Antiquarian Style

A few weeks ago, I attended the New York Antiquarian Book Fair for the first time. It was one of those days in early March when there still aren’t any buds on the trees, but the sun seems to hint at a warmer future. Walking toward the Armory on 67th street, Park Avenue seemed to be full of dazed New Yorkers wandering the streets after a long hibernation. Bookish types gathered on the sidewalk in front of the Armory in small clumps, as a steady stream of attendees wove in and out of its yawning doors.

The exterior of the Armory is a red brick gothic fortress, but the interior feels more like a cross between a private club and Grand Central Station. The massive building was designed by architect Charles W. Clinton in 1880 for the Seventh Regiment, an infantry outfit who were colloquially known as the “Silk Stocking Regiment” or the “Blue Blood Regiment.” Clinton himself was a veteran of the Seventh Regiment, and along with Louis Comfort Tiffany (who worked on the building’s interior), Clinton lavished incredible ornaments on the New York home of his brothers in arms: hand carved wood panelling throughout, tremendous chandeliers, and a coffered ceiling in the Viking Revival style,  In the center of the building is the drill hall, a vaulted space that has become a celebrated cultural venue and was now full of book stalls. The Park Avenue Armory hasn’t housed soldiers for decades, but when I visited for the New York Antiquarian Book Fair, there were still plenty of silk stockings about.

If you survey New Yorkers about Upper East Side style, the words that most likely come up are “rich” “stuffy”, and “preppy.” I grew up and still live in Brooklyn, which has a more casual, rebellious set of style mores; there have been times when I would have scoffed at these dusty grandies. But now, as an adult here by choice and attending an event that prized all things old-fashioned, I decided to have a little fun and embrace the vibe. All I’ll say of my outfit is that it relied heavily on Drake's, and when I got hot, I let myself tie my Shetland sweater sleeves around my shoulders in a kind of prep drag I would never attempt in my native borough. Some of the other attendees had really taken the opportunity to embrace their inner Professor Plum, with wide wale cords and lumpen jackets; others tried a more slick Continental art auctioneer look, with dark suits, open white shirts, and black tassel loafers. One elderly gentleman who pushed past me to get a closer look at a bookcase was dressed in a yellow sport coat, pink shirt, tweed newsboy cap, and thick-framed, rose-tinted glasses. In my mind, I declared him the winner of the day.

Beyond getting a fit off, I was also there to see some books. The New York Antiquarian Book Fair has been going strong for 59 years, and has developed a reputation as one of the best places to find rare and old books, photographs, maps, and every other kind of printed matter. The place was bustling with some 200 booksellers from around the world, along with thousands of bibliophiles–many of whom had traveled just as far for a chance to handle and perhaps acquire some prized tome.

I myself hadn’t come seeking anything in particular, but toward the end of the afternoon, I did find something of interest: a set of posters made by Paris art students from the May 1968 protests. “Retour A La Normal” (Return to normal) reads one orange screen print, with a dozen crudely drawn sheep beneath. “La Lutte Continue” (The struggle continues!) says another in red, layered on top of students with raised fists. The price was a bargain, and walking out onto Park Avenue, I was thrilled with my purchase, though I couldn’t help laughing at myself. In the fanciest environs, I’d gravitated to the most anti-capitalist object I could find. Despite my Upper East Side attire, I guess I was still a Park Slope lefty.

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