|History of VABA
The first of a series of lively articles and interviews about the Vermont Antiquarian Booksellers Association.
An Interview with Ben Koenig
The Vermont Antiquarian Booksellers Association (VABA) began in 1977 with sixteen members. This small group of booksellers wanted to attract more potential buyers to come to Vermont. They saw the value in developing an association that could present a brochure listing all Vermont book dealers - a cooperative "marketing" plan for getting booksellers' names and locations before the public.
Today, the association has more than 65 members, whose ranks continue to grow. In the fall of 1999, VABA welcomed four new booksellers during its November business meeting at The Country Bookshop in Plainfield. At this enthusiastic and very well attended meeting, VABA's host was Benjamin Koenig, owner of The Country Bookshop, and one of the founders of the association.
Ben's influence has been felt in many beneficial ways over the years, and his vision has helped shape a valuable organization. Some of Vermont's newspapers have carried feature articles about Ben's work, including one in the Times-Argus in 1999, and he has been called to do book appraisals for estates throughout the northeast and even in Newfoundland! His own book shop has grown in prestige and size, and VABA members were pleased to have their final business meeting of the 20th century there and to see the shop's brand-new addition as well. Ben's warm hospitality made the day pleasant and memorable for everyone.
I had the good fortune to be granted an interview with Ben, and highlights of the dialogue follow.
JL: Before we start in on the questions I have for you about VABA, are there things you would like to say, such as a bit of background as to what brought you to book selling in the first place?
BK: Yes. I have always loved old books. I grew up in New York City, attended high school in the late '50s, and I discovered Fourth Avenue. It was "Booksellers Row," and it had ten or twelve old book shops. When I needed information for papers in school, I went there. I always considered it "magical," with rolling ladders along the tall book shelves, high ceilings, and old guys who always knew everything. There was a "Fourth Avenue Booksellers" organization, but today, only The Strand book store remains. It was a place that always stayed in my mind, and years later, I saw an ad in Hobbies magazine to become a book scout. It said to send in one dollar for details and I did. I received an informative booklet on how to find and buy books. I moved to Vermont, began going to auctions, bought books, and started my own business in 1974. In 1976, I moved to Plainfield where my shop was in the basement of my home. The image I kept from my high school years in New York was of a large book shop with a general stock, and that is what I wanted.
JL: How great to be doing something you've cared about for so long! In what year, Ben, did you begin talking about a booksellers association for Vermont, and with whom? Who came up with the initial idea?
BK: Just after I moved to Plainfield in 1976, Ken Nims, who had a book shop in Ludlow at the time, visited me, and he was talking about an association. He told me that Clint Fiske, who ran The Haunted Mansion book shop in Cuttingsville, was also interested.
JL: Did you meet often for planning? Did it take many months? Where did you meet?
BK: It didn't take a lot of planning or time. Ken and I identified 18 or 20 dealers to invite, and Ken sent out the first letter inviting them to a meeting at his shop to form an association.
JL: When was the first meeting?
BK: It was held January 8, 1977. At this meeting we elected officers: Ken was president, Clint Fiske was vice president, and I was secretary-treasurer. The group decided its main job was to issue a brochure to get people to come to Vermont to buy books. Right there we asked everyone to just throw in $5 to get things started. That became our charter member fee until we decided our regular dues would be roughly based on the cost of the brochure, and dues in our early years ran around $20.
JL: Did you have a constitution-and bylaws for the group in the beginning?
BK: No. We were quite informal in the early days. We developed a kind of question for potential new members: "If you can look me in the eye and tell me you have enough books for people to browse through when they get to your shop, then that is qualification for membership." Eventually, we did develop bylaws, but I must say I enjoyed the early informality and general feeling of overall trust in each other.
JL: Did you have to register as an association with the state of Vermont initially?
BK: No. Not at that time. To my knowledge, the question never came up.
JL: How often and where were early business meetings held?
BK: Business meetings were held semiannually, and there were also executive committee meetings. In the early days, VABA met at each others' shops - we met all over Vermont. I remember going to Cuttingsville, Reading (Olive Burnhaus' shop), Underhill (at Marie Tedford's); to Back Door Books owned by Frances Robinson's aunt, Helen Tudhope; to Harriet Proctor's in East Middlebury; to Charlie Tuttle's in Rutland; and other places.
JL: What was the biggest issue or concern to come before the membership in early years?
BK: We were mainly interested in whether we could do a book fair - how to handle it, who would exhibit, and when would it be held. Finally, when I was president I said either we'll do a fair or stop talking about it - and so we did it. The first fair was a big success with more than eight-hundred people attending.
JL: When was the first book fair held? Where?
BK: At first, the group thought a book fair during fall foliage season would be the best, but then it was thought that there would be too much competition for visitors' attention, and so I suggested a fair in summer - at the Woodstock Inn. This was held on August 15, 1982. I offered to manage the fair, and my wife and I made all the arrangements. We did the fair there for the first two years, then we moved to the high school in Woodstock, and later to Pomfret. My wife, Axie, created and drew the posters for the first ten years of the VABA book fairs.
JL: Were there other issues or agendas handled regularly at early business meetings?
BK: We tried to keep the meetings informative as well as useful: we often had speakers, for example, the rare books librarian from the University of Vermont. We handled the same concerns about money as we do today, except we never discussed taxes or association status in the early days. There were no more than twenty shops in the state then; we were a small organization.
JL: Were there any writings emanating from the early years? A newsletter? Etc.?
BK: Not really - then we just had the secretary's reports.
JL: In your view, has the organization changed much over the years?
BK: It amazes me to think there are over 65 book dealers in the state today. They didn't exist before! We are talking about some 50 book businesses that have started since the 1970s. I was VABA's third president, and there were no more than 20 shops then. Many early concerns are still there, but everything is so much larger and more formal now. I did the first brochure, when we had 16 members. I took it over to a graphics place in Montpelier, and the cost was covered by our dues, which were $20 at the time. VABA has really grown. . . I think the basic purposes remain the same, however.
JL: Thank you, Ben, for talking with me about VABA!
BK: I'm glad you asked me; I have been wanting to go over some early events of the association and .perhaps to do some writing myself - this has made me stop and think back; maybe I'll do it now!