Everyone in New Orleans who loves books — old books, collectors’ items or just bargains — looks forward to the Symphony Book Fair each spring. You never know what you might find there, what treasures of a lifetime your hand might light upon.
The sale starts today at the Human Performance Center on the UNO campus, and continues through Sunday. This year, keep a sharp eye out for some very special books, collected and cherished by longtime Symphony Book Fair volunteer, Tulane University professor and antiquarian book dealer, Joseph Cohen.
Cohen, who died last year at 88, was one of New Orleans’ great bookmen. He taught at Tulane from 1955-1991, after getting two degrees from Vanderbilt and a doctorate at the University of Texas.
After Cohen retired from teaching, he opened a store, Great Acquisitions, and sold books online as well. Another thread in his long literary life, distinguished by generosity with his knowledge and spirit, was volunteering at the Symphony Book Fair.
Jeff Cohen, now the executive director of the Austin History Center Association, tells affectionate, humorous stories about growing up with a book-loving father.
“When he was the associate dean of Newcomb, he had seven secret closets, and storage spaces all over campus. The only people who knew about his secret stashes were the Tulane maintenance men. And growing up in the ’70s, we had a second phone line in the house for Dad’s book customers,” Cohen said.
“There’s a real camaraderie in the book fair warehouse,” said Marlene Jaffe, former symphony volunteer president. “It makes coming in a real joy. And Joe made it fun. There’s a sense of working for a common goal — to make payments to the musicians. “
“Joe would come in the day before the fair and look at the valuable items, and tell us our prices were too low,” said Jaffe. “So he’d raise the prices and then he’d come back to the sale the next day and buy some of those books!
“He collected some esoteric things — books of Judaica, books about New Orleans and the South. There’s a very special two-volume set of about ancient coins written in Japanese, very rare,“ she said.
Cohen taught Japanese during World War II, and his son says this father’s aptitude for languages probably saved his life. The elder Cohen was assigned to the University of Minnesota to teach, but the rest of his unit perished in the Pacific.
How did his father come to learn Japanese?
“I don’t really know,” Jeff Cohen said. “But I think it was this: He was that kid growing up in the Depression era who found the library. And all those years of loving books and reading — I think it gave him an affinity for foreign languages that saved his life in a strange twist of fate.”
Marlene Jaffe, whose friendship with Cohen inspired her own interest in researching rare books for the fair, marveled at the range of the professor’s interests, which included World War II-era poets.
“At the other end of the spectrum, there’s a lot of Tarzan material,” she said, including rare editions.
Jaffe describes other treasures: “There’s one book of architectural design that’s in pretty horrible condition; the binding’s gone, the cover’s abraded, but the pages showing the designs are fine. What makes it interesting is that it’s by landscape designer and architect Batty Langley and it was published before 1767, and George Washington used his architectural designs for Mount Vernon.”
All agree that Joe Cohen loved the work and the world of books.
“You could feel his excitement with books,” said Mary Lowry, a Symphony Book Fair volunteer, who briefly worked with him at Great Acquisitions. “The way he handled them, priced them so carefully in pencil on the first page, wrapped them so gently for mailing. You could see how he loved them. And he got a real thrill out of finding something valuable.”
For Heidi Charters, chair of the Symphony Volunteers and a former student of Cohen’s, this is a privilege. “We’re honoring one of our really devoted volunteers by handling his collection respectfully, and that’s something special,” she said.
“He loved the Symphony Book Fair,” Jeff Cohen said. “It’s really heartwarming to see things come full circle, to know that books that he bought there will be returned and go on to people who will buy and love them as much as he did.”
Susan Larson hosts The Reading Life on WWNO-FM and is the author of “The Booklover’s Guide to New Orleans.”