Suburban Soliloquy

110. The Philadelphia
Book Fair

When Snakeskin's editor asked if I would write something about book fairs, I replied, sure! There was a time when I eagerly sought out book fairs. I adored them and the opportunity they presented to buy fine press books. But I haven't been to a book fair in a dozen years. Why did I stop going? Because I have too many books already and not enough time to read! Also, with so many books impatient to be read, buying more books seemed financially unwise when we need a new bathtub.

In any case, I decided to see if there was to be a book fair within easy range of my driving some time before the deadline for this essay. As Fate would have it, there was! The Philadelphia Book Fair was taking place the very next weekend; furthermore, the Philadelphia Book Fair had moved and was now to be only seven and a half miles from my home. Thus was sparked a sleeping passion. This was destiny.

Destiny plays a large role at book fairs. There are many books I have wanted for a long time. In my head I keep an invisible list of books I crave. I am waiting for intersecting destinies, when a certain book's path will cross mine, and book fairs are all about increasing the frequency of intersecting destinies between books and book lovers. Still, it's not merely finding the book, but the prerequisite is to find it in tolerably good condition and at a price I can afford.

The three days until Saturday were blurred by obsessive anticipation. The Philadelphia Book Fair was held this year in the Pennsylvania National Guard Armory, a gigantic space beneath an arching roof, like an immense hanger. Stepping into that vastness, I confess I was disappointed. The number of dealers seemed fewer, the place not as densely packed as former book fairs I've visited, and where were the crowds of attendees bumping shoulders? I also found the dealers to be less diverse, not coming from as far away.

No doubt book fairs have been hurt by the internet. There is no wider audience for a book dealer than the internet. Still, the internet has its drawbacks. You cannot handle the books. Browsing is all about handling and having to wipe the dust from your hands from time to time. At a book fair you can turn pages to the middle and read snatches, you can find the illustrations. Having that access is much better than reading blurbs in journals or on websites. Chance might have one inspect a book, turn to a page, spot a phrase, and launch into a paragraph of the author's words finding them irresistibly charming. I want to discover lost treasures; I want to rescue worthy volumes from oblivion.

The internet works best when you know what book you want. It requires that the book be at the front of your mind. The internet is of no use for the forgotten books. At a book fair, if you happen to see it, you'll remember you wanted it. It doesn't matter that the used book is worn, you can finish the journey you begin with it. A used car is not always as dependable. I have a friend, a former bookstore owner who was quite sad when she had to abandon her business; she didn't like the word "used" and preferred to call them "gently read books". An old book continues to function even as it grows older, that is, anyway, the well-made old book.

Between 1850 and 1950, the book industry began manufacturing in larger mass by new technologies that inadvertently introduced acid into the paper and the tanning process of leathers used for bindings. These books are more likely to be found with disintegrating bindings or crumbling pages, even while much older books are still vital.

I do not disdain the modern bookstore chains that make their fortunes by moving books en masse. There is nothing wrong with that. The tried and true classics are always available. The books advertised and reviewed in magazines line the shelves in multiple copies, very available. None of this is bad, but there are other books. Try finding in these giant market places a copy of Charles Finney's book, The Circus of Doctor Lao, or Joyce Carey's The Horse's Mouth, or Andre Sobol's Freak Show, or Katharine Sansom's Living in Tokyo. These books are out of print.

Even certain new books can be impossible to buy from my local Barnes & Noble or Borders. Soon to appear is the last book in the Harry Potter series, book number seven, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Millions of copies will flood through the local bookstores, but I want the untampered-with British edition. I can't buy it from my local bookstores and will have to order it via the internet from Canada.

Returning to the Book Fair after many years, even if it was not as grandiose as others, yet made me jittery with excitement. I took out that list visible only to me and dusted it off, uncovering some books I had forgotten about. Tallyho! I was off to hunt.

I used to be a collector of fine press books, preferably illustrated, a passion instilled in me by my father. Fine press books are those crafted to a higher standard and with exceptional materials. They are demonstrations of the art, the aesthetics, of book manufacturing. The pinnacle of this tradition was established and advanced by William Morris and his Kelmscott Press. The primary books I looked for were the Limited Editions Club volumes, or books similarly made.

