A plane leaves Philadelphia bound, eventually after a layover in Dallas, for Colorado Springs. Among its passengers sits a punk rock cataloger and her pillow pet, a fluffy purple unicorn named Edmund. Except for the fact that a twenty-five year old is toting around a fat pony nothing seems particularly noteworthy or exceptional about the journey this woman is taking. Little do the other passengers know our courageous heroine is on her way to the 2011 Colorado Rare Book Seminar.
You’re impressed, I can tell. That punk was me, Ashley Wildes, one of Tom and Heidi Congalton’s newest worker bees. A recently trained, but always learning, cataloger who has mentioned numerous times before, but really cannot impress upon people enough, how little she knew about the trade of rare books before January 7th of this year. Of course I was thrilled to be given the opportunity to learn from the best at the Seminar, but that excitement came with some deep anxiety about whether I could represent Between the Covers well enough. Could the skills I’d acquired over the past seven months translate outside of the office? Would I say something ridiculous, which I feel is almost inevitable in my case? Now just a month and four hours after all these questions first entered into my head, I found myself in a cab with an older gentleman discussing his love for bungee jumping and roller coasters while I hoped with my entire being things would go smoothly.
I’m here to tell you folks that they did. In fact they went better than I’d ever dreamed. Let me give you a quick rundown of a day so you can fully wrap your head around the week that is the Seminar. I would wake up sometime before 8:30 for breakfast. Lectures started with the pleasant ring of a cow bell and the gleeful smile of the faculty member who was afforded the chance to wield said torturous instrument; sometimes you don’t need more cowbell. Morning talks went until noon with a break at 10:30 followed by afternoon talks that went until about 5:15 with a break at 3:15. It was a lot to take in, but once the routine was in place everyone was eager to listen, lecture, or ask questions.
It was during these lectures that I saw Kevin Johnson reenact his discovery of a jacketed Catcher in the Rye. This included him on hands and knees crouching towards an invisible bookcase saying “Come to Daddy.” Another high point was a speech on how one looks for books wherein Lorne Bair discussed the importance of “little pamphlety shit.” Above all I learned that Dan Gregory has an affinity for voices and when discussing the serious collector, using a slow, careful voice, he imitated Terry Belanger perfectly. In response to this flattering impersonation Terry flipped off Mr. Gregory. Apparently there was no gusto behind this gesture and later that evening worldly scholars Lorne Bair and Rob Rulon-Miller demonstrated the proper, more “vulgar,” according to Rulon-Miller, way of giving the finger. For the curious, one correctly displays their middle finger by lifting it up and pushing the surrounding lowered knuckles forward. I guess you really do learn something new every day.
The importance of such a conference stretches well beyond learning about rare books. I would like to know of another trade that not only teaches its potential competitors but encourages and supports them as well. I cannot imagine stockbrokers, lawyers, even landscapers, saying to someone, “we’re not your competitors, we’re your colleagues.” That is the most important thing that I and my fellow seminarians should take away from last week. We have just made contacts with some of the best in the business: Kevin Johnson, Lorne Bair, Dan DeSimone, Nina Musinsky, Steve Smith, Terry Belanger, and Dan Gregory, not to mention with each other, a group of colleagues who will form the basis of a community within the trade that I hope will nurture each other for decades. The faculty also taught in such a way that it did not seem like a burden for them to do so, but a pleasure. It was such a joy to hear the thoughtful questions of my fellow students. Meetings such as this are only as good as the people who attend, and I was privileged to be included in an intelligent and engaged group of peers.
So, what did I, a currently-blonde-but-soon to be purple haired young woman, take away from my experience? I could go on and write a piece about each speech and say what I most liked about it and how it changed my perception of everything I’ve accomplished or understood thus far, but that would be much longer than I’m sure our poor blog editor Matt wants to weed through. What I really took away from this was that rare bookselling is more than just selling crazy priced books to the bourgeoisie; that people who really make it in this line of work absolutely love what they’re doing. It is at once a business and a preservation of our dwindling culture. Most of all, if you do it right, you can find yourself doing business with people who are happy to see you succeed, and willing to do what they can to help that success along.
(The title is a quote from fellow seminarian and former BTC intern Norman Graubart.)