Sunday, August 17, 2014

A Classy Move

In what I hope is not a trend going forward from the canceled Philadelphia Book Show, exhibitors received word last week through the grapevine that the summer Papermania show in Hartford CT had been called off.

In a phone conversation with Gary Gipstein, son of the show's originator Paul Gipstein, Gary said that the managers of the XL Center

(the new name for the venue in which the show is traditionally held) were, per their management agreement, making improvements to the building. Gipstein had been notified that this work was coming, and had been assured that it would not conflict with the August Papermania show.

Indeed, in his walkthrough weeks prior to the opening date, everything seemed to be in order.

Then Gary and co-promoter Arlene Shea got a call from the management company. The air conditioning system was not yet functional. The vast dungeon where the show was held - known as the Exhibition Hall - would be uninhabitable. The promoters scrambled to find a new venue, to no avail.

Gary and Arlene worked the phones (they are not the most technologically advanced operation, and do not seem to have bulk email capability to exhibitors) and the afformentioned “grapevine” - I first heard of the cancellation in an email from SNEAB (Southern New England Antiquarian Booksellers) president Peter Masi. Word was also spread on social media and through print and digital journals such as Antiques & the Arts Weekly. So it's likely that all of the 140 exhibitors at this mammoth event have gotten the word.

I asked Gipstein if he'd simply credit my booth fee toward the winter Papermania show and he replied, "Since we've put you exhibitors to so much trouble, we thought it would be better to give you a prompt cash refund." A classy move, in my opinion.

My concern is more with the hundreds of attendees. Americanist Michael Vinson, for example, and his non-refundable airplane tickets from New Mexico. Guess he'll be doing a New England tour next weekend! And what about all those little folks, private collectors, who swarm in from all over the northeast and happily spend the weekend poking through bins of paper. Have they all gotten the word? Do Gipstein and Shea keep an up to date contact list of attendees? Stay tuned.

Just a note of history here. Gary told me that this was the first cancellation in Papermania's 40 year run. That would put its opening in 1974, the year the XL Center – then called the Hartford Civic Center – opened. The roof collapsed in the winter of 1978, but the show dodged that bullet. The summer event started sometime in the 1990s and, though it was always the weaker of the two paper shows (Hartford in August makes Hartford in January look good) it managed to attract a healthy group of exhibitors, and remained an event where great finds might be made. Ah, well.

Here's an item that would've knocked 'em dead at next week's show. Now it's bound for the Brooklyn Book Fair in September - unless you buy it first.

Manuscript. SHIP BUILDER’S REFERENCE BOOK. CA 1840 - 1860. Folio, unpaginated. About 100 pages. This remarkable document is a reference book compiled by English shipbuilder George Munro in the mid-1800s. It contains accounts for various jobs, ephemera and sketches documenting those jobs, lists of materials, rules and formulae for ropemakers, riggers, and sailmakers, lists and tables of various sorts of timber such as English Oak and American Elm, rules for drafting, laws for admeasurement and essays on stability and speed in design of ships. These are supplemented by detailed drawings of blacksmith work, coppering, and construction details of merchant vessels. Finally there are pencil drawings and colored drawings of vessels such as the “Barque Lousia Munro going into Shields.” This was clearly compiled by Munro over a period of years, as a reference work to assist him in his shipbuilding business. As such, it highlights matters of concern to a shipbuilder of that era, and shows practices that were actually used in the shipyards. It is a remarkable collection. I’ve never seen anything quite like it. Old boards detached, text and illustrations are clean. $7500

Monday, August 11, 2014

Middle River, Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, Canada, August 9, 2014

Ledyard bleeding out upon the sands of Egypt. Maybe a quick flashback montage of Dartmouth, Captain Cook, John Paul Jones, Jefferson in Paris, those seductive ladies of the night, Joseph Banks, the Nile (“Do you know the river Connecticut? Of all the rivers I have seen it most resembles it in size.”) The sand.

