For many readers of this blog, the answer is obvious, but based on the responses I occasionally receive when I tell people who I work for or about one of our fairs (blank stares and sometimes an "antiquari-what?), it's very clear to me that not everyone is 'in the know'. The most evident reason—to buy rare books—can be easily deduced, but it overlooks the pure pleasure of attending, whether you leave with books in hand or not, and what I consider to be the true spirit of the show: a celebration of books, history, and intellect.
I attended my first antiquarian book fair here in New York two years ago, before I had any idea what the ABAA was. Literature has always played a central role in my life, both academically and personally, so when my aunt, also a bibliophile and minor collector, invited my boyfriend and I to attend the show with her we accepted eagerly. We were unsure of what to expect, but figured that if there were lots of books involved then it couldn't be that bad.
Armed with no real expectations, I was staggered to arrive on the show floor and behold the immensity of the Armory and its current inhabitants—first editions of every classic I had ever read, texts from the Renaissance, maps and prints I had only seen the likes of in galleries and institutions. I was overwhelmed, albeit in a good way, and before I had even begun to look around I realized that I wanted to spend more time there than I had allowed for that evening.
I wandered through the aisles in silent wonderment. (It sounds cheesy, but it's true.) My memories of what I saw that night seem dreamlike—Ulysses with illustrations by Matisse, The Grapes of Wrath in its original dust jacket, illuminated manuscripts, Janis Joplin's handwritten letters back home after her arrival in San Francisco…
The biggest impression left on me was not something I saw, however, but something an exhibitor said. My aunt and I were in a booth excitedly peering at a book behind glass when the exhibitor offered to take the item out so we could have a closer look. We explained that, although enthralled with the book, we weren't planning on purchasing it and didn't want to waste her time. The exhibitor immediately shrugged off our concerns and took the book out of the case, allowing us to flip through the pages and providing us with more detailed information on the copy. She encouraged us: "The fair is like a living museum—take advantage of it!"
That sentiment stuck with me and during my past two years with the ABAA it's rung more and more true. A "living museum" is the perfect way to describe an antiquarian book fair. Each booth has its own curator, a seller with intimate knowledge and understanding of the items offered, and the best part is that you can take home parts of the exhibit!
Come visit NY's living museum this weekend, I promise you won't be sorry that you did and you may even leave with a pretty kick ass souvenir.