WXXI AM News

A rare experience at the Rochester Antiquarian Book Fair

Oct 22, 2019

Browsers had a lot to peruse at the Rochester Antiquarian Book Fair at the Main Street Armory.
Credit Jeff Spevak/WXXI News

Leave your digital devices at the door. At last weekend’s Rochester Antiquarian Book Fair, old-school technology was on display. The printing press.

The Main Street Armory was a creepily appropriate setting for the people who love old books. To see the books, hold them, smell them, own them and, I suspect, sleep with them.

“Where did you get the braille Playboy?” I ask Dennis Seekins. I figure he found it under a bed.

“At an estate sale!”

Seekins, of Lyndonville, in Orleans County, owns Quiet Friends, which his business card describes as “Buying fine books, maps, prints and wood canoes.” That’s an esoteric grouping, as are Playboy magazines for the blind. He’s asking $50 for this one.

“People get a kick out of it,” Seekins says. “I mean, you know, they open it up and you see, this laugh – nobody wants to buy it. And quite frankly, I like keeping it because it’s a great thing and people like it. I like seeing people enjoy it.”

Bibliophiles drifted from one vendor stall to the next, 39 in all. They spoke in hushed reverence about the treasures laid out on tables, and lined up in cabinets brought in just for this day. 

Credit Provided

At Doyle’s Books in Fayetteville, southeast of Syracuse, Michael Brophy keeps under glass, like the carcass of a rare butterfly, a cheesy-looking, mass-market paperback. The book is “Junkie: Confessions of an Unredeemed Drug Addict,” by William Lee. The lurid cover shows a man and a woman struggling over some drug paraphernalia. The book was originally 35 cents when it was first published in 1953. Brophy is asking $650. Because William Lee is a pseudonym for the legendary Beat icon William Burroughs.

The floor of the cavernous Main Street Armory is filled with such ephemera. At the Methana Books booth, Steven Huff has some freshly minted books from the small press he founded in Rochester, Tiger Bark Press, and some intriguing old pamphlets, published anywhere from 1890 to 1937. He explains they were circulated mostly by food and kitchen appliance companies. And they remain relevant. “Toilet Household Recipes” has a section on “To Encourage The Growth of Hair.” “The Housewife’s Almanac,” published by Kellogg, offers “Constipation and Bran Recipes.”

Blair T. Kenny is unusual here, in that he’s not selling old books. He’s selling his own, self-published books. He worked in the Rochester Wegmans warehouse for 31 years, then retired to Florida eight years ago. His books document a century of gangster activity here: “The Black Hand Society of Rochester” and “The Rochester Mob Wars.”

A page from the marijuana compendium “Leaves of Grass.”
Credit Jeff Spevak/WXXI News

Here’s another self-published book offered by Riverow Bookshop in Owego, a small town near Binghamton. “Leaves of Grass.” It’s not the one by the two-centuries-old poet Walt Whitman, but is a rough-looking “Compendium of Marijuana.” One of the first pages features a drawing of George Washington, identified as “founder of the American Marijuana Industry.”

Sometimes it’s not who wrote the book, but who owned it. Here’s a copy of a biography of Hermann Göring, “Reden und Aufsätze.” A handwritten note on the title page says the book was taken from Göring’s personal library in 1945. It’s yours for $50. Seekins has a copy of W.E.B. Du Bois’ “The Gift of Black Folk: The Negroes in the Making of America.” A bookplate on an inside page says it came from the library of a well-known white supremacist of the 1920s, Lothrop Stoddard.

Dennis Seekins with his copy of "The Gift of Black Folk: The Negroes in the Making of America."
Credit Jeff Spevak/WXXI News

“He and Du Bois had a big debate and everything in 1929 that was quite famous,” Seekins says. “And Du Bois absolutely slaughtered this guy. We have one of Du Bois’ books that belonged to this guy, that belonged to this white supremacist. It has his bookplate in it. He proudly bought it as a, ‘Know thine enemy.’ ”

Seekins is asking $1,000 for it.

Not all books age well, as pointed out by Riverow Books owner John Spencer. I tell him I have about 40 Hardy Boys mysteries, and I'd like to unload them. What would he give me for them?

“Do they have the dust jacket on them?” Spencer asks.

No.

“Then they’re incomplete…”

I’m dismayed. I was hoping I was sitting on a gold mine.

“No,” Spencer says, “don’t quit your day job.”

Jeff Spevak’s day job is WXXI Arts & Life editor. You can reach him at jspevak@wxxi.org.