I distinctly remember the smell, musty and vibrant, as I found myself escaping the brutal cold of a February Friday night 20 years ago by browsing tables and stacks of books lined up neatly throughout the auditorium of PS 3 on Hudson Street.
I was a new arrival to the neighborhood, a single guy on my way to a friend’s house, when I got lucky and stumbled upon the annual Greenwich Village Antiquarian Book Fair. I remember the people, a mash up of young and old, discussing books and authors and publishers, providing me with proof that the romantic literary image I had of the West Village was indeed true.
I was hooked immediately and bought what became one of my prized possessions: a vintage poster advertising an anti-Vietnam War rally that took place in NYC in 1965, with Allen Ginsberg and the Fugs performing. I later gave it away as a wedding present to a good friend.
Today I am a parent of two children who attend PS 3, and I still love the fair so much that I’ve now taken over running it. I can name every one-of-a-kind book or print I have found at the fair over the years. Among them: a first edition of Mark Twain’s “Saint Joan of Arc,” published in 1919 with illustrations by Howard Pyle, now displayed on my mantelpiece; a beautiful reproduction of a Rockwell Kent etching of Moby Dick, reprinted to celebrate the Folio Society’s 2011 commemorative edition of Melville’s masterpiece; and a gorgeous, vintage botanical print of the bulb and flower of “Corona Imperialis,” framed and hanging in my kitchen. I was sorely tempted by a signed photograph of Muhammad Ali last year, but I resisted and then regretted not buying it for weeks!
For 33 years now, Villagers, bibliophiles, casual book collectors, very serious book collectors and lucky passersby like me have visited the annual GVABF. A three-day extravaganza featuring up to 60 of the East Coast’s best book dealers (and some from beyond), the Fair offers people the opportunity to peruse rare and vintage books spanning four centuries, including signed and rare first editions; children’s series and illustrated books; modern first editions; art, photography and design books; maps and prints; political flyers and other unusual paper ephemera; comics, autographs and more.
The fair takes place in the school’s huge auditorium just past the recently refurbished foyer as you enter the school through three sets of bright blue double doors. Children’s murals adorn the walls, yet children are mostly absent from the crowd. This is stuff for grown-ups. The vendors’ booths blend together to make an enormous, eccentric, homemade library, where Mark Twain meets Denis Johnson for drinks to discuss what William Blake might have thought about Patti Smith.
The fair’s beginnings are a mystery. No one knows who started it, but it has always been held in February, when the school is closed for winter break, and it has always served as a fundraiser for the school’s arts, music, gardening and science programs, which are not funded by the NYC Department of Education and which are an integral part of the school’s curriculum, helping students become engaged learners, independent thinkers and active citizens in their community, much like the West Village community itself. The vendors pay a flat fee for booth space and arrive carrying only their books. PS 3 provides tables, lighting, chairs and, hopefully, large crowds. Vendors keep all proceeds from their sales, and the school keeps the proceeds from booth fees and ticket sales.
The exhibitors take a gamble each time they come: a $625 booth fee, plus the cost of hotel accommodations and other travel expenses can add up to an investment of more than $1,000 to attend the fair. But still they come—many, year after year. Vendors are peripatetic folks who travel the country, and many say GVABF is their favorite antiquarian book fair of the year. Perhaps it’s the complimentary welcome dinner and two breakfasts the school’s parents provide, but I think it also has to do with the stunning location—one of the most picturesque areas of the village, with its long history as a home for artists and writers.
The fair is planned, sponsored and run completely by parent-volunteers. It’s a tough week to get volunteers in a school famous for parental involvement. Many families are away on vacation. So the fair often relies on the heroic efforts of a few stalwarts. Sanpanino cafe relocates each year from right next door into the school’s cafeteria to sell food, and PS 3 now has its own booth at the fair, selling books donated by parents to people who attend from all over New York City, Long Island, Westchester and New Jersey.
With all that has changed since my introduction to the fair, it is comforting to know that it is still cherished in an age where Kindles and iPads rule. Young, new vendors join the fair each year, and, like oil painting or crochet, it still holds appeal for members of the new generation. Perhaps that’s because, like Greenwich Village, this select group of exhibitors and their collections are composed of interesting, colorful characters and rare gems. The first time I volunteered to help run the fair in 2009, I was there on Friday evening when the doors opened. It wasn’t exactly like a Who concert, but there was definitely a crowd and some pushing and shoving for a better place in line. One thing I learned: don’t get between a book collector and a rare first edition, no matter how un-buff his or her appearance.
The number of vendors exhibiting at the fair appears to be down slightly this year—from 59 to 40 at last count—perhaps due to the bad economy. It has also become easier to locate rare books on the Internet, of course. But nothing beats the live show. “It’s a spectacular event,” says PS 3 principal Lisa Siegman. “Our school is transformed into a book lover’s wonderland. The range of books, photos and prints on display is quite stunning. It is history you can touch.”
Stop by Jeffrey Bergman’s booth (Jeffrey Bergman Books) and learn why similar-looking first editions can have wildly different values. Maybe Rob Warren, of Rob Warren Books, will tell you about the time he sold a copy of “Naked Lunch” for $500,000. Ask Bruce Gventer, of B&S Gventer Books and Ephemera, exactly what “ephemera” means. Or ask David Johnson, of Pryor Johnson Booksellers, Inc., to tell you about his work on the Apollo 11 moon-landing mission. Do you own a rare book you’d like to have appraised? Bring it along. Just be sure to mention it to the staff at the door.
Warning: coats and large bags must be checked before you enter the auditorium, at the request of vendors who are understandably concerned about theft. It’s a headache for everyone, requiring five volunteers to handle coat-checking during rush periods. But it’s for a good cause.
By Bob Klein with Alison Nelson
33rd Annual Greenwich Village Antiquarian Book Fair
PS 3, 490 Hudson Street (between Christopher and Grove)
Friday through Sunday, February 24 -26
Fri: 6-9 p.m. Sat: 12-6 p.m. Sun: 12-5 p.m.
$12 Fri or Fri-Sun; $7 Sat; $5 Sun