Sunday, May 8, 2011

Hold the Onions

One day in the late 1970s I was in Ernie Starr’s shop in Boston talking books with Ernie’s son Norm when a squatty little wise guy broke into our conversation and told me I should think about joining a new association of booksellers called MARIAB – Massachusetts and Rhode Island Antiquarian Booksellers. I made some smart reply about not being a joiner and the little guy just shook his head. “You don’t get it.”

The little guy’s name was Peter Stern and, over the years, he became a good friend and trusted colleague. Over that same period MARIAB (which Stern and Starr were instrumental in founding) morphed into one of the largest and strongest regional trade organizations in the country for old and used book sellers. What I “didn’t get” was that MARIAB was not a fraternal organization. Along with promoting member firms their major function is sponsoring book fairs. And they’ve been doing that with considerable success for 35 years.

For a while, back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the venue for the spring MARIAB show was the Shriner’s Auditorium in Wilmington, Mass.The show was a real gas. The Shriners, in their fezzes and fancy jackets, worked as our porters and security staff. To help raise money to support their worthy Hospitals for Children program they sold big bags of fresh vidalia onions, imported direct from Vidalia, Georgia. What could be better than spring weather, guys in fezzes, old books, and vidalia onions?

This year the MARIAB bookfair and the Shriner’s Auditorium were reunited. The fair was run by promoter Marvin Getman, of New England Antique Shows and, I must say, this was a brilliant choice by the MARIAB book fair committee. Getman, who comes with years of experience and networking in the antique world, is far and away the most imaginative, organized, and energetic book fair promoter in the northeast. His production at the Shriner’s Auditorium this year did not disappoint.


The guys with fezzes were there, just as in days of old.So was the famous Shriners camel.
More importantly Getman had coaxed more than 90 dealers out of hiding and created a vibrant mix of book, photo, and ephemera dealers. It was the biggest, strongest, and liveliest non-ABAA bookfair these parts have seen in years. Getman’s five-figure advertising campaign drew a crowd that was so eager they had to be restrained by crime scene tape.(This photo was taken an hour before opening. I’m told some of the customers had camped there all night).

Best of all, the material on offer seemed fresh, interesting and, in general, reasonably priced. It was almost like bookfairs in the old days - lots of exhibitors, good books, healthy crowds. There was only one problem. This year, for whatever reason, there were no vidalia onions.

As an addendum to this rave review, I should report that boothmate John Waite and I were standing in our booth talking to Marvin Getman about promoting shows, and the wisdom of a big, easy to reach, relatively inexpensive venue like the Shriner’s, versus a classier downtown Boston location. A lady who was shopping in our booth overheard us and told us that she was there because she’d learned about the fair from one of Marvin’s ads. She and her husband lived in Needham, she said, but he would not drive into Boston. The clincher for them was that parking at the Shriner’s Auditorium was plentiful and free. Ain’t gonna get that in Big City, no way.

My prize catch is pictured above. It is the work of a whaleman named John Williams. In June 1846, cruising the line off the Galapagos Islands, Williams found himself with some time on his hands. He got hold of Taber’s New Bedford and Fairhaven Signal Book, probably not hard to find aboard a whaleship, and copied its contents into a small (4 x 6 inch) blank book in ink and watercolor. Not satisfied with that accomplishment, he then copied flags of maritime nations (source unknown, but probably also from a book, with some creative additions by Williams).

The result, though it may not add anything to our knowledge of flags, is a stunning little piece of folk art, done aboard a whaleship. One hundred five pages of color illustrations, with captions. $2500

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