March 2019 saw my third trip to New York City in as many years, again at the behest of my dear friend Doug of Douglas Stewart Fine Books. He needed an extra set of hands to manage his booth at the glittering New York International Book Fair in the spectacular Park Avenue Armory, and I was more than happy to oblige!
I booked a Tuesday afternoon flight, giving myself a solid half hour between the all-morning wrap-up of the previous night’s auction and the airport arrival cutoff, ha. Direct flights to the USA from Winnipeg are as rare as hen’s teeth, so there was a layover, connection, arrival, the horrid interval between the plane’s arrival and deplaning, a decent uber and finally to the comfort of a comfy Manhattan hotel, and all I could muster was the energy to momentarily drink in the view before the exhaustion took over!
I had some unexpected time off on Wednesday, as an old rule barring outside booksellers from setup was newly enforced (thoughts?)… but who am I to complain about a free day in New York City? So I slept late, headed to Zibetto, my favourite nearby espresso bar, and was directly off to the Morgan Library! The unassuming exterior giving way to unimaginable riches: first, an exhibition of photography from the National Gallery of Canada, sparking no small dose of national pride. Next up, their Tolkien exhibition, a jaw-dropping celebration of the man and his creation, manuscripts, drawings, history, hobbits! No book-lover could evade delight in these rooms! And back out to the bright and airy entrance way, a foil for one of the grandest libraries I’ve had the pleasure of visiting. Look up over the tree floors of bookshelves, grand walkways, gleaming wood, to the incredible vaulted painted ceilings and skylights, then back down, pause on the tapestry, then light on ONE OF (!) their Gutenberg bibles! It’s mind-boggling. It warms my heart to see the intrinsic value placed on the book, sometimes a dubious proposition in the outside world. A moment, or two, to breathe, and eavesdrop on a tour group 😉 , pore over the well-displayed and -explained exhibition cases, moments of appreciation for the art of and in the room, then over to the Cuneiform tablets and stunning stained glass windows, and that was about all I could absorb before: food!
My planned lunch destination was Cafe China, a hole-in-the-wall Michelin-starred Chinese joint a half-block from the Morgan, full of business people and Chinese people, a sure sign of good food! I ordered some spicy braised fish (yum), an imported beer, a lovely and exotic dessert of rice wine soup and a pot of tea (balance!), all for $30. Worth every penny! Brain and heart and belly full, I caught the subway and took a relaxing ride on the fabled Staten Island Ferry, some time to just sit and look.
A quick subway adventure and then back to midtown for a lovely Italian dinner, excellent food and service and and company, and another luxurious hotel sleep: the ultimate indulgence for a single-parent-businessperson! A few hours before the Thursday night opening, and the next priority on an arm’s length list was… bookstores. Obviously. A stroll through Central Park and over to nearby Argosy for a long browse, uninterrupted by the ubiquitous staff; an amusing stroll through Bloomingdale’s; a very Californian lunch at Le Botaniste; back to my preferred environment at the well-appointed, sophisticated and cozy bookshop James Cummins, and a brief but friendly chat with the unassuming eponymous bookseller.
And then to the hotel for a nervous opening-night prep. Heading to the Armory, and the first time I haven’t been at setup, so my first impression was of the fully-appointed, polished-to-gleaming cases, housing carefully displayed articles of our cultural history, accompanied by their smiling caretakers. So many books to see and friends to catch up with, but first the customers! The crowd was thick in the aisles, and business brisk, so the evening flew past in a flurry of books and faces and charming conversations, which continued after hours at Le Colonial and a really spectacular Pho and I don’t know what-all-else but it was really good. And, as collegial booksellers don’t seem to tire of conversation, a nightcap at the St Regis Old King Cole Bar, and a close-up look at their stunning Maxfield Parrish mural!
Friday was a long, busy, full day at the Armory. Doug was sharing a booth with Sally from Asia Bookroom, who is just the loveliest woman, and president of ILAB, accompanied by her equally kind and gracious sister Liz. The impressive Sokol was across the (usually busy) aisle, beside the ever-smiling Rob from Oak Knoll, and many other friendly collegial outfits adjacent, with wide-ranging specialties that never fail to astound. Dinner, with some fun friendly booksellers from near and far, over a delicious plate of pasta at nearby Altesi.
An early start on Saturday, to catch the 8am beginning of the first of the “shadow” fairs, this one at the Sheraton, where I managed to pick up a few things (!) and saw a friendly face or two but mostly kept my head down and eyes on the books! Over to the second shadow show for 10:00, in line with many other bookish types who were making the same pilgrimage. Nothing to buy at this one this time alas, but perhaps the eyes and budget were weary. Caught for breakfast by the name Eat Here Now, and directly back to the Armory for more.
The calibre of the books at the New York fair never pales. Day after day. There is no way I could see everything and everyone in the few days of the fair’s run. But, the Women’s Initiative get-together helped! Starting after closing time on Saturday, we gathered in a salon down the hall for some bubbly, and I felt lucky for the opportunity meet new people and have a few meaningful conversations in a short time. A few of us headed out to meet a few others at Bar Boulud, for some charcuterie, a spectacular trout, and a fairly early night: after all, we were up so early!
Sunday is a quieter day, but the crowds were steady and I was kept quite busy with Douglas Stewart business! Pack up was steady and smooth, the books have to be kept safe in transit all the way to Australia. Back to the hotel for a little rest and around the corner to Nobu! I’m disappointed to report perhaps the worst, most insulting service I’ve ever experienced… maybe this is our chance to see that side of the big apple? Is that a thing? The food and wine were delicious, but in efforts to minimize our stay we ordered half a dinner. It’s a story anyway.
Monday morning; tired and happy. So much still to see. But there were evening flights, home to the snow. Time for one last bowl of Pho with friends, a walk through Times Square, a meander through Rockefeller Center and Central Park. Ok, I can squeeze in one more dose of Americana, at the airport Shake Shack. 😛
Home sweet home. I love to travel, but coming home to my loved ones, my puppy and house, my shop and my colleagues, is always heartwarming. It’s a couple of weeks later now; I’ve caught up on sleep, laundry and soup-making; but I’m still distilling the new experiences and rich conversations, enough to last through the coming months.