But I'm done with that. With Ledyard, too, long before his final, fatal African adventure. Now it feels as if the man had only been an excuse – a typically preposterous one – for dragging myself out of the house into the … what? 

Well, maybe not “into” or “out of,” either. All I did was climb up on my hobby horse - as I had seen Ledyard do, as he had learned to do from his writing teacher Laurence Sterne - and clop down the road following the American Traveler and his dream of becoming “the Man” (his words, 1786), on the heels of Sterne who was following his wry vision of the “sentimental man” through Europe, discovering new modes of seeing, feeling, being. I trudged through small towns and shopping malls, imagining the lines linking Ledyard to China Trade fortunes, to the railroads, to the telephone, to the computer, to precisely those shopping malls in their clownish iterations - as hot on the trail of a fantasy as Ledyard or Sterne - all this while, I say, doing nothing more than, or nothing so much as, tracking my own life. Not to see what got me here, but to understand, to the extent I could, what “here” was.
Thus the river in her many guises, my beautiful highway, and the kingdom of my departed loved ones, culminating in an improvised and heartfelt post ribeye whiskey and cigar ceremony behind a crummy Days Inn, landing me in the post wilderness wilderness America had become, as savvy and tough, I hoped, as Daniel Boone ever was in the forests of his day. Thanks, Mister Ledyard. I feel better now.

I am not speaking in any figurative, metaphorical, or poetic way. I believe in my beautiful highway and the wilderness it traverses as much as I believe in the chair in which I am sitting, or the computer upon which I am typing – it has gigs of ram and a solid state hard drive and a zillion megahertz whatever. I believe in it and can use it. I do not understand it.

Which brings me to the problem confronting me as I begin this essay. Although I am pretty much finished with John Ledyard, the American Traveler, 1751 – 1789, I am by no means finished with my walk along the Connecticut River, tracing his famous escape from Dartmouth College to his family in Hartford in 1773 (and meditating, as I walk, upon America in his day and America in my own, etc., etc.), I still have about thirty miles to go as the crow flies, from West Springfield, Massachusetts to Hartford, Connecticut. But it's really more like forty-five because, as I have already suggested, crows do not fly as the crow flies. Nor do I.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Guest Blog

Dawn in my field, sometime last summer
I'm on the way up to my field in Cape Breton to work on the last essay about my walk down the Connecticut River, tracing the journey John Ledyard made in 1773, and thinking about America then and America now. The walking can be hard, but writing about it is always harder.

Anyway, there's no Internet, or electricity, or running water up there, and not many people either, which is why I go there. So I thought I'd better post this week's blog entry from the comfort of my Comfort Inn in New Glasgow, Nova Scotia tonight, since I won't be able to do it tomorrow.

Only trouble is, I don't have anything, bookwise, to write about - just seething uncertainties of ideas about Ledyard and the last bit of my dance with him churning beneath the surface in an utterly unpresentable manner.

So I'm going to link you to a guest blog this week. It's written by my old pal, science fiction writer  Rudy Rucker, AKA "the Godfather of Cyberpunk," about his visit with an old friend of ours named Dick Scheinman. When we knew Dick he was the scion of a lovely, funny, but mostly mainstream Jewish family that lived up in a very nice Bronx neighborhood known as Riverdale. As you will see, he's come a long way since then.

Rudy's blog is also an excellent example of what a good blog should be. He's been blogging for a long time, and he's one of the masters of the form.

Here's the link. Enjoy!

Sunday, July 27, 2014

A Little History

I'm writing from the magnificent pile of stone and anguish known as Chapter 11 Books, situated between a Jiffy Lube and a drive-thru mortuary, and patronized primarily by people who'll have to come back when they've got more time. At the moment I'm wondering how one retires from a trade that most people take up after they retire. No answers are forthcoming. It's beginning to look as if I'll die with my books on.

