There were two events at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre the night of October 12: the Toronto International Antiquarian Book Fair and “Whisky Live.” So I was faced with a choice that many U of T students have to make on any given weekend: do I immerse myself in a myriad of books or get wasted?
Being as full of youth and fun-loving as I am, the decision was clear: antiquarian books all the way.
Immediately upon entering the fair, it struck me that I was a bit young for the crowd. The room was filled with booths helmed mostly by older ladies and gentleman, peering at visitors with discerning eyes, seeking to weed out genuine buyers from commoners like myself.
Despite the acute awareness that I clearly did not, at this point in my life, appear even fractionally wealthy enough to buy anything in the room, I decided to try my hand at doing as the collectors do. Mimicking the serious-looking people in the room, I strutted resolutely through booths, determined to look and touch the works that interested me, staring at prices as if I was actually considering purchasing a $5,000 book.
When I asked one merchant, Jennifer Grainger of Attic Books, if she has any affordable books, she raised her eyebrows.
“There are some affordable books,” she explained, “But if there’s something you collect, you are willing to splurge on it.”
As I moved about the room, I began to understand the appeal of collecting, as the English major in me bubbled over with the desire to own the unique editions that I saw at the different booths.
The first draw was aesthetic appeal. The visible antiquity of the books lent an enticing literary quality to the editions that were on display. Many were decorated with gold designs on the spines or unique encasing, such as a suede-covered novel with wooden detail.
What truly made my heart flutter, though, was the content of the books. I found the two most gorgeous copies of Pride and Prejudice I’ve ever seen. A rare, unfinished F. Scott Fitzgerald short story collection called to me, as did an $11,000 original Winnie the Pooh signed by A.A. Milne and a page from the third folio of Shakespeare’s Henry V featuring the line “Once more unto the breach dear friends, once more” caught my eye almost immediately.
The comically-obscure titles of some volumes on sale made things all the more exciting. Who wouldn’t want a copy of the city council minutes of Toronto from 1866, for example, or the History of the Montreal Polo Club? Another gem was a manual called How to Swim Crawl, with an image of a man crawling underwater on its cover.
Books were not the only antiquarian objects for sale at the fair. There were also a number of maps, such as the vintage maps of Toronto displayed at the booth of Alexandre Antique Prints. Elsewhere were propaganda posters, old family photographs, and the first Canadian Christmas cards. One noteable item came from Paul Foster, a salesman from London, UK, whose booth held three contracts signed by Johnny Rotten, Sid Vicious, and Steve Jones of the Sex Pistols in 1978.
Big-ticket books could be purchased for upwards of $50,000. A $65,000 manuscript displayed in the booth of Donald Heard Rare Books contained a petition to Queen Anne regarding the Hudson’s Bay Company.
Such expensive items are not as easy to sell, however. The joy of collecting intermingles with cynicism when one is confronted by the staggering value of the books, and the small, shrinking market that wants to own them.
“He likes the red spine. He’s come around a few times,” one seller whispered about a patron of the fair. “But it’s a $45,000 book.”
Jeff Gadsden, one of the event’s organizers, insists that there is a permanent place for antiquarian books in the world, in spite of e-reading technology and economic hardships. “I just can’t see these books disappearing,” he said. “They’re too important.”
I sensed the truth in his words as I swooned over the volumes on display. As I eased into the fair, they began to seem more like artifacts than merchandise, rare and significant. Walking around the room slowly, silently, and in awe, I felt like I was in a museum. While I couldn’t afford most of the objects before me, I could see and appreciate their value: not just their financial worth, but their historical significance. For students, the Antiquarian Book Fair is less of an opportunity to bolster a collection, and more a temporary exhibit for book nerds.
Susan Raudin of Wilfrid M. de Freitas Books in Montreal told me that there are three important things in book collecting: “Condition, condition, and condition.”
She showed me a first edition by Winston Churchill, and explained that signed, with the dust jacket, it is priced at $6,000. Unsigned, with the dust jacket, it would go for around $450. Unsigned, in rough condition, without the dust jacket, it drops to $50.
When I asked her why people collect these books, she responded with an anecdote. “One of our customers collects illustrated books, and when he opens a book with really beautiful illustrations in it, it calls to him, it means something. It’s part of who you are.”
I felt that call when I found a collection of Gems of English Poetry encased in a carved wooden cover with a floral design.
“You come, you see them,” Raudin mused as I pored over her wares. “You begin to covet them.”
The Toronto International Antiquarian Book Fair is an annual event hosted by the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association of Canada. www.torontoantiquarianbookfair.com