Oh, Baltimore!

by Tom Congalton

Thursday, Dec 06, 2007

Labor Day Weekend (in the U.S., the long weekend that precedes and includes the first Monday of September, created by the Federal Government as a day off for the working man, and in practice, if not reality, the final weekend of Summer) usually finds us in Baltimore, Maryland for the Baltimore Summer Antiques Show.

Baltimore, a major east coast port on the Chesapeake Bay, and nicknamed "Charm City" for reasons somewhat elusive to me, has a long and illustrious history that needn't be recited by me, beyond noting it as the city where Edgar Allen Poe died in the gutter, John Waters (an occasional visitor to the Fair) filmed both Pink Flamingos and much of the rest of his oeuvre, and the city in which the ancestors of our British colleagues so rudely bombarded Fort McHenry, the spectacle of which inspired Francis Scott Key to write America's national anthem, "The Star-Spangled Banner," as well as serving to inaugurate the War of 1812. But that's okay, we forgive you. For both the shelling, and the song.

At any rate, this was the 27th year of the Fair, and it is advertised as the largest indoor antique show in the country, with well over 500 international antique dealers. For the past fifteen years or so, the Fair has included a book fair as well, with usually between 40 and 60 booksellers, with Between the Covers usually among them. This was the second year that the Fair has been run by the Palm Beach Show Group, which runs a prestigious antique show in (not surprisingly) Palm Beach, Florida. The new management has done much to improve the show: attracting some better antique dealers (and by cutting down on the usually ubiquitous jewelry dealers), dramatically increasing the advertising, upgrading the d├ęcor, and improving the ambience in general.

They have also paid particular attention to the booksellers, repositioning them towards the middle of the show (instead of tacking us onto the back, as had been done for the past decade), carpeting the aisles, and installing a "destination" coffee bar and courtyard in the middle of the book fair.

These improvements seemed to work, and sales by the booksellers, which in the past had been sporadic and otherwise uneven, were reported greatly improved across the board. Several dealers mentioned having either their best show ever, or in a few cases, their best non-ABAA show.

My usual strategy for this particular show is to treat it as a buying opportunity, and to this end I frantically pack a few boxes of decent books the day before set-up, lock them in a glass case, and seldom return to the booth. Not exactly a formula for selling success, but even this seemed to work, and I managed to shift a reasonable amount of product on the rare occasions I stopped by my booth.

For the second year in a row, my usual Baltimore fair staff - my wife Heidi - after setting up the booth, returned home to deal with some continuing renovation to our offices, abandoning me to the tender mercies of Baltimore and my fellow booksellers. This is not in keeping with the sort of comfort level I have become accustomed to — I like to know who is going to get me lunch and make the dinner reservations.

Previous desertions of this sort have led my colleague Peter Stern to concoct a scenario in which Heidi is dallying with a (presumably) fictional Latinate lothario, whom he refers to as "Julio the Pool Boy".

Peter: "Where's Heidi?

Me: "She had to go home and deal with the contractors."

Peter: "She's probably with Julio the Pool Boy."

Me: "But Peter, we don't even have a pool."

Peter: "Exactly!"

In any case, the prandial delights of Baltimore are considerable. In company of "The Denni" from First Folio Books, that is Dennis Melhouse and Dennis Hatman, who somehow involved me that weekend in an extemporaneous wedding crashing scenario, whose success will not be fully recognized until the happy couple examine their wedding photos (this should not be confused with last year's Baltimore trip, when the Denni made an attempt, very nearly successful, to bribe some Baltimore fireman into chauffeuring us around town in their fire truck), and Greg Davis of Atlanta, whose childlike delight in the pleasures of the flesh seems always to results in "just one more" martini, or bottle of wine or port, I managed handily, if not leanly, to survive the weekend.

Lunch was equally memorable for different reasons. Most days of the fair, a few burly booksellers are designated to make the six-block walk from the Convention Center where the fair is held, to Faidley's, to obtain what seem to me to be the best crab cakes in America. Housed in an indoor flea market, in what might be termed a "dicey" neighborhood, I stopped making the pilgrimage some years ago, whether because of the implied risk to life and limb, or because of the sign prominently displayed at the restaurant declaring "The Raccoon Meat Is In!" I can no longer recall.

Happily, Rob Jordan of Blue Ridge Books blithely volunteered to make this year's run, and we happily "achieved" crab cakes. We did have a momentary scare when Rob returned, but it turned out only to have been the result of an unfortunate run-in that Rob had while juggling some plastic containers of red cocktail sauce, a state of affairs easily cured with a garden house, broom, and a change of clothing.

At any rate, the symbiosis resulting between antiques shows and book fairs can be considerable, something that exhibitors at the Olympia Fair in London will realize, and this was no exception. Antiques dealers looking for prints and maps, or books in their specialties would wander into the book fair, and booksellers were constantly nipping off to graze among the antiques, occasionally returning with some bauble or odd piece of furniture. Before I was so cruelly abandoned, Heidi did manage to inconvenience Julio just long enough to visit a jewelry dealer, an annual and expensive ritual that coincides closely with my wedding anniversary.

During a lull in set-up for the book fair I joined Natalie Bauman of Bauman Rare Books for a pleasant perambulation around the antiques show, where last year we managed to find a couple of interesting items, including some Thomas Jefferson autograph material.

This year I came up empty, but watched with a mixture of admiration and bemusement as Natalie alternated between purchasing antiques for the mansion (the former home of novelist and Nobel Prize laureate, Pearl S. Buck) that she and her husband David are renovating across the street from the Rosenbach Museum in Philadelphia; and buying western prints, paintings, and documents for their soon-to-be-opened shop in Las Vegas.

Multi-tasking, indeed.

At any rate, I'll be back again next year, and if this years experience is any indication, I might even invest some additional effort to sell some books, rather than just buy them.

Maybe I'll see you in Charm City, after all I'm looking for volunteers to go to Faidley's!

This article first appeared in the October/November 2007 issue of Rare Book Review.