The dream ends. I wake to find myself in a slightly too comfortable chair at the edge of my booth at the Twenty-Fourth, or Twenty-Fifth, or Twenty-Sixth Annual Antiquarian Book Fair at John Dewey Academy, in Searles Castle, Great Barrington, Massachusetts. It's been a slow day, but days at this show are always slow.
People drift in and out - polo shirted upper middle class people with frighteningly well behaved children, men in pink shorts, a lady with a Service Dog in a baby carriage.
These folks are on vacation, and they've got all the time in the world. They poke around, consult one another, amble off, return, ask questions. They seem to be intelligent, sophisticated people. They're here in the Berkshires from places like Boston and New York, for the Tanglewood Music Festival or to visit the area's many galleries and museums, and we entertain their questions because, occasionally, a question will lead to a purchase. Often the question is, “Can you do any better on the price?” If you say it right, I suppose, it sounds intelligent and sophisticated.
The "line" a few minutes before opening
Because everyone's on vacation, no one is on a schedule. That means customers wander into the book fair all day long. Today, however, not enough customers have been wandering in, or they've been wandering in too slowly. Bernice Bornstein, the show's promoter, is concerned. 
Beauty & the Beast - Bernice Bornstein and Peter Stern
Almost every dealer has sold something, but several have not sold enough. (In this context “enough” means enough to pay for travel, room and board, and booth rent. Not meeting these basic expenses is a bummer. We've all been there, and none of us want to go there again. Hearing such a report from a colleague evokes feelings of sympathy and solidarity rather than superiority.)
The road to Searles Castle was a long and winding one for Bernice - crowded, initially, with camper vans and portapotties. She and her first husband got their start hustling antiques at the Brimfield shows. It was, Bernice conceded, a rough life, but it had its benefits. The Bornsteins became fast friends with Paul and Arlene Gipstein, who went on to found the famous Papermania shows in Hartford, CT. This association inspired Bernice to to start a long running antique show at the Northeast Trade Center, a huge, decrepit barn in Woburn, Massachusetts. I got my first taste of antique show culture at this show in the early 1980s, and it was scary. The dealers were mostly squabbling, middle aged couples. They ate their lunches out of plastic coolers and were constantly on guard against theft of goods or reputation by their colleagues, other squabbling, middle aged couples.

The aggressive Irene Stella pushed Bernice out of that loop in the early 1990s, which was when dealer Rex Stark helped reinvent her, sort of the way Rex Harrison reinvented Julie Andrews in My Fair Lady. Well, at least he got her organized, and she soon started a paper and ephemera show at the Holiday Inn in Boxborough, Massachusetts.

Bernice, always a fountain of energy, will readily admit to being somewhat disorganized. The fact that this Searles Hall book fair is advertized as being the "24th annual" on her website, and the "26th annual" on her promotional literature is evidence of that – as are the several shows in which she inadvertently rented out more booths than the venue could accommodate – occasions hilarious for everyone except those dealers involved. And Bernice, of course. And crossword puzzle savant Bill Hutchison,who with Garry Austin figured out how to squeeze 42 booths into a space designed for 40, and spared Bernice from being tarred and feathered.

The success of the Boxborough show led Bernice to explore other possibilities. Interestingly, she was also motivated by a desire to raise the tone of her shows. “No disrespect to paper people,” she says. “They're wonderful, but they're schleppers. Now, these book people, when they get their booths set up, they're nice and tidy.”

Searles Castle was one of Bernice's brainstorms. She knew about it because she'd been born and raised in the area. But the fact that she's taken this show through two sets of Castle owners, and from antiques to books and paper, is a tribute to her ingenuity. It should also be noted that, in the course of her experiments with venues in the 1990s she opened a show in her husband's parking garage on Dalton St. opposite the Hynes Convention Center.
My memories of that show feature the queasy, spiraling, vertiginous, hungover journey down five flights of concrete stairway on opening morning, accompanied by the awful smell of auto exhaust, and frigid blasts of November air from street level. But more important is the fact that this event pioneered the so-called “Shadow Show” idea. Her infamous Garage Show was held on the same weekend as the big ABAA book fair in the Hynes next door. It offered a less expensive alternative for non-ABAA dealers, and a terrific buying opportunity for those dealers exhibiting at the big show.