For several years my father was a member of the Limited Editions Club (LEC). This was a book club established in New York in the infamous year of 1929 by a bibliophile named George Macy. He produced for the club's 1,500 members twelve fine press books a year with special attention to illustrations. He chose literary classics. Years later, after Macy's death, I became a member. They were not the best years, until 1978, when Sidney Shiff became the new owner. With shameless confidence I cannot now explain, I went to visit the new owner of the Limited Editions Club. Despite the audacity of my showing up unannounced, Sidney Shiff was exceedingly gracious and generous with his time. He led me about the office giving me a tour of ongoing projects, showing me works in development, and sharing his plans for the future. I'm happy for him, his dreams came true, but I could no longer stay a member with annual subscriptions reaching $5,000, and that for only one to four books a year, limited to 300 members. Still, many of the old Limited Editions Club books remain an excellent collectible, being beautiful books that can be found for $40 to $150.

The book fair revived the old addiction and I did not escape without having bought a couple of books. Just two! You can't imagine how unusual is such restraint, but Ms Keogh, my more significant other, showed less restraint.

That day at the Philadelphia Book Fair I did find a few LECs, ones I already had or ones I didn't want or ones I couldn't afford. However, while I bought no LECs, I did find a book from The Heritage Press that I did want. George Macy, in his passion to have his beautiful books reach more people, made affordable reprints of his LEC editions produced under the imprint The Heritage Press. (The reprint rights to those LEC books now belong to Easton Press.) I bought a remarkably clean copy of W. Somerset Maugham's The Moon and Sixpence; it cost me seven dollars. It is a book I've already read. In this book Maugham gives a fictional account of an English artist, but it is really the story of Paul Gauguin. This edition makes no secret of it. The first half of the book is illustrated by Frederic Dorr Steele in a realistic style, but the second half of the book uses Gauguin's paintings to illustrate the story. Even the font changes in the second half of the book to reflect the change in the protagonist's life, painting in Tahiti. Maugham himself praised the design of the book. What few dealers realize is that this book is not a reprint of a former LEC version, there was never a LEC original. This book was designed exclusively for The Heritage Press.

The second book I bought was Rockwell Kent's N by E. It was one of the books on my mental list. Well, not exactly. The one I bought is an inexpensive reprint which is just to read and then make a gift to - well, they might be reading this and I mustn't give it away. Someday I should like to own the Random House first edition of N by E, limited to 900 copies and signed by the artist.

I own Rockwell Kent's illustrated editions of Candide and Beowulf. I nearly bought his edition of Moby Dick at a very good price. It was water damaged. Then there was the time I almost bought The Bookplates and Marks of Rockwell Kent. Sad story this. On a shelf at Phoenix Books, a favorite used bookstore in Lambertville, New Jersey, I came across a small book printed by Pynson Printers for Random House in 1929, a collection of bookplates designed by Rockwell Kent. It was adorable, limited to 1,250 copies and signed by the artist. They wanted $60, were selling it on consignment. I walked away from it. I regret that self-denial. All week long that book burned in my soul and the next weekend I went back for it. It had been stolen - "Let him be struck with Palsy, & all his Members blasted." The thief has denied me the book, and the bookstore and whoever consigned it to them have been denied the profit from my pleasure.

I asked Ms Keogh, why did we stop going to book fairs? She replied, "Prior to the internet age you could find gems from time to time ... book dealers were book collectors who had too many books on their shelves, who needed more room for their latest fetish. Once the dealers became computer savvy, the diamond for the price of a chunk of coal became a thing of the past. They now can look up books before they put a price tag on it."

Still, even this diminished book fair was sufficient to restore my lust to browse and handle books, the ready access to unexpected discoveries, and the convenience of having multiple dealers under one roof. The Philadelphia Book Fair returns in September. I won't have to wait a year.

Bruce Bentzman

This essay is the most recent in a series of regular reports from the life and times of Mr Bentzman. If you've any comments or suggestions, the writer would be pleased to hear from you.
Mr Bentzman's collection of poems, "Atheist Grace" is available from Amazon, as are "The Short Stories of B.H.Bentzman"