I had no business being there. I didn’t have the cash, nor the time, nor the eye to really have a good understanding of what I was actually doing there at the New York Antiquarian Book Fair, and I certainly didn’t have the moxy to go up to these bibliophiles and talk shop, though I desperately wanted to. The last book I read was on a Kindle for goodness sake, and I feel extremely guilty about that.
But there I was, at the Antiquarian Book Fair, passing stalls, walking around with a catalog and wallet as if I did belong there and as if I did have the money to make it rain on some illuminated manuscripts.
I got there when it opened, walking in at the discounted student price and feeling like I stuck out due to my age (as everyone in line seemed to be the elderly) and due to me sweater (a bright pinked striped one). But I decided that I would own it, hoping that I could play off both factors. Maybe I was a possible buyer. Maybe I was the wealthy daughter of one of these pretty brownstone owners along Fifth Avenue. Maybe I was a Winston Churchill enthusiast and heard that his letters would be there.
I walked around briskly, noting the gleaming white stalls, the wooden folding shelves, and the books laid out, wrapped in plastic. I stood at the glass cases, feeling safe to read the descriptions and prices, which scared me off from lingering too long. James Joyce’s Ulysses at $220,000? Roald Dahl’ Charlie and the Chocolate Factor for $2,000? Ian Fleming’s bond books at almost $700 each?
I looked around to see what type of people were actually purchasing these things. There were the professor looking types with tweed, tortoise shell glasses, and elbow patches. There were the women in pairs, who chummily went up to vendors and asked and joked. There were the people with singular goals in mind, asking for Jewish texts, loose leaf papers, and letters, before heading in the opposite direction when they heard a negative.
I walked around, standing stupidly in front of cases, looking around to see what I was supposed to do exactly, but no one bothered me when I went up to their stall. No one asked if I was interested or forced me to look at more expensive books, all of which I figured would happen in a normal department store. I felt self-conscious and nervous, regretting this entire outing and wondering how soon was too soon to leave.
I made a quick round the entire joint, before I realized that I’d only been there for ten minutes. I already purchased a ticket, though. I had to stay longer. So I braved up to a few of the Atlanta booths, thinking that some homesickness would be a guide. I read the small cards placed in front of the books on display and marveled at the signed copy of Gone with the Wind, before heading to another. I at least started venturing towards the shelves, where books innocently sat, as if they weren’t hundred of dollars. I didn’t touch anything, keeping my hands to my catalog, close to my chest, but man did I want to.
One booth was full of colorfully faded kids’ books, from The Wizard of Oz to Where the Wild Things Are, and I found a small shelf of Louisa May Alcott and L.M. Montgomery that piqued my interest. I read the spines and felt my fingers flex at the idea of reaching for it. I looked over at the vendor to see if she was watching me closely, but she sat at the counter, a bored hand resting under her chin. She couldn’t care less what I did really.
But I chickened out.
I walked away, promising myself a different outcome at the next booth I chose, so following the heart, as I did with choosing the Atlanta booths, I stumbled into Jonkers’ Rare Books, chosen because of its location being Oxfordshire, England. And it was when I was giving a shaky smile as a greeting that I saw it on top of the glass case: a maroon binding of Emma. I smiled more assuredly at the vendor, who sat politely in the corner as I looked, pretending to be interested in the C.S. Lewis collection. I asked him about his location, we talked about Oxford, and I hedged towards the glass in what I hoped to be a really cool, calm fashion.
I asked about how he found books, what sort of places they went to get them, what was the best find, and he politely answered everything in his clipped British accent, though I could tell that he was being painstakingly patient in his response. He told me that if I needed any help to let him know, and I smiled, brightening up at the thought, and I asked if I could open the case. He gestured politely with a “yes, of course,” and off I went, sliding the glass with as much fluency as a seal lion would. There wasn’t necessarily a handle. After a few tries and gestures to the man that I could do this, I did fulfill that promise.
I made a grab at the set of Mansfield Park sitting on top on a glass shelf. I held it as carefully as I could, flipping through it with careful reverence–careful, because I wanted to look like I wasn’t a noob entirely–and I flipped to the title page to read the date and publisher. The date was right. The publisher was too. I felt myself start to shake in anticipation as I carefully pealed away a sheet to read the first lines.
A first edition Mansfield Park!