Bernice might have the Goldie Hawn thing going, but she's been pretty savvy about her shows. After she and Marvin broke up, Bernice saved her show by moving it from the parking garage to the Park Plaza Castle and the Radission Hotel down the street. A lot of dealers made a lot of money thanks to Bernice.

At the time of its inception, Bernice's idea for a second show faced stiff resistance. Many ABAA people felt she was cutting in on their action or slurping up free publicity. They feared that buying dollars would be spread too thin, and that a second, non-ABAA show would water the product down. However, after a couple of years it was clear that this was a classic win-win situation. Now a “Shadow Show” accompanies the New York ABAA fair and, in a way, the California fairs as well.

So, here's to you Bernice! Thank you for 26 years at the idyllic Searles Castle.

Or is it 24?

The buying wasn't so hot, but I did find one thing that played into my China Trade obsession.

Chinese Repository, Volume III. May 1834 – April 1835. Canton, 1835. 584, viii (index) pp. This periodical was published in Canton by Protestant missionaries, notably Elijah Coleman Bridgeman, between 1832 and 1851. These early volumes are of particular interest because they document the increasingly troubled years leading up to the First Opium War in 1839. This volume includes articles on missionary work, social conditions, politics, the British presence, current events, the Chinese written language, and such topical subjects as “Chinese Pirates.” It lacks a plate of Chinese written characters, but contains the b/w lithographed map measuring 13 x 18 ½ inches of “the Choo Keang or Pearl River,” from Ladnrone Island to Canton. The book is rebound in full green morocco with raised bands and gilt spine lettering. $750

Sunday, July 20, 2014

The Novel I Never Wrote

Last month I bought three pamphlets about a murder that took place in Salem, Massachusetts in 1830. It was a sensational affair in its day, a victory for prosecutor Daniel Webster, and an interesting sidelight in the history of American jurisprudence.

But that was not why I bought the pamphlets.

In 1829 William Low of Salem was sent to Canton to manage the affairs of Russell & Co. the great American China Trade firm. He brought his wife along and, to keep her company, his twenty-year-old niece, Harriett Low.
Harriett Low, as painted by George Chinnery
Happily for posterity, Harriett kept a detailed diary of her years in China. The Low household was a center of social life for American traders in Canton, and Harriett saw, and wrote about, everyone of importance in that group. Her diary was excerpted in Emma Liones's classic book China Trade Post-Bag, and reprinted in its entirety about fifteen years ago as Lights and Shadows in Macao Life.

She met Robert Bennet Forbes, AKA “Black Ben,” author of one of the great American autobiographies, 
 his brother John Murray, who would go on to become one of the great commercial minds in American history, and George Chinnery,
Self Portrait
the eccentric and gifted painter (the old lech was sweet on Harriett and painted a lovely portrait of her. I visit it every once in a while at the Peabody Essex Museum), and Robert Morrison, 
Morrison by Chinnery
the great missionary and translator, and William Hunter, a young American who went native and penned one of the liveliest accounts of China Trade life. 
She fell in love and suffered a broken heart. She entertained an endless stream of diplomats, missionaries, navy men, and famous American sea captains (quite a few of whom wrote about her in their diaries and letters).

She met everyone and recorded everything in the tumultuous and exciting years leading up to the First Opium War. But she never talked about what Russell & Co. were actually doing over there.

