Walking through a book fair one rainy afternoon, I came across a case with familiar names: Mother Swan, Alice in Wonderland. An old man ignored me and sat behind the case. A young man was sitting next to him eating potato salad. A stranger approached us. “Do you mind if I take your picture?” he asked the old man. “I’m a huge fan.”
I was at the New York Antiquarian Book Fair at the Park Avenue Armory, the most beloved of its kind in the world. The man in question was a celebrity Justin Schiller, one of the leading living experts on collectible children’s books. Schiller began to collect old ones Wizard of Oz Books as a child. At age 12, he lent the Columbia University library a rare Frank Baum, which he found in a thrift shop downtown. This made him the youngest borrower of that library in its history. He also began his career, which was featured in the 2019 documentary Sampradaya Booksellers, which declared the rare book scene “an assortment of obsessives, wits, eccentrics and visionaries” who “play an invaluable yet essential role in the preservation of history”. The documentary also enabled the scene, which is a subculture of superfans.
Used bookstores have been disappearing for decades: Booksellers tells us that in the 1950s there were 368 bookstores in New York, and today there are about 79. But the antiquarian book community continues to grow. Online, rare items can grow and be found. You don’t need to scour the dusty shops for the first edition of Moby-Dick In French, or the only known surviving galley Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (The latter costs $275,000). And Instagram, you can find your people and attract new ones. Book nerds are posting and advertising old books endlessly. Then, everyone gathers in the Armory to read a 16th-century treatise that denies the existence of witches.
My friend and I went to another booth. We checked Old map: A portolan chart of Europe made in Venice 1360, shortly after the Black Death. We tried to decipher the lines, wiggles and small words, all handwritten on animal skins. It was one of the four oldest fully modern maps of Europe in existence, the description said, a map so extraordinary that it cannot be classed with anything made at the time. It contains mysterious details that we still don’t understand about early modern map making. I couldn’t imagine what it could cost, but we asked, and it did: $7.5mn.
Everything at the fair was considered “antiques or ephemera”. Ephemera are things like maps, photos, posters, menus, autographs. A pair of worn shoes singing in the rain. Anything considered “historical evidence”. An “antique” book is a book valued as a unique physical object or anything considered “rare”.
The fair had tunes: two books by Edward Lear NonsenseAnd one Five delightful and indispensable things. Booksellers eat huge sandwiches, plates dripping with mayonnaise balanced on priceless stacks. People pass around like cookies, clutching rare paintings by Warhol and Miro with bare hands. Some old books also contained remnants of a past life: a piece of forgotten breakfast, tucked into a crease.
There was magic in the fair too. That day I told my friend about a diner I liked in New England and an old Norman Rockwell painting set there. Halfway through the fair, we turned around and there was a first edition signed by Rockwell, daring us to call it a chance. A minute later I opened the cover to a signed copy of Patti Smith’s memoir Only children. “The strip is here,” a stranger told me. “She’s just . . . hanging around.”
Most exciting of all, the fair was filled with physical reminders that everyone in history was human. Ernest Shackleton’s surgeon had an archive and it was for sale. Leonard and Virginia Woolf printed one Edition From TS Eliot’s “The Waste Land”. Joan Didion also had a copy Salvadorwas written by Didion to her psychiatrist in 1983: “To Elsie,” he writes, “I have finished this first book since I became your patient. If I had not become your patient, I would never have written another book. .
I loved seeing old booksellers in Tweed, crammed with a motley crew of assorted New Yorkers who paid 65 whole dollars to look at the dusty spines. I loved that an ecosystem like this could pop up and thrive in 55,000 square feet for four rainy days. And I left more cherished books to preserve the stories, facts, and ideas I had acquired over the centuries. Of course there is a thriving subculture around them. They are the building blocks No What a relief that the culture of Didion’s psychiatrist and Shackleton’s creation and every other human being in history decided not to throw it all out.
Lilah Raptopoulos is the host FT Weekend Podcast