In the course of looking for something else (isn’t that always the way it goes?) I came across some notes that I’d made five years ago on a southern road trip. We were already at the end of an era, though that was not apparent at the time (is it ever?) Most of the dealers we regularly visited on these trips were no longer in business, and it was becoming difficult to buy enough to make such adventures worthwhile.
Our destination was the Florida Book Fair, held in St. Petersburg. In those days, it was one of the major “stations of the cross” in the agony and ecstasy that marked our run through the Washington Book Fair, the Florida Book Fair, the Ephemera Society Show, and the New York International Antiquarian Book Fair, all in the space of 5 or 6 weekends. In truth, it was more like an ultra-marathon than a crucifixion. The point of the race was to buy enough at the first three events to sell for enormous profits at the New York International Antiquarian Book Fair. Sometimes it worked better than others, but it was always worth doing… until it wasn’t. I think I skipped 2017, then made one last southern “buying” trip in 2018, but by then it was strictly for nostalgia purposes. The traditional ultra-marathon book fair schedule had already been demolished, and the glorious days of road-trip book scouting were behind us. Currently, I’m given top understand, a booth at the New York International Antiquarian Book Fair, 2021, will cost a minimum of $8750, with no booth sharing. Add in hotels and meals, and you get the picture.
Congratulations, Big Money. You won out.
Sunday afternoon March 5, 2016. 1:15 pm. Coughing, nose blowing, stumbling around for 15 minutes trying to put gas in the car and air in the tires at the gas station behind colleague John Thomson’s house in DC. Lin Respess, John Thomson and I are all a little shaky, Lin and John having just recovered from some flu-like illness, and me shaky on general principles, waiting to be struck down by whatever it was that they had. Life on the road.
Through Georgetown to Route 66 to Route 81. Gray skies, leafless trees, desultory talk of baseball, whiskey, and books. John gets the Red Sox on Sirius radio. It’s an amazing vehicle, the Honda Caravan. A TV on the dash wakes up and shows you the road when you go in reverse or turn left or right. Now that we’re old, we don’t bring many books to book fairs anymore. Ephemera, generally speaking, has a much higher $$/lb ratio. Our combined 15 boxes fit easily in the back, and my “nest” among the boxes is much roomier than it was in the old days of tomato cartons full of books slammed into Dodge, Ford, or Chevy vans.
I read, nap. Wake on Route 81. Virginia hills. It’s 3 pm and the sun is finally out. The Orioles are beating the Red Sox 4-3, but the Beantowners are threatening, with men on first and second. Farms sprawl over valleys and hills. Rusty tin roofs. Rt 64/81 west to Lexington and Roanoke. Cows, afternoon sun. The spring training ballgame is full of players we’ve never heard of before, and never will again. At 4 pm. we’re on the other side of Lexington, KY, on 81 south again. At 5:45, Wytheville, 6:30 Abingdon – We used to stay in Abingdon until the new Outback opened in Bristol. 6:45 Bristol, VA
Monday morning, March, 8:45 am. In a new Courtyard Hotel on the north side of Bristol in a mall that might be anywhere. Tinseltown movie theater across the parking lot. The Outback Steak House is about a quarter mile walk on the other side of the lot. The proximity of the Outback restaurant chain to the Courtyard is why we’re staying here. We discovered Outbacks many years ago in our book-driven wanderings. They have a good, consistent product. From Portland Maine to Portland Oregon the ten-ounce ribeye, rare; the baked potato (butter, no sour cream), and the salad with Russian dressing will be the same. “The same” often involves some minor complaining about the meat being overdone or ribeyes in general not being what they used to be, but the cocktails and wine are always satisfactory. For morning coffee there’s a Starbuck’s right down the road just before the entrance to the highway. John’s morning java is a venti Americano, Lin always has a venti half-caff. Venti latte for me. I usually pump the gas while the boys get my coffee.
But this morning “the boys” are still in the room with the curtains drawn, snoring contentedly. The ravages of those flu-like symptoms have done them in. There’s a good chance the symptoms were flu-like because they were caused by a flu. If that’s the case, John and Lin got themselves on the road a day or two prematurely, and there’ll be plenty of sleeping on this trip. But that’s okay; we’re only driving a couple of hours down the road to Knoxville for lunch. I’m recovering from a head cold myself, and somehow this has insulated me from flu-like symptoms. So far.
Businesswomen in businesswoman suits of blue and gray and brown glide through the spacious lobby of the Courtyard Hotel, headed to conferences in various Courtyard conference rooms. There is no free breakfast in the Courtyard Hotel. Coffee costs $2.50. Clearly, we’ve overstayed our welcome.
11:45. Route 40 west to Knoxville. More coughing. Karen, John’s wife, calls John to confer over some piece of business. She’s on the speaker phone and I am impressed by the extended periods of silence in their conversation. It’s how John talks. He’s either looking for words, or thoughtfully considering the words he’s found. This kind of conversation would’ve been an expensive luxury back in the old pay-by-the-minute long distance dial days.
2:10 pm. Rt. 40 west/75 south. We arrive for lunch at a pleasant tavern called the White Goose in Knoxville with John and Molly, a friendly couple of book sellers who enjoy a suitably funky lifestyle – he was a commodities broker in Chicago and she’s retired military. They’re charmers, the both of them. Once, years ago, they came up to New England and I took them to the impeccable den of a distinguished collector – fireplace, sherry, and all. He proceeded to demolish several bottles of wine (with our help) and go on some sort of terrifying nonstop rant about the wickedness of feminism, leaving John and Molly slack-jawed, stunned by this spectacle. For my part, I was delighted that I’d been able to expose them to a true collector.