That question is answered (not that there was ever any doubt!) in the journal of the Salem trading ship Sumatra,
which I will be offering for sale in my next catalog (see my blog entry for March 30, 2014). The Americans were importing opium from Turkey and offloading it to Black Ben's receiving ship on Lintin Island. The drug was used as a substitute for specie (in desperately short supply in Britain and America) to obtain Chinese goods.

But back to those pamphlets.

It turns out that the convicted murderers were the brothers of Harriett's aunt. When the news arrived in China the poor woman was devastated, forced to keep her connection to the terrible crime a secret lest her social standing be ruined.

Nothing more than historical trivia, I know. I'll probably never sell those pamphlets, and they'll go into my China Trade reference collection, 
already brimming with books about characters like Ledyard, Morris, Shaw, McGee, Perkins, Cushing, Russell, the Low family, the Forbes brothers, Hunter, Green, and Delano.

Maybe those are just names to you. But to me they are as real and present as people who live in my town. I know them all  - the whole clan - and their quirks, and their families, and the people they knew, and I can see the places and feel the times they moved through as clearly as if I were watching a movie or reading a novel.

In fact, it is a novel – one I've been trying, and failing, to write for twenty years. It's called Opium Lives and it stars Harriet and Black Ben, with a supporting cast of those dozens of remarkable New Englanders who lived and worked in the looming shadow of the First Opium War.

I've got half a dozen outlines and at least three false starts. My problem is that the story is too big, too close. I need to get some distance on it. But how much farther away can I get from events that took place halfway around the world two centuries ago?

More often than not, when I'm out scouting books, I'll come across something like those three pamphlets, and I'll find myself right back in Macao, having a drink in Chinnery's studio, watching him ogle Harriett, or sailing up the Pearl River with Black Ben.
A Report of the Evidence and Points of Law, Arising in the Trial of John Francis Knapp for the Murder of Joseph White, Esquire... Salem, 1830. 74 pp. b/w plates. Half title present, but lacks wrappers. (and) Appendix to the Report of the Trial of John Francis Knapp... on the Second Trial. “Salem Edition”, 1830. 72 pp. In original printed wrappers (and) Biographical Sketch of the Celebrated Salem Murderer... Boston, 1830. 24 pp. Lacks wraps and frontispiece.

John and Francis Knapp had a wealthy uncle named Joseph White, from whom they hoped to inherit a large sum. Impatient for the money, they hired a hit man who did the deed, throwing Salem into a panic. Eventually a fellow criminal ratted out the killer who promptly ratted out then Knapps and committed suicide. Daniel Webster prosecuted a tricky murder trial in which the murderer was dead and the conspirators had not been present to the crime. In a precedent setting argument Webster convinced the jury that the mere proximity of the brother was tantamount to having been present for the murder. The two were found guilty and executed. These three pamphlets are typical of the flurry of publicity generated by the murder. The lot $350

Next week - Bernice!

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Actively Engaged in Retirement?

With the commencement of my seventh decade on this planet I occasionally find myself feeling old. I can rarely stay awake past 9 p.m., and I have the sense that my time is growing short, which sometimes makes my temper even shorter. This unfortunate confluence has inspired me to begin compiling a catalog called “Old, Rare, and Short.”
 Then, last Monday, I put the catalog on the shelf for a few days and headed out to Springfield Massachusetts for the last bit of the Ledyard walk - a 40 mile hike to Hartford Connecticut. (For those of you who have not been keeping up with my literary adventures, I have spent the past three years following a journey made by John Ledyard when he ran away from Dartmouth College in 1773. It is written as a series of essays, published each Christmas by Ten Pound Island Book Co.,
about America then, and America now, and about John Ledyard, and about a character called "I." Ledyard sailed down the Connecticut River from Hanover, New Hampshire to his family home in Hartford, Connecticut.

but "I" walks down a road alongside the river because "I" does not own a canoe.)
Fleabag Motel 6 a.m.

