Reports from the Bibliographic Bunker
Jed Birmingham on William S. Burroughs Collecting
The April / May issue of Rare Book Review features an article assessing the role of the internet in rare book dealing. Rare Book Review along with Fine Books and Collections is a fantastic resource for bibliophiles and a fun read. Five years ago, this article would have read much differently as the hype swirling around the internet was at a fever pitch. To believe all the chatter, the entire rare book business would be done online, and the brick-and-mortar store was doomed to oblivion. As I have noted, the independent bookshop is in peril, but in the rare book business, things are beginning to settle down and shake out. Booksellers who have been selling via the internet for up to a decade in some cases can now make a more clear-headed assessment on the internet’s value and influence.
All booksellers agree that the internet has changed the way rare book selling and collecting are done, but they also believe that it is merely one tool in the arsenal and that a successful collector or dealer cannot rely on the Web exclusively. In fact, many of the booksellers interviewed for the article, including Ken Lopez, felt that the pendulum was swinging back to the personal contacts of the pre-internet era. In a column a while back, I noted the joys and importance of this aspect of book collecting, and apparently I was not alone in my need for face-to-face contact, in my desire to talk with knowledgeable professionals about my books, and in my boredom and frustration with bookselling databases. More and more collectors are seeking out personal relationships with bookdealers possibly through email, but also, more interestingly, through the older means of the catalog and book fair.
I mention all this because from April 19-22, the New York Antiquarian Book Fair was held at the Armory between 66th and 67th Street in New York City. Once again, I boarded the trusty Chinatown bus and made my way up to the most important and impressive book show of the year. In the spacious confines of the Armory, around 200 international dealers (France, Great Britain, Italy, Argentina as well as all points across the United States were represented) set up their wares in the rare book equivalent of the Middle Eastern bazaar. From the look of it, book fairs are coming back into vogue. I asked around informally and all these dealers expressed the fact that they were having a lively show. There was quite a turnout, I was told, on Friday night. The pre-show activity on Thursday was brisk and quite a scene. Dealers reported many sales to other dealers and the rich and famous that had set the tone for the rest of the weekend. Six figures can be made before the doors open to the public. In fact if you do not somehow weasel your way in early or go opening night, the cream of the show will have already been passed around and, of course, marked up accordingly. The real deals are snapped up early and whisked away to waiting bookshelves. Coming on Saturday, I was dismayed to learn that a small sampling of Fuck You material flew off the shelves on the first day as quality magazine material was hard to come by.
It is frustrating, but buying a treasured item is only part of the appeal of the New York book fair. The entire history of print from Gutenberg onward was available for inspection including lots of incunabula (European books printed between 1450-1500). But in reality, the entire scope of the written word was on display. For example, you want to go to the roots of Western literature, a manuscript in cuneiform containing a large fragment of Gilgamesh dating from 1400BC ($175,000) was available. Early Asian material was on hand. There were numerous illuminated manuscripts as well. Too old and crusty?? That first of Harry Potter awaited the opening of your checkbook. Rare Book Review featured Jane Austen, Dr. Seuss, and W.H. Auden in recent issues. Not surprisingly, they were all on display. Auden’s first book, Poems (1938), inscribed by Auden to Cecil Day Lewis, rested under glass. There are only 12 known copies, but one was in New York City. Many of the items at the show were one of a kind.
If it is in the news, it is on the shelves. Kurt Vonnegut seemed to be in abundance. On a Beat note, it is the 50th Anniversary of On the Road, so I was on the look out for Kerouac material. As usual, he was well represented. Of course, On the Road received pride of place at many a dealer’s booth. You cannot deal in modern firsts without a copy of Kerouac’s second book on hand. If the rising prices for this American classic published by Viking are any indication, Kerouac has made the pantheon of greats for collectors if not the academy. Town and the City, Visions of Cody by New Directions (1959), Rimbaud in broadside by City Lights, Visions of Gerard, Big Sur. There were books with signatures and inscriptions as well as a smattering of ephemera (letters, postcards, photographs) all signed, sealed, and delivered. For example, a copy of On the Road signed by Ginsberg, Huncke and Burroughs stared me in the face daring me to shell out the $20,000 needed to bring it home.
Allen Ginsberg, Gary Snyder, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Gregory Corso, Charles Bukowski (quite a bit of quality pieces) were all represented to some extent. For those interested in J.G. Ballard, there was something for you to look at and consider. That brings us to William Burroughs. I was hoping for offerings akin to Kerouac, but I guess we are still two years away from the hoopla surrounding the 50th anniversary of the Olympia Naked Lunch. Like with On the Road, you cannot be a modern first dealer without this purple, yellow and white dustjacket under your glass. The dust jacket must be bright and the wrappers crisp. The signature is optional but appreciated. There were some beautiful copies of Naked Lunch available, as fresh as I have seen in person. It is amazing to actually hold a copy of the book that looks like it just came of the press. If it seems looking on eBay and Abebooks that Burroughs’ classic is readily available, not in this type of condition. Is it worth $6000? My gut tells me that is high, but in the rare book market it is all about conditon and a truly fine copy of the Olympia Naked Lunch is (as Burroughs would describe it) like junk, the perfect product. And rare like a sympathetic croaker in a square small town in the middle of Hicksville.
