Bibliophiles in Bucolia

by Tom Congalton

Thursday, Oct 26, 2006

Heidi and I have just returned from another pleasant weekend exhibiting at the twelfth annual book fair in Cooperstown, New York, as excellently organized by Ed Brodzinsky of Atelier Books, and Willis Monie. We have exhibited there from the beginning, although I recall missing one fair somewhere along the line, for reasons now rendered vague by memory.

The quaint little Village of Cooperstown is small town America at its most picturesque. Barely 2000 people live at the south end of Otsego Lake, the source of the mighty Susquehanna River, in a neat, orderly, and by American standards at least, antique little model of perfection, set in lovely natural surroundings, and into which every year millions of baseball fans pour in order to visit the National Baseball Hall of Fame.

The Hall was built there based on the dubious assertion that baseball was invented in town by native son, and future Civil War General, Abner Doubleday. In reality, Doubleday apparently had very little or nothing to do with the origins of the game.

It was also the home of James Fenimore Cooper, the author of the popular potboiling novels in "The Leatherstocking Series" such as The Deerslayer and The Last of the Mohicans, which featured as their protagonist the steely-eyed frontiersman Natty Bumppo; and after whose family the village was named (Cooper's, not Bumppo's; in which case it would be known as Bumppostown, which just wouldn't be the same thing at all).

Cooper's prose drew the ire of Mark Twain, who was anxious to lampoon him in his 1895 "Fenimore Cooper's Literary Offenses," which is a deliciously malignant essay, and for which, if you had any sense at all, you would immediately cast away this magazine in order to obtain and read it. Twain's essay even employs bibliographic (and politically incorrect) terminology to illuminate one of Cooper's more egregious violations of the rules of fictional dialogue: "when a personage talks like an illustrated, gilt-edged, tree-calf, hand-tooled, seven-dollar Friendship's Offering in the beginning of a paragraph, he shall not talk like a negro minstrel in the end of it."

Cooper's home is now a lovely museum, with a large and impressive, partly subterranean wing devoted to the history and artifacts of the Native-Americans about whom Twain thought Cooper understood nothing at all. Not content with these attractions, the town also boasts the acclaimed Glimmerglass Opera Company, a Farm Museum, and for all I know, a few other museums, the descriptions of which I will spare you.

Setup for the fair is on Friday afternoon, for the one-day Saturday fair. Most dealers traveling to the show allow a few hours before setup to visit the shop of Willis Monie, located near the very center of town, a thriving warren of books piled everywhere, and from where we never emerge without a box or two of likely-looking and reasonably priced books. Will's store has been thus located for sixteen years, and for several years before that was in an alley around the corner. In the nearly dozen years we have been going to the fair we have yet to meet a single soul in town whom, when informed of the purpose of our visit, hasn't immediately asked, "Oh! Do you know Will Monie?"

The lure of the Cooperstown Book Fair is for sixty or so booksellers, and their applicable spouses, to bask for a few days in this bucolic paradise, and if the planets so align, for them to be able to buy or sell enough books to offset a part of the cost. At first we approached this fair as we would any other small, regional fair, bringing a selection of moderately priced books in various fields, especially baseball, as well as a tabletop glass case or two of our more expensive literary first editions, just on the off chance that a serious, or potentially serious collector, there to slake his or her own thirst for nostalgia, might happen to wander into the fair.

This didn't work so well in a town with so many other attractions. While some non-exhibiting dealers, living in relative proximity to the area, and a few local collectors would occasionally stumble by, we had yet to sell a single book at this annual pilgrimage until our fifth year, when in the final moments of the fair, an otherwise reasonably sane looking gentleman actually decided to purchase from us an $80 book signed by Paul Theroux.

But we are unrelenting booksellers, and so determined to change our selling techniques. Most years, we share a booth with our friends and colleagues Jeffrey Marks and Jennifer Larson. They led the way a few years ago with the innovative idea of filling their half of the booth with books priced at $5 each, making them popular with dealers and collectors alike. Last year, after a sales drought of another four or five years, we followed suit, bringing very inexpensive books, of which we sold $20 or $30 worth. This year Jeff and Jennifer upped the ante and brought a booth devoted almost exclusively to $1 sheet music, which netted them $13, while for the first time we surpassed them with our all—time best sales figure of $87. This however, did not prevent me from allowing Jeff to pay for dinner.

This year the buying at the fair was good. Jeff and I usually buy together at the fair, and we bought a box of nice modern first editions from a pair of Midwestern dealers, Robert Emerson and Ed Hoffman, who had been present at the Ohio fair where what is rapidly becoming a legendary trove of first editions made their appearance earlier this year, and which Jeff has been assiduously tracking ever since. We also found a nice copy of The Life of Robert Fulton in original boards, a slave narrative I hadn't seen before, some interesting baseball ephemera, and plenty of other grist for the cataloguing mill.

At every fair, we buy something we might regret, and this year will probably be no exception. Will our annual mistake be a pair of small oil paintings reputed to be by Swiss painter Karl Bodmer that we purchased for a modest price? Bodmer accompanied Prince Maximilian zu Wied on a trip across the American continent beginning in 1832, and his paintings, and subsequent prints of the native Indians he sketched on the trip sell for gazzilions of dollars. However, we purchased two mountain landscapes, probably of his native Switzerland, and while we searched in vain behind every nook, peak and outcropping, nary an Indian was to be found lurking. However they are painterly and attractive, and if it turns out that we can't retire on the proceeds of their eventual sale, they will probably hang on one of our walls until we can find someone as gullible as we may have been.

At least we successfully avoided buying the rare Confederate Army regimental history that was lacking the title page — maybe the dealer who offered it will give us another opportunity next year?

Most years, after our buying is done during setup, Jeff and I leave Heidi and Jennifer at the fair to tend the booth, while we wander into the countryside to "hit the local bookstores and book barns." Of late though, as Jeff describes it, the local bookstores "have been hitting back" and we stayed put this year through the whole event, using the extra time to buy books we had previously, and probably correctly, already rejected at the fair.

Jeff and I also used the time to continue our seemingly permanent argument about the state of the rare book trade: Jeff continuously predicting the impending and imminent end of the rare book trade, and I mean imminent — if I understand Jeff correctly, the trade is due to end sometime next Thursday. This of course, begs the question of why Jeff was spending tens of thousands of dollars on rare books at the fair. Apparently he is hoping for quick turnover. I on the other hand, provide the boundless and, as Jeff would have it unwarranted, optimism that he needs as a foil, in what I think are these best of all possible bookselling times.

By any business standards we probably shouldn't come back to the Cooperstown Book Fair next year. However this year, because of time constraints, we neglected to follow our annual tradition of having cocktails with Jeff and Jennifer on the huge veranda of the majestic Otasaga Hotel overlooking the lake, thus giving me the vague feeling that something was left undone. So maybe we'll have to come back for just one more year"¦

This article originally appeared in the August/September 2006 issue of Rare Book Review.