The Brandeis book fare was an annual bibliophile tradition in Chicago for many years. My earliest recollections of the fair are of boring, seemingly endless days spent as a little kid wandering from table to table under the giant white and yellow-striped tents with my dad. When I got older and started getting into book collecting myself, I took a trip there every year — it was always in the parking lot of the Old Orchard shopping mall, covering thousands of parking spaces, like some sort of circus for people that preferred old books over lions and stunts.
I don’t know who “Brandeis” was, or where their books came from, but I know a lot of them came from dead people. Because of the large Jewish population in the northern suburbs of Chicago, you were guaranteed to see hundreds of books by authors like Saul Bellow and Chaim Potok, as well as an enormous collection of books on Jewish history, famous Jewish figures, and the like. I bought a lot of these types of books, not really to collect, but more because I could: at Brandeis, prices were an afterthought for most books, scrawled on the front page in a red colored pencil. Paperbacks ranged from $.10 to $.25, and hardcovers from $.25 to around $3.00. They made their money on sheer volume, and the promise finding rare treasures mixed in with pocket paperbacks and 50 copies of The Adventures of Augie March drew booksellers from all over the Midwest. You could tell the people that had driven in just for the fair… (Sidebar: I haven’t really displayed my prejudice against booksellers in this blog, but I do have one. I hate 90% of them for being arrogant, ageist cranks who assume that, because I look like some dumb kid, I must not know anything whatsoever about rare books.) They would grab shopping carts at the front and tear through the aisles, tossing books they didn’t want onto the floor, elbowing their way up to the tables to paw through everything… Thinking back on the scene now reminds me of a passage I read in a book about a woman who, as a social experiment, takes a job at Wal-Mart to test the viability of working a minimum-wage job as a way to make a living. Anyway, she is initially shocked at how housewives enter the store and toss clothing on the floor, leave trash on the shelves, and generally make a mess of things… then she realizes that Wal-Mart is the one place where these women – often poor and overburdened with too many children – can shrug off the responsibility of straightening up, the one place where they can have someone else clean their mess for a change. It was the same with the booksellers. After a year of impeccably maintaining their shelves, and frowning disapprovingly at anyone who dared pick up a book off of said shelves to examine it, and dusting fingerprints off of each book after the customers left, they could finally act like bulls in a china shop. And so they descended on Brandeis, intent on acting like their idea of the asshole customers who came to their shops and left them in tatters.
I never found anything great and Brandeis, and in fact, I have donated a lot of the books I bought there. I did find a book of short stories by Balzac from 1920 that was wrapped in heavy paper by its original owner, causing the dustjacket to be in 100% new, unfaded condition. Although it’s not worth any money, to me, this is a fairly rare book, just because I haven’t often seen a book that is 80-90 years old and looks like it could be new off the shelf.
The one Brandeis treasure that I can claim is a giant, fat, thick, heavy hardcover book called The Evergreen Review Reader. I’ve seen it in paperback quite often (I think it was reprinted a bunch of times), but I’ve never seen the hardcover version in bookstores. Which isn’t to say that it’s rare by any stretch- copies about on Abebooks for around $50 and up… and those are in better condition than mine to boot. Still, something about stumbling upon the book sitting in a stack on a table was just too cool for me to really care that much about “upgrading” my copy to one in better condition. The dustjacket has some small tears, the pages are a little warped, and the book itself is a little warped, but you don’t go to Brandeis to find pristine beauties. You go to find books like this, seemingly impossibly priced at $7.00.
For some background: the Evergreen Review was a literary magazine in the US during the 50′s and 60′s (I don’t actually know when it stopped being printed, although it was during these decades that it was really prominent), and it published a huge range of literature: beat, french existentialist, whatever you want to call Samuel Beckett, Bukowski (although he’s not in this book), and tons, tons more. The reader is really a triumphant collection of Evergreen Review’s pages- it’s a really large, square volume with 800 pages, weighing around 10 lbs. Reading it is daunting- there’s so much literature crammed into the damn thing that a single two-page spread can take a half hour to digest. I look at it on my shelf (it’s hard to miss, since the width of the book gives the spine a lot of real estate to scream out the title), and I think of it as a literary bullion cube, a super-concentrated dose of global literature over a ten year period. For seven dollars? Talk about value!
Unfortunately for surly booksellers everywhere, Brandeis discontinued the book fair a couple years after I went to college. I had looked forward to flying back to Chicago and going to the fair with my dad, this time with both of us actually interested in the shockingly vast array of tables and piles of books, but I guess the fair got to be too much of a hassle to organize every year. It’s a shame, but really, how many Saul Bellow books can one book fair be expected to move every year?