Project Booklust Part Three: Boston International Antiquarian Book Fair


When I decided to attend the 2014 Boston Book Fair in November, I imagined the trip would be something of a capstone experience. I figured it would pull together the things I’d learned from my visits to the John Bale Book Co. and Johnnycake Books. I didn’t expect to be stunned upon entrance. I was stuck staring at the rows of shining display cases while PY’s editor, Melissa Gordon, and one of our fellow MFAers, henceforth known only as Dr. Joe, looked to me for direction.

Booklust3_1I had no real plan other than wanting to check out a couple items. One was a bronze Gonzo sword complete with Hunter S. Thompson’s trademark double-thumbed fist for a pommel.

The other was a signed “Vintage Dr. Gonzo” by Ralph Steadman numbered four of 500. But I’d under estimated the magnitude of the fair. So I stood at the entrance to the room at the Haynes Convention Center looking like a tourist armed with camera and Rhodia, yet feeling like an untrained tour guide on day one of the new job. It seemed the best thing to do was to walk laps, browse, and maybe find a story to either read or write.

We plunged forth into the mobs of collectors, many of whom wore neat suits and polished shoes. Many others, however, sported tight black jeans and Doc Matins and septum rings. The range of ages and appearances shocked me, and ousted any preconceptions I had about a typical book collector. Books, after all, have mythical qualities. They contain knowledge, ideas, and thoughts that feed the imagination, and illustrations that blow the mind. They draw people, all types of people. And the booksellers in attendance were prepared to meet any need.

Booklust3_2 The conference was packed with booksellers from the U.K., Ireland, Holland, Germany, Russia, Italy, and more. Everyone had their specialty: nineteenth-century Americana, illustrated medical texts, antique maps of New York City, Civil War-era erotica, and of course a seemingly endless supply of leather-bounds. There was an entire case dedicated to tiny books, which I believe is the technical term, where the bookseller related the size of the books to the possibility of a more intimate reading experience. Booths for museums and Boston historical societies and schools lined the perimeter.

Booklust3_3We wandered the rows until Dr. Joe spotted a second edition of Darwin’s Expression of the Emotions and entered the field of rare book collecting. Dr. Joe had already removed cash from his wallet as partial payment for the book, when the bookseller told him to hold on to it. He’d send an invoice. He let Dr. Joe keep the book with only a modest upfront payment, the whole deal structured on a verbal agreement. Booksellers are full of surprises, I guess. Trust and diversity among them.

Booklust3_4 I’d hoped for a great find of my own. I saw a few prospects. A rare edition of Naked Lunch. Dan Dwyer from Johnnycake Books still had the first edition of The Wasteland, which I’d barely resisted in Part 2 of Project Booklust. Or there was the $295,000 edition of Dubliners. But my awe of the volume selections overwhelmed my impulse to buy some crown jewel for my modest collection. Instead I scored a journal bound by the students at the North Bennet Street School. As for the Gonzo artifacts, well, I didn’t have $7,000 to spare. Not unless I’d be willing to sign divorce papers upon unveiling them at home.

The more places I visit for Project Booklust, the more I realize each bookseller has a unique story. The Boston Book Fair made that clear by drawing in such a variety of booksellers. The fair showed me that books as well as collectors have not only unique stories, but an uncanny power to bind us unlikely associates together in one room. That phenomenon is, well, as rare as the books themselves.


Brian Lance
Senior Editor/Blog Editor