2012 New York Antiquarian Book Fair. Park Avenue Armory

This weekend’s New York Antiquarian Book Fair at the Park Avenue Armory was the expectably tame assembly of devotes of and traders in the printed page would have been just like the previous 36 relatively conventions I’ve attended.  This year I toured the booths with Herb Boyd and Daa’iyaa Lomax Sanusi and had to laff.  I wish it’d been for better reasons.

“KT, where you be?”  They were coming from Gil Nobles’ memorial service at Abyssinian.

“Lingering with Phil McBlain,” one of the few dealers representing much beyond the usual in African and African American materials. We’d been discussing the disastrous trajectory of our vocation. Since the crash in 2008, rare book auction prices have diminished by a third and are showing no signs of rebounding. This coincided with Amazon.com buying abebooks.com, where – in the absence of our shops – most of our dealing takes place.  Thursday’s NYT front page trumpeted the Department of Justice handing the electronic book business over, upping the Amazon and leaving the competition without a paddle and drowning the floundering independent/ce.

I took directions and found them an aisle over, conspicuously browsing. Herb had found some signed James Baldwins. The author of Baldwin’s Harlem (NY: Atria Books, 2008), the Professor and I share that enthusiasm, among others.  Herb’s written for the Amsterdam News for as longer than Jesus was alive. Every semester, he brings his City College Harlem history class around to visit the neighborhoods only used bookshop.

Daa’iyaa was flabbergasting over the prices. Which surprised me. How people value things is interesting. Mine I’m getting accustomed to have scoffed at. Still, I’d have priced The Price of the Ticket higher yet. I’m still parceling out J.B.’s recently published Cross of Redemption, the uncollected writings Pantheon published last year. (see: On Being White…and Other Lies.).

I introduced Phil and Sharon, who made a small sale of two lovely Josephine Baker pieces for Herb to gift Jean-Claude Baker, her 13th adopted son, biographer & proprietor of Chez Josephine on 42nd St. Sharon beguiled us with the cover of their catalog, 163, of African Americana: Rare and Interesting Items, illustrated with Langston Hughes, Merry Christmas from Langston Hughes: 

Item 412: Small (10 x 12 cm.) Christmas card in the form of a trick photo.  Hughes, wearing a suit, holds a card (with our title) in front of his torso with his left hand while his head sits on his extended right hand rather than his shoulders.  The blank back is INSCRIBED in his green ink (“Happy holidays from Langston 1965”).  We found this odd Christmas greeting card in a book that Hughes had inscribed to Amy Spingarn.

A fine example of Hughes humor, from the collection of 50 Hughes pieces the McBlains are representing from the estate of Amy Spingarn, one of the author’s patrons.  They are sterling examples of the kind of people with the kind of stock that got me interested in the rare book business. We were enjoying their work.

Daa’iyaa, who hosts a Saturday morning radio show on WHCR, was full of good questions regards the liter-rarified and the two of us were deep in high palaver, strolling counter-clockwise, when, stalling, we stirred a drowsing dealer who, on seeing an unfamiliar face out of place, perked up to Daa’iyaa, apropos I hesitate to say what, with “Hey, I bet you’re for Obama!”

I’m not sure I’d bet on whom she was for. My immediate reaction was WTF but D says, “Think nothing of it. I don’t.  That happens all the time.”

We were together one evening at the Brecht Forum downtown when Herb was speaking in a symposium on Che Guevara in the Congo.  An academic on the panel had interested me, continually referring to a book I was unfamiliar with and afterwards I came forward asking title and author, as I’d missed noting them.

My query was coldly perceived and I didn’t understand why.

“You don’t recognize me, do you?”

“I’m afraid not.”

“I rang your bell last week. You came to the window.”

It was the angry feller’d wrung my doorbell and told me to remove the Michael Ray Charles catalog from the bookshop’s window, threatening breakage.  It’d gone to the Library’s window, thinking it was the postman, as I was freshly out of the shower and shaving.  Without my glasses I’d thought it curious a white guy’d be the one making such a squawk.

“You understand, that’s an artist’s work on the subject of minstrelsy, not minstrelsy itself?  I’m a little uncomfortable about censuring an artist because of a threat but I’m not here to offend anyone.”

“See you do,” was how he left it.  A friend, Playthell Benjamin, came around after to tell me how he’d stuck up for me when some neighbors were getting heated up on the subject of my showing Michael Ray Charles work and hosting the book party for John Strausbaugh’s Black Like You: Blackface, Whiteface, Insult & Imitation in American Popular Culture. Both works contention is that you can’t understand stereotyping in rap unless you understand minstrelsy, the same Ben Vereen made a few weeks ago here at CCNY’s Aaron Davis Hall.

Dude wasn’t having any part of me. Neither was his significant other, who was sitting with Daa’iyaa and introduced us.

“And you better keep that book out of your window or I’m going to put a rock through it,” she told me.

“She will, too,” D’ told me, too. “She once went to Macy’s and cut up every copy they had of Little Black Sambo.

In the spirit of compromise, I replaced Mr. Charles book with several books in the series The Image of the Black in Western Art, adding a poster that reads, Satin Is Happy With Your Progress. And if we’re not all voting for Obama he’ll be even happier.


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