Toward the end of the thoroughly enchanting Rosenbach Company, Mark Mulcahy, in the part of the rare book collector Abraham Rosenbach, sings a eulogy for the business he cultivated 100 years earlier. In his dotage, when most anyone can afford any book, Abe despairs that his trade “has become somewhat vulgar.”
His obsessionbooksinspires Ben Katchor‘s sometimes whimsical lyrics set against Mulcahy’s musical nuggets. Abe argues against babymaking, since teethers would gnaw on the spines of coveted first editions. His brother and business partner, Philip (Ryan Mercy, whose gestures and voice suggest an indie-rock opera star in the manner of John Cameron Mitchell), pumps out a crescendoed paean to his fine silk pajamas and fancy suits.
The two singers, along with Katie Geissinger, tell the brothers’ story before and behind a scrim projecting Katchor‘s illustrations of Philadelphia and New York a century ago, when the Rosenbachs carried on their business and other affairs. In this telling, Abe’s bibliomania leads him away from his mother’s dream that he become a scholar and observant Jew, like his father. Instead, Abe veers toward drink and a career that devolves into noble dilettantism.
Abraham Rosenbach’s true love was not for prose but for the ceremony of dealing, the camaraderie nurtured by the small club of book buyers and sellers, and, most importantly, for the monographs’ preciousness as uncommon objects. The beneficiary of mass production, I’m grateful to be able to shell out a couple of dollars here to buy a paperback or even a few more there for a new hardcover. Still, Abe’s lament temporarily broke my heart.