I looked around for more. I picked up the C.S. Lewis. I opened the Tolkien. I went back to Austen. I felt myself shake as I read through a copy of Sense and Sensibility, admiring the marbled cover and reading lines, admiring the page numbering in the center right above the words, the large font and big margins, the odd yellowed paper that was slightly see-through, the random spacing in some sentences. I especially loved how the printing would sometimes repeat a word from the bottom onto the next page (I laughed at myself when I read “Fanny” at the bottom, leading to the next page, then “Fanny” again at the top after I turned the paper. Double Fanny, I thought childishly). I savored holding the book, running my fingers on the smooth spine, looking at the edges, opening, then closing it to look and commit to memory. I looked over my shoulder at the vendor, before looking at the book in my hands.
Could I smell it? A part of me really wanted to. I bet it smelled amazing, all old and slightly mildewed from the years. I held it up as if I were nearsighted, but I almost jumped when the vendor behind me greeted someone suddenly, and I turned to find another interested party, looking through.
So close. I placed the books back properly, making sure not to knock anything down as I went, hearing my sister say that “I would be the one to knock down an entire case of antique books.”
These books I held were in the hundreds, thousands of dollars. They were almost two hundred years old, and their keepers were letting the riff-raff off the street (me) handle them? Without gloves? I felt like a dieter standing in Jimmy Johns, taking in the free smells.
Soon, I was off. I decided to stick with English booksellers since they would be more likely to carry the classics I wanted. One booth had a whole shelf of Austens, but on closer inspection, these marbled copies with their Moroccan leather binding were from the 1910s. They had descriptions to loved ones in them. I looked through, admiring the illustrations inside, before searching again.
I prided myself that I knew the publishing dates for her works, and like a snob, I went through stalls, scoffing at later editions, puffing myself up with this knowledge.
I stumbled on the entire serial of George Eliot’s Middlemarch at one stall, and I asked the vendor about it. We talked about how monthly serials worked, and he pointed out how one of the sets I held in my hands was actually resized, cut, and bound previously. Though, he added a little proudly, the copy that I had in my hands still had the paper cover that it originally came in. The green front, he explained, was protected because of its bindings, and was much nicer, he boasted, than one that sold at auction for $50,000. I thanked him for his time and returned the book to the glass, extremely carefully.
I did get to loiter around the illuminated manuscripts, studying an open page of The Book of Hours,summoning up what I remembered from my medieval women’s class, when a nice vendor lady came up and spoke to me. I just told her that I loved looking at the pages, and she offered me a catalog, which I agreed with, until I realized that she might think I was a prospective buyer.
“I can’t afford this,”I joked, handing it back to her. “Like any of these. I just like looking at them.”
She laughed. “I can’t either, but it’s okay,” she said in a conspiratorial whisper.
I made my way towards some of the Italian and Parisian book vendors, admiring their Dantes and Kants. The books were beautifully old. Some so worn that I couldn’t read the spine, but admired the care that kept it together.
And then, I found the last London book vendor that I missed. It was wedged between a German art book dealer and an Americana booth. I went in because I saw Wilkie Collins on the shelf and I wanted to look through it.
Inside was a printed slip of paper, describing the book’s worth and binding, and then there was a little humor biography over Collins, describing his bachelor status and the women he loved. Just from that description, I wanted to look over more of the classics, I pulled a few more, chuckling at a few.
I was sitting down Thomas Hardy, when I saw the 1895 version of Pride and Prejudice, the one with the peacock on the cover. It was in amazing condition. Green leather and marble paper inside. Other than the slight discoloration of a few of the pages, it was in really nice condition. There were also copies of her other works, and I flipped through each, hungrily.
I stayed at that booth for a long time, replacing and picking up Austens, my mind working into a frenzy of what-if: like, what-if I bought it. How amazing would that be to have? A true classic edition of one of my favorite writers. That would be fan-tastic.
Only, this copy of Pride and Prejudice was worth seven month’s rent for an apartment in Queens. The volumes of Sense and Sensibility was worth a month more. Who had that kind of money to burn exactly? Sometimes, I dislike rich people. I’m sure that they get to purchase old Jane Austen books and smell them all they want.
I chose against sneaking in a whiff at this stall though. There were too many people around, and I already felt creepy picking up and replacing so often. They would never allow this at Jimmy Johns with their sandwiches.
In the end, I didn’t buy anything, like I could anyway, and I sauntered out of the book fair feeling slightly more happy that I stayed.
I texted my sister, Sam, about how my gloveless hands got to touch a first edition Mansfield Park, and she replied that that must’ve made this entire move to New York worth it.
I only had two words for her then: Hell. Yeah.