Saturday, July 08, 2006

Book Fair Shopping

Judging from the seven books sitting on my desk, the book hunting last night was a success. We were over halfway through the booths and I was beginning to despair that I wouldn't find anything I wanted--wait, let me rephrase that. I was beginning to despair that I wouldn't find anything I could afford when we came upon Peter L. Stern & Co of Boston offering books for a buck. There is nothing like a good selection of cheap books to send me and my Bookman into a bit of a frenzy. Okay, I was the one who went into a frenzy since the only book my Bookman got was a small volume called Shakespeare Soliloquies published in 1960 by the Peter Pauper Press of Mount Vernon, New York. My wild selections are as follows:

  • The Writer's Dilemma published in 1960 by Oxford University Press. This slim volume is a book of essays first published in The Times Literary Supplement under the heading "Limits of Control." The essays all appear to address the question of the place and function of the artist in a technological age. The essayists include Lawrence Durrell, Arnold Toynbee, William Golding, and Saul Bellow, among others.
  • The Unicorn by Iris Murdoch. I know nothing about this book, only that it is a hardcover without a dust jacket but in good condition and it only cost a dollar.
  • Jane and Prudence by Barbara Pym. Same as the above, except this one has a dust jacket.
  • Saint Joan of Arc by Vita Sackville-West. The pages are a little worn and the cover is faded like it sat in the sun, but the book is in otherwise good condition. It is a first American edition even! Vita is not the best of writers especially when her friend and lover Virginia Woolf is put up for comparison, but she has a fond place in my heart. She is also a good person to collect because even though her books are hard to find, they can be had for cheap since everybody is collecting Virginia Woolf and the other Bloomsbury people instead. If you were on a budget, which would you be more excited about? The Vita you bought for a dollar or the first edition of Woolf's Common Reader you held briefly in your hand that was marked at $675?
  • Volume two of Harold Nicholson's Diaries and Letters, 1939-1945. Nicholson was Vita's husband as well as a British ambassador. This is the first of his books I have seen anywhere which is surprising since he has a large number. The book was published in 1967 by Harold and Vita's son, Nigel who is an author and editor. My volume appears to be a second US printing. The pages are slightly worn but it is overall in great shape.
Still bubbling, we stepped to the next booth where I quickly snatched up a copy of The Machine in the Garden by Leo Marx for fifty cents. It's paperback, the cover is a bit worn and the previous owner, who I suspect was a student, seems to have enjoyed underlining key words and phrases. But I couldn't pass it up for the price and I am trying to learn how to embrace marginalia. Since the book is already marked up, when I get to it I won't worry if I want to mark in it too. I'll just have to be sure to use a colored pencil so I can tell my marks from the previous ones. In spite of the fun we had, we were also disappointed. We've been going to the book fair for about ten years. This year it became painfully apparent that it is shrinking. There were empty tables and the aisles were significantly wider than previous years. There are also fewer people shopping. The first year I went the place was crammed wall-to-wall with booksellers whose tables would have collapsed from the weight of the books on top of them if it weren't for the piles of books beneath holding them up. And the people packed themselves in elbow-to-elbow to browse. The building was not air conditioned and we were a hot and sweaty, but very happy, throng. The variety of books on offer was astonishing--poetry and literature in abundance both old and new, history, children's, cookbooks, ephemera--you name you could find it. And the prices, there was something for everybody. The book fair has devolved with the only constant being the hot and sweaty part. The books on offer have narrowed and become more specialized--military history, children's, modern firsts nearly all of them signed. Poetry is practically nonexistent as are out of the ordinary books that aren't particularly collectible but nonetheless interesting and desirable. It's become a fair for collectors and the books and prices reflect that. The three volume folio-sized red leather bound 265 limited edition print run of Montaigne's essays was gorgeous and drool worthy, but the $4,500 price tag is in a galaxy far, far away from my budget. The most astounding thing of all that we saw was the nearly pristine first edition of The Great Gatsby with an asking price of--are you ready for it?--$200,000! I am concerned and confused by the book fair's devolution. Are the used book dealers going out of business? Have they all gone online? Do people not want used books anymore? Do people prefer collectibles? Have most of the browsers from ten years ago died or given up reading? Which came first, the change in the books on offer at the fair or the change in the people shopping? The one thing I do know for sure is that if it hadn't been for the two booths where we found our goodies, we would have walked out with nothing.