Monday, November 7, 2011

The Eyes Have It

Rare 18th century American whaling log. Details below

Next weekend, November 11-13, the 35th Boston International Antiquarian Book Fair will be held at the Hynes Convention Center. I’ve been busy for a week preparing to exhibit at this event.

After a spring and summer of provincial fairs (the last American ABAA/ILAB book fair was in April in New York) the Boston show provides an excellent opportunity to sift through acquisitions of the past six months, and do whatever is necessary to present them at a major league venue. Mostly this involves research and cataloging – describing each item accurately in terms of condition and bibliographic information. But it’s equally important to compose a concise narrative that places the item in history and explains why a potential buyer should spend his money to own it. A little Mylar and book grease help, and of course good paper people and binders are essential. I use Green Dragon and Currier Bindery.

After a week of thrashing around, I’ve selected roughly $475,000 worth of goods - about $100,000 on consignment, $75,000 co-owned with other dealers, and the rest mine. I like the stuff I’ll be exhibiting; in fact I’m damned proud of it. There are a few high spots, but I can’t really afford to play that game, so most of my material is offbeat, outside the box, and almost certainly not being offered on the Internet by dozens of other dealers.

It’s wonderful stuff. But experience has taught me not to have high expectations for this book fair, or for any book fair, in terms of sales. Given the quality of my stock, I might have sales in the mid-five figures. I might even bump into six figures. But it’s equally possible that I might sell just thousands in Boston, or even hundreds. It’s happened before.

I do my best to describe my material, display it in an attractive manner, and engage potential customers. Beyond that the matter is out of my hands, so I try to forget about sales.

When I see someone who is genuinely interested in the material I have on offer, there’s always something to talk about, and the conversation flows effortlessly – both ways, not just from salesman to victim. Usually these conversations are nothing more than conversations, and that’s fine. They help pass the time. But it happens often enough that, even if I don’t sell five figures at a big show, I’ll meet someone who will spend five figures with me over the years. I might even meet someone who has books like mine to sell. One of the best calls I’ve ever gotten happened in New York when man walked into my booth, saw a copy of Chase’s “Narrative of the most Extraordinary and Distressing Shipwreck of the Whale-Ship Essex” and said, “I’ve got one of those.”

Which brings me to the meat of this essay. The most important thing about these fancy book fairs is that – as Willy Sutton said about banks and money – they are where the books are. I have no idea how much I’ll make selling my goods, but I can be certain I’ll see books I’ve never seen before. I’ll see books and manuscripts presented in ways and contexts that had never occurred to me. I’ll see prices that make me gasp, then double gasp when I see the item get sold.

Book fairs are my education. They are, as Melville said about his life on a whale ship, “my Harvard and my Yale.” But that’s not all.

I’m going to be looking hard, as I walk that floor, for items that I can buy and resell. There are tens of thousands of items of offer; no one can see them all. With any luck I’ll sell a good portion of what I buy on the floor, immediately, to other dealers.

I’ll be putting my Boston Book Fair stock in boxes tomorrow, getting ready to carry them to the Hynes. As I put each one away I’ll say good bye to it, and good bye to the expectation that it will sell next weekend - goodbye to any thought of sales - so that when I walk onto that floor Friday morning at setup, I’ll be clean as a whistle. Undistracted. All eyes.

And if, Saturday afternoon, a customer approaches me and complains that he’s found no interesting maritime books or documents to buy at this fair, I’ll commiserate with him. But I’ll be smiling inside, because that means I’ve done my job.

He’ll be seeing the good stuff in my next catalog.

Here’s an example:

LOGS OF THE WHALE SHIPS HARLEQUIN AND LEVIATHAN, BROOKHAVEN, NY TO DAVIS STRAIT, 1768 AND 1769. Folio, unpaginated. About 200 pp. manuscript entries. This log was kept by a New York man named Nicholas Bailey. The first whaling journal documents a voyage aboard the “Sloop Harlikin from New York” bound for “Davises Strates a Wailing.” June 17, 1768 - Sept. 23, 1768. It ends “att Nantuckit Bar.” It is followed immediately by “a journal of our intended Voige on Bord of the good Schooner Leviathen Jonathan Worth Master… from Brook Haven [Long Island, NY] to Davises Strates a Waleing.” The voyage began May 8, 1768 and ended November 4, 1768. Unlike the prior voyage, this one was very successful. The entry for September 13 gives what I believe to be the first description of a “Nantucket Sleigh Ride” aboard an American whaler.

American whaling logs of this vintage are rare. Sherman cites only seventeen pre-1800 held in American institutions. Very few pre-Revolutionary American logs have ever been offered in the trade, and most of these have been in poor condition or incomplete. The log of the Susanna, 1784, sold at Swann’s in the second Barbara Johnson sale for $18,000 in 1997. It was incomplete, sixteen pages in length. Swann claimed, “This log represents one of the earliest logs in existence and also one of the most complete of the early examples”

Folio in format, unpaginated and covered in a limp sailcloth binding. It contains about two hundred pages of manuscript entries documenting Nicholas Bailey’s career at sea and subsequent activities ashore. Forty-eight of these pages comprise the complete journals of two whaling voyages. Details on request. $105,000

Next week: Boston Book Fair Report

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