I met Helen in 1998, while I was still an undergrad living in Washington, DC. I was dating her son and invited to New York to meet the family during a Passover seder, a holiday I had never observed. David warned me that his mother could be opinionated, was intelligent, and very well read. We immediately bonded over our mutual enjoyment of a made-for-TV movie starring Lynda Carter we had both just seen. This movie was so bad, we were probably its only two viewers.

Through dayenus and certainly more than four questions, we became friends. Her vast knowledge of the realm of children’s and illustrated books was enthralling. As an introverted child, I enjoyed visiting the used book stores around Maryland, but I had never been exposed to fine, collectible material. It wasn’t until I began working for her a few years later that I fully grasped her position and knowledge in the trade.

Helen’s own entrée into the trade was by circumstance. She was born Helen Batkin in Brooklyn in 1949, and made the exodus to suburbia in a new development in New Rochelle a few years later. The last home in the development to be completed belonged to Paul and Gloria Younger. The Batkins and Youngers became friends. Helen graduated high school early and attended Washington University in St. Louis. After graduating, she backpacked throughout Europe and spent several months on a kibbutz in Israel. She once told me she became lost while walking through the groves of avocado trees. She was so scarred by the incident that she was never able to eat another avocado again. 

After returning from abroad, Helen's mother suggested she pursue an MLS. After eschewing math for years, Helen was convinced she would never be able to pass the quantitative portion of the GRE. Gloria Younger, who was visiting for dinner, overheard and reminded them her son was a math teacher and would be glad to tutor her. Within two months of this tutoring, she and Marc had decided to marry. 

Helen completed her MLS at Columbia University and then gave birth to her only child, David. She was not content working part-time as a librarian and sought something more fulfilling that should could also do while parenting a young child. Her mother-in-law managed estate sales and suggested her education would suit her in bookselling. Helen launched the firm Aleph-Bet Books in 1977 and became a member of the ABAA in 1983. 

By the 1990’s, the muscular dystrophy Helen was diagnosed with years earlier had started to affect her ability to walk. Her business model issuing illustrated catalogues and participating in select book fairs allowed her to do what she loved while remaining competitive in her field. Marc’s experience as a computer programmer led the firm to be an early adopter of internet-based bookselling and developing their e-commerce website. Her husband, Marc, noted:

With astonishing speed, she became a force in the field of children’s and illustrated books. For many years, she has been a leading expert in her field of 20th century children’s books. It is hard to describe her passion for her work. She loved the books, she loved the scholarship, she loved the contacts with other dealers and she truly enjoyed most of her customers. I always believed that we were successful because of the manner that she treated other dealers in buying books and how she treated her customers. Many times I would hear her say, “No, that book is not for you, wait for a better copy.” People learned to trust in her advice. Dealers learned to trust her offers. They knew she would treat them fairly.

Many of you knew Helen professionally only, but she was also a doting grandmother to Eric and Emma. I worked for Helen in the early 2000s and our friendship grew and changed during this time—she was a confidante and mentor. She was also a vicious opponent at Words with Friends. Helen didn’t text, but did send me messages through the app, frequently expletive-laden comments about my husband who was often the only person who could beat her at the game. Her vocabulary was vast and blue.

Helen’s health had been in decline since 2014. A series of illnesses coupled with her muscular dystrophy made it difficult to regain her strength and energy. However, her love for the bookselling life, her wit, and her humour did not waver.

Comments