Booked a Marriott from the road, Route 75, and called Penn Dilworth III down in Huntsville, Alabama.
3:45. Route 24 west. Woods close in now, hills. It’s sunny. 68 degrees. Woodsmoke in the air. Gas stations and fireworks places, each claiming to be cheapest in the south. Bottle rockets are a choice item, apparently. Route 72 west. 73 degrees. We lose (gain?) an hour from EST to CST going west on this road, a rollercoastery divided highway with the occasional set of stoplights. Lots of pine trees. Still no leaves or anything even close.
3:25 (revised time). Scottsboro. Scottsboro Mall. Scottsboro Boys.
5 pm or so, at the Marriott Hotel on Tranquility Bay Drive in Huntsville, under the shadow of multiple Saturn rockets, pointing skyward in a Freudian tourist display of American might. We visit Penn and Miss Angie, his wife, in their house in the Hunstville Historic District called “Five Points,” composed entirely of quaint one-story southern style bungalows. We drink, talk, scout Penn’s books and paper. Then dinner at The Bottle, an expensive joint in downtown Huntsville. Plenty a’ money here… the downtown is making a comeback! My George’s Bank scallops smell fishy but taste okay. Manahttans are excellent. After dinner Penn and I go out for a smoke. Tallulah Bankhead’s birthplace, Penn points out, is kitty corner from where we’re standing. Suddenly, beneath our streetlight, the fruity, veiled melancholy of southern life becomes apparent and seems quite beautiful. I can imagine such a life.
March 8. 10:30. Breakfast with Penn. Salty country ham. Route 65 South, those Saturn rockets again. The Interstate landscape streams past, constantly different, always the same. It’s restful, meditative. Easy to empty your mind, let the eyes do the work.
Birmingham by noon, a few more towers than squatty Knoxville. Up the hill, past that strange Vulcan statue. Birmingham, Selma, Montgomery, ominous resonance to Yankee ears. Leaf buds on every tree.
Then, somehow, it’s already 3:05 pm, and we’ve visited long-time book dealer Patrick Cather and interviewed him on iPad video for the ABAA website about his interesting and varied career. He talked about that career, and about his partner, Bo, who had died in 1992. He showed us his first catalog and talked about how he had collected civil rights and gay material when no one else was doing so. While I interviewed and he answered, Lin and John were buying up more of his southern collection. After that, we went down the hill for lunch. Patrick talked about how he’d been feuding with a long-time colleague, and paid us the compliment of marveling at how the three of us had been friends for so many years. Lovely visit. Lovely guy.
Then a cranky two-lane stop & go drive to get back to Route 65 south. Montgomery. Another stop on the MLK history train. Warmer every mile. Full leaves on every tree.
4:00 pm. Blues on Sirius. Lin, reading the news on his phone, reports that John Lewis got his head bashed in on the Montgomery March 51 years ago today. Gas station stop north of Montgomery. Big bag of pistachio nuts, which prove impossible to stop eating.
Rt. 80/82 around Montgomery (gets tricky here) on Rosa Parks Blvd. Stoplights, payday loan storefronts, joints where you can pawn the title to your car, dead strip malls. A broken-down lady running a gas station we stopped at last year. Right onto 82/231. 5:08 pm. Union Springs. Troy. Ozark. Dusty, desperate Dothan. Memory of Dothan stops in years past. Sad GIs in camo, just pimply kids really, getting ready to pack off to Eye-rack. The sun sets as we head down Rt. 231 south, listening to Blind Willie McTell, Robert Johnson. Better come on in my kitchen… Sleazy Motel 6. Two rooms $78. Ashtray smell. A roach in the bathroom. But the Outback is there for us.
9 am March 9. Route 231 south in Florida. Eating fresh hot Krispy Kreme donuts, right off the conveyor belt. Sunny again today. Warmer and warmer. Cottondale, Panama City. Cows, fields. One-story shacks with those distinctive front-sloping roofs. Boiled peanuts, fences, pines, palm trees. Jesus Saves! Route 10 east to Pensacola. Noon. Route 75 south to Tampa/St Pete.
Lunch at a brew pub in Gainesville called “The Alehouse.” Where do they get those clever names? Then the long slog down Route 75 south through the savannas and mossy trees at 75 mph. Dead armadillos on the side of the road.
St. Pete is well on its way to becoming unrecognizable. Forget global warming and rising sea levels. This fine old city is drowning in a flood of money. When I first started coming here (John and Lin were already hardened veterans of the southern campaign), we used to stay on Beach Drive, right across from the waterfront. Great location, but the place itself was such a wreck we referred to it – for reasons now obscure – as the Jim Jarmusch Motel. One could score drugs in the laundry room if one were so inclined. Now it’s a 23-story condo tower with fancy Miami shops on the ground floor…
Congratulations, Big Money. You won out.
There’s another, related, recollection of what we actually did at the Florida Book Fair, before, during, and after working hours. But I think I’ll save that for a future blog entry.
Meanwhile, don’t forget to stop by my “booth” at the Virtual ABAA Transatlantic Book Fair. July 22-27, 2021 Opens 2pm mid-Atlantic time (9am PDT, noon EDT, 5pm London, 6pm CET) Closes 8pm mid-Atlantic time (3pm PDT, 6pm EDT, 11pm London, midnight CET)