The Return of the One That Got Away

Here’s a report on the just completed Antiquarian Bookseller’s Association of America (ABAA) book fair in Pasadena Feb. 7-9.  I drove myself and my 18 boxes of books from Northern California down I-5 to the show.  The only stress I had for the whole long weekend was actually finding the Pasadena Convention Center/Sheraton Hotel  —  and then trying to find the correct freeway to get out of Pasadena after the fair.  I had three sets of directions when I drove to the show, one from the Sheraton Hotel, one from the promoter Winslow & Associates, and one via my GPS.  I still got lost.  I had directions when I left, but they were for the wrong freeway, as it turned out.  I drove around Pasadena and three different freeways for 45 minutes before I found the correct freeway.

Once I found the venue, I drove to where I was directed so my books could be unloaded and then delivered to my booth.  Doing what I was told then elicited wild gesticulations from another ABAA dealer who shall remain nameless who just about had a stroke and demanded that I move my vehicle away from his  —  despite my being directed to that exact spot by the staff in charge of unloading.  I let it go.

This next part is for Taylor Bowie, the ABAA’s expert on making a martini, fine dining, and which hotel has the best accommodations.  I chose the Sheraton because you can throw a rock from its lobby and hit the convention center venue.  In short, it’s convenient, but the Sheraton must be hurting since they supply only one-ply toilet paper and yet they claim to be a luxury hotel.  Hmmm.  My room was on two levels which meant the bathroom was up five steps from my bed.  That’s quite a challenge for a 66-year-old man who still has his prostate and needs to pee a few times during the night.  My room was also near a security door that led to a series of rooms so I heard a constant clicking of that door as everyone and their mother came and went through that door.  It was a very loud click and it sounded like it was right next to my ear even from the farthest reach of my room, including their conversations.  After the 157th time it started to annoy me.  The concession at the convention center was okay.  I had a salad during the Thursday set up, but the grilled chicken sandwich I endured on Saturday was just about the worst sandwich I ever had the misfortune to eat, lacking any flavor whatsoever or any properties of quality.  Taylor Bowie went without lunch at Saturday which was a wise decision.  However, the Southern California chapter of the ABAA is to be commended for the lunch they put on for exhibitors Friday.  And their hospitality room for exhibitors was always filled with good coffee, fruit, snacks, bagels, etc. that easily exceeded that which my Northern California chapter provides when it hosts the California International Antiquarian Book Fair, especially the coffee.

Setting up my booth went well, although I had no pre-fair sales.  That night I had dinner with two of my cousins who live in Southern California and who I had not seen for 23 years.  That was a real treat and an indicator that things were getting better.

Later that night was the first poker tournament with official ABAA sponsorship, an event to raise funds for the Woodburn education fund.  The tournament was a gas, a hoot and a half.  I made it to the final table and placed something like fifth.  I’m told that beating Natalie Galustian of the UK was quite an accomplishment.  She’s cute, too.  Congratulations to the champion, Tom Goldwasser, whose name will adorn the trophy for eternity, and congratulations to all the participants and the ABAA as we raised something like $6,000, a stunning result.  That would cover four scholarships to the Colorado Antiquarian Book Seminar.


Sales Friday, the opening of the fair, were quite good for me, but it depends on how you look at it.  The total number of sales was miniscule, numbering only four, but they resulted in $14,000.  For the guppy that I am in the whale’s pond of the ABAA, that’s a good result.  I had five sales on Saturday for a total of $4,000.  On the last day, Sunday, I had just one sale for $60, but I flirted with at least two ancient women who appreciated my attention very much which is why I flirted with them.  Bill Butts of Main Street Fine Books, who had a booth near mine, and I occupied our time by assaulting each other with rubber bands.

Crowds throughout the fair seemed good, if not overly abundant.  Perhaps the spacious aisles and high ceiling  baffled the electric buzz we used to hear and feel at other fair venues that generally indicates commerce is taking place.  I guess I would call the fair adequate for sales based on my unscientific survey of exhibitors who I knew.  A few did really well.  Most did “okay.”  A few were unhappy.


But there is more to a major book fair than the bottom line.  I’ve heard this many times before from other booksellers, but I actually found myself feeling it throughout the fair, although it’s possible that the happiness from my own sales from Friday set the stage for this broader view.  I purchased only one item, but it was a doozie.  I was also able to place a few more faces with names that I had heard before.  Good to see you Don Lindgren of Rabelais Inc. and Howard Prouty of ReadInk.

The “high” that I felt throughout the fair may well be attributed to the one purchase I made.  My blog readership may remember my post from last week.  I’ll cut the story short.  In the 1980s I used to visit Carlton A. (Dook) Sheffield who was John Steinbeck’s roommate during their days at Stanford University.  It was there that I first saw a lithograph by Thomas Hart Benton who illustrated the Limited Editions Club version of Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath.  That particular image was of the character Rose of Sharon who is generally unimportant in the book until the dramatic last scene which is pivotal.  I’ll always associate that image, which I grew to love and which has always haunted me, with my fond memories of Dook Sheffield, a kind and generous man whose grace taught me to value older people when I was a young man.  Fast forward to 2007, the first year I ever had any real money, when I purchased five books for $50,000 at a Bonham’s auction, and then saw that image again.  This time it was the best possible copy of that lithograph of Rose of Sharon, being inscribed by the artist, Thomas Hart Benton, to Steinbeck himself.

Rose of Sharon

Rose of Sharon

I bid on it, but I couldn’t go high enough to buy it, especially since this would have been an item I would keep rather than sell.  Fast forward again to the weekend previous to the Pasadena fair where I saw that exact lithograph inscribed to Steinbeck by Benton in the booth of Jeff Marks.  Jeff had three other images by Benton, all inscribed to Steinbeck, but he wanted to sell them as a lot.  This was understandable, but I had a rush of memories of Dook Sheffield, my youth as a bookseller, and the pang of the one that got away.  Those are always the ones you remember the most.  I can be persistent, so I e-mailed Jeff an offer of a very expensive book as trade bait.  He was kind enough to say he would hold the lithograph in anticipation of seeing the book when we both would be in Pasadena the following week.  Subsequently, I received several e-mails from other ABAA members as response to last week’s blog saying that Jeff is a good guy (I already knew that) and that he is known to work with dealers to try to make something happen beneficial to both.  To make my long story short, we couldn’t make the trade happen, but Jeff did say he would sell the Rose of Sharon to me for a dollar amount I simply could not refuse.  The one that got away finally came back to me, and I could not be happier, more thrilled, more convinced than ever that many of my colleagues are indeed people I want to continue to know, with whom I want to do business, that they are quality people, and that our business or trade in general should be overjoyed at their being among us.  The generosity of Jeff Marks and the warm glow of personal satisfaction has yet to leave me.  For me personally, that was a lot of money to spend on myself, knowing that I will die with this item, not because I can’t sell it, but because I won’t sell it.  Thanks, Jeff!


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