I returned home after three days to find an excited email awaiting me. It was from Allison Malecha, my publicist at Grove/Atlantic. She wanted to let me know that my crime novel, The Old Turk's Load, which is now out in paperback,
had just gotten a terrific review in The Bookreporter. It began,

I love surprises, and THE OLD TURK’S LOAD is one of them. Gregory Gibson is the highly regarded if non-prolific author of three nonfiction works. At an age when most individuals would be not merely contemplating but actively engaged in retirement, Gibson has published an instantly memorable debut, a complex, occasionally darkly comic novel that exceeds its own promise on all levels... (read the complete review here)

The Bookreporter is, among other things, an influential online book review website, so this was great news.

I wrote to Allison and my publisher, 
 Gee, that's terrific! How do we go about converting this great review into big sales numbers and stampeding demand for the sequel? I will post it on my Facebook page. Twelve people will know. What else should I do?

My publisher replied,  
It’s very nice. Allison—if you know the answer about how to generate a stampede, please be sure to copy me, as I’ve been trying to figure it out for 40 years.

To which I responded,  
A $30K advance on my next book will be a step in the right direction.

He said,  
So would a date with Kate Upton—equally likely.

So I wrote back,  
Who's she, a mystery writer? Maybe I can fix you up...

He had no answer to that one.

So I went back to work on Old, Rare and Short.

Here's one of the featured items: 

Dying declaration of Nicholas Fernandez, who with nine others were executed in front of Cadiz harbour, December 29, 1829... Annexed is a Solemn Warning to Youth (and others) to beware the baneful habit of intemperance. (NY): (George Lambert), 1830. b/w wood engraved frontispiece and title cut. 36 pp.  A wonderful and scarce piracy pamphlet. Not in Gosse or the Driscoll sale catalog. According to the title page and copyright notice the narrative was “translated from a Spanish copy by Ferdinand Bayer” who presumably added the Solemn Warning. Fernandez delivers his death-row confession in the first person. This is followed by a commentary on the sentences - (What brought Fernandez to ruin? Intemperance, that’s what!) Then the twelve page temperance lecture, which is thematically linked to Fernandez's awful fate. Pages clean and evenly tanned. Bound in original blue wrappers. Pages untrimmed. A remarkable survival. $2500

Sunday, July 6, 2014



This is a book about a walk down the Connecticut River by a man who finds himself getting old, but not too old to walk. The ostensible purpose of his walk is scholarly, dignified, historical - the deconstruction of the legend of John Ledyard, who made a similar journey in 1773. But the walk might also be the man's final attempt to outdistance the "old" that will soon and forever after precede the "man" in reference to himself.
    Stubbornly, he chooses to walk the river because John Ledyard (who actually sailed down it in a canoe) won fame for his extravagant pedestrian exploits. In the first half of the nineteenth century Ledyard was one of the most famous men in America, seemingly secure in the pantheon of founding fathers, frontiersmen and military heroes. By the end of the Civil War, however, Ledyard had been all but forgotten by the American people.
    Now they seem to be remembering him again. Three new biographies of Ledyard have appeared since 2005, a phenomenon the old man finds strange. He finds Ledyard strange, and he finds the American people strange. There are moments when everything seems strange. This strangeness is exciting, as enticing as the frontier must have seemed to people of Ledyard's time. He reckons a prolonged walking meditation would be a way to plumb the strangeness of Ledyard and the strangeness of the country in which Ledyard found, then lost, then regained fame. He resolves to follow Ledyard's track down the Connecticut River into America.
    His journey is undertaken not as an athletic dash, but in a series of fits, starts, leaps, reiterations, loops, gasps, and grabs over a period of years and a distance of less than one hundred fifty miles as the crow flies. The crow, of course, and the old man who aspires to be its avatar, hop rather than fly, being easily distracted by shining things, new sounds, the smell of meat, etc. 
 Snips from - Iain Sinclair, American Smoke (2013); Citizens Bank (2014); Gregory Gibson, An Old Man's Strange Walk (not yet).