grandfather’s picture—my favorite acquisition from a memorable biblio-escapade.
The two-day return trip is once again filled with lively banter as we discuss every aspect of the book fair then solve more world challenges. The friendship deepens. We don’t listen to music at all. But this goes unnoticed until we get back. Our most memorable stop is at a Dairy Queen in Rayne, Louisiana, self-proclaimed “Frog Capital of the World” with signs of frogs and statues of frogs dotting the tired town. Baffled and curious, we google and find the area was once renowned for shipping the highest quality frog legs to famous restaurants world-wide.
After a long second day of traveling, Jay drops me off at home. Nicole greets us warmly outside. Jay and I exchange hasta luegos. We watch as Jay pulls out of the driveway.
“I really like Jay,” she says.
“Yeah, great guy,” I reply. And for the next few days, I have Jay withdrawals.
“Let me show you what I remodeled while you were gone,” she says with a beautiful smile, as I drag my book-laden suitcase to the door.
|A skeptical Jay Rohfritch minutes before the Fair opens|
|Cheers! The first bottle of wine.|
|FBS Booth. Dartboard top left.|
|Road Trip Bonus: Frog Capital of the World|