The Literary Treasures at an Antiquarian Book Fair 2020

alex atkins bookshelf booksThe 2020 San Francisco Antiquarian Book Print and Paper Fair was recently held in South San Francisco. More than 100 booksellers from across the country and around the world gathered to exhibit and sell one of the most endangered species of the modern world — the printed book. Although the number of exhibitors has dwindled slightly through the decades, the level of passion for books and bookcollecting has not waned. 

For a dedicated bibliophile, the feeling of attending an antiquarian book fair is like a child stepping into Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory and being dazzled by every candy you could imagine. Amid neat rows of booksellers’ booths, creating mini-bookstores with their neatly arranged bookcases, are great literary and historical wonders that you can actually touch and hold in your hands. Unlike a museum’s priggish, stern docents that admonish you to “look with your eyes and not your hands,” the book fair’s exhibitors encourage you to touch and feel the treasures that sit on the bookshelves — even ones worth more than $100,000! And then there are remarkable signed first editions. Imagine holding a first edition of Collected Poems of Robert Frost signed by Robert Frost ($1,000), or a first edition of any of the past Pulitzer Prize-winning novels signed by their respective authors ($150-1,500). You run your finger gently across the signature, touching the book that the great author once held in his hand — magically you are connected across time. You may not be able to afford the books, but the experience is absolutely priceless.

The antiquarian book fair is also a sprawling time machine, transporting the attendee back in time, a half century — or several centuries — to behold rare books, collectible books (eg, first editions of literary masterpieces, some even signed by the author), manuscripts, historical documents, maps, incunabula (pamphlets printed in the 15th century), photographs, and artifacts. Books cover a wide range of topics: literature, children’s literature, arts, architecture, religion, science, medicine, history, law, commerce, travel and exploration.

There is a misconception that the books and items sold at an antiquarian book fair require the deep pockets of a vested employee of Google or Facebook, but booksellers know that there is a broad range of collectors, and a large portion of the inventory is within the budget of most mortals with a moderate income. Here are some of the treasures at the San Francisco Antiquarian Book Fair:

Sense and Sensibility (1899); first edition: $1,250

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll (1866), second edition: $50,000

The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway (1952); first edition: $2,500

Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon (1973); first edition: $750

The Catcher in the Rye (1955); first edition: $6,000; another copy for $1,500; Modern Library edition (1958): $250

Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand (1957); first edition: $2,500

Moby Dick (1930); Random House edition illustrated by Kent Rockwell: $750

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