The Ace Junkie (as well as the later reprints by Olympia and in hardcover-signed), the other Olympia Press titles, the Grove titles (look out because signed copies of the Grove titles are getting very pricey) all could be had. The usual suspects basically. Skyline Books was there and he had incredible stuff including a Gysin-Burroughs cut-up piece that I had yet to see in person, but knew about. Little magazines generally do not make an appearance at the book fairs unless they are the wonderful Dada pieces from the 20s or art or photography magazines like View or Verve. This fair was no exception. Jeff Maser brought along a few complete runs, including The Outsider and Jan Herman’s San Francisco Earthquake. There were also those Fuck You magazines.
You can get pretty jaded at the New York Book Fair with sheer number and brillance of all the books on display. Extreme rarity is combined with the finest possible condition. It is a heady experience that every booklover should enjoy at least once. It is like walking through the Louvre or the Prado. Sooner or later that umpteenth Picasso or Monet just does not grab you. At the New York fair, your feet hurt, your mind wanders, and you tend to stifle a yawn and think about that bar in the Lower East Side you want to go to. But the joy of this fair is that the books and ephemera are so spectacular that even someone who thinks he has seen and owns it all can not help but come away amazed by something. No matter how tired, there are dozens of times when I am motoring through the booths (I tend to move quickly and I am sure I missed a ton of stuff at this show, but I like to be flooded with brief glances at lots of books instead of focusing intently on a few titles) that I almost break my neck or suffer whiplash from a title that just stops me in my tracks.
In 2005, the pieces that stopped me dead were Burroughs-related. Ken Lopez was displaying examples of manuscripts and other ephemera from the Robert Jackson archive he hoped to sell to an institution. Eventually, he did sell it to the New York Public Library, but it was not at the book show that I got my first and only look in person at Burroughs’ archive material. Then again the New York book fair is in fact a museum where everything is for sale. I would guess that Lopez’s appearance at the New York show played a role in the NYPL buying the collection. The different levels of business going on at the fair are incredibly complex. As recent articles in the New York Times and elsewhere have made clear, the sale of archive material is the rarified air of the rare book trade where the great writers and the great dealers soar together.
The NYPL realizes the special nature of this fair. The Library handed out a wish list of titles that they hoped a benefactor would purchase as a charitable donation. It is an interesting list heavy on foreign and older titles. This made me think that the real money lies in these areas of specialization. Such dealers were out in force and had some remarkable material that encompassed the best and brightest of human endevour. But this assumption proves off the mark. In 2006, it was common knowledge that two dealers broke the $1 million mark in sales in the four day event: William Reese and Jeffrey Marks. Reese deals in Americana although he is a master at all he attempts in the world of collectible print. His two volume catalog of little magazines was one of the best collections of such material that I have seen and was like a bibliography on that entire history. Reese also offered years ago the most complete Olympia Press collection that I have seen on the market. If he decided to deal in the Beat Generation, William Reese Company would no doubt be looking down from the mountain top. Jeffrey Marks is a former lawyer who specializes in modern firsts. So do not worry, modern firsts and Americana do just fine, thank you.
In fact, this year’s most extreme whiplash moment was both American and modern. In the late 1940s, Frank O’Hara attended Harvard University and roomed with the illustrator Edward Gorey. Fans and historians of O’Hara and Gorey have for years wondered if they ever collaborated on anything during their school years. For over sixty years, nothing turned up. Imagine my surprise when I see a manuscript from those years with text by O’Hara and illustrations by Gorey. Never before published and to my knowledge unknown to even the most devout of fans (and maybe even scholars) of those two greats. The piece was entitled Creation: A Christmas Story. Unfortunately I was unable to get a really good look at the manuscript, but I was able to ask around about the piece. The manuscript was given to Hal Fondren, another roommate of O’Hara from Harvard. In fact, Fondren was O’Hara’s roommate right after O’Hara’s stint with Gorey. City Poet, Brad Gooch’s biography of O’Hara, has details of these years at Harvard, but no mention of this manuscript. I saw the O’Hara / Gorey collaboration at James Jaffe priced at $65,000 although by asking around I found out that it was in the possession of another dealer and sold before the show started. As I mentioned earlier, such pre-show wheeling and dealing is common and is a major draw of the show.
So after a few hours, I got back on the Chinatown bus and headed home. I tried to read all the catalogs I picked up or maybe my complimentary copy of Fine Books and Collections, but my neck was sore. The two holograph manuscripts of Sherlock Holmes stories by Arthur Conan Doyle, “The Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax” ($500,000) and “His Last Bow” ($375,000), both signed and with corrections in some cases extensive really put a kink in it. So did the original Beckett photographs by Avedon or the Dieter Roth collection. Well, you get the idea.