The New York Antiquarian Book Fair Returns With Its Eclectic Clamor

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The New York Antiquarian Book Fair is back at the Park Avenue Armory for its 64th edition, bringing with it hundreds of dealers from around the world boasting rare books, maps, illuminated manuscripts, and objects wonderful and strange. Open through Sunday, April 7, the show is a bibliophile’s paradise — and by far the most fun fair at which to eavesdrop, even if you don’t speak French, as many of these patrons seem to.

“I asked if they had anything rare or signed by Ayn Rand,” a visitor in a glittery suit told the exhibitors at Bauman Rare Books, located just to the left of the entrance. “They said no.”

Bibliophiles rejoice!

You can feel the book-love in every crevice of this massive fair. Paperback lamps illuminate the ticket pick-up desk. Visitors sign their names in a notebook sourced from Bhutan at the booth of Donald A. Heald Rare Books. There are business card holders made of filigree metal, shaped like foxes, and shaped like, well, books.

On opening night on Thursday, Daniel R. Weinberg of Chicago’s Abraham Lincoln Book Shop celebrated his 80th birthday by showing me a signature of President Lincoln, a photo of Marilyn Monroe posing with an image of him, and rare legal documents. Book dealers Holly Segar and Jeffrey Rovenpor of Caroliniana Rare Books, based in Aiken, South Carolina, showed their suffragette cookbook collection, while Michaela Mitmannsgruber of Austrian gallery Kunsthandel toured me around her extensive collection of first-edition patents, accompanied by adorable maquettes.

At Les Enluminures, which has shops in New York, Chicago, and Paris, I learned that the large, painstakingly hand-drawn first letter found in many illuminated books is sometimes cut out of the tome itself and sold individually — in this case, just a massive, expensive “Q” — as they’re typically more saleable that way.

At the Antiquarian Book Fair, any visitor — even one who is clearly not in the market to buy an $80,000 early copy of a Samaritan Text from the Sassoon Collection, like myself — is likely to be drawn into a 15-minute conversation about all manner of things they likely didn’t even know existed. A staffer of A. Parker’s Books in Sarasota showed me a 19th-century picture book that teaches children the sounds animals make. Robert Schoisengeier, of Antiquariat Burgverlag in Vienna, showed off a series of Austrian greeting cards from the same era made by women artisans, as well as botanical books with specimens so detailed you need a magnifying glass to fully appreciate.

It was difficult to get these bookish dealers talking about the fair itself, so smitten were they with their wares.

“A quote about what?” Schoisengeier asked. “Oh. It’s one of the most important antiquarian book fairs in the world. For a European like me, it’s always attractive to come here, meeting customers and clients who won’t easily come to Europe. It’s a good meeting point. There’s a lot of exchange. Is that okay?” 

And, of course, it’s a great place to people-watch. Patti Smith made an appearance at this year’s fair — she’s a regular, apparently, and usually stops by all four days of the show — as did Neil deGrasse Tyson.

There are some not-so-seemly patrons to observe, too. “Guess who I just took a picture with?” a visitor with tight blonde ringlets gushed to her friend on the phone. “Alan Dershowitz.”

“Oh yeah, he’s here, alright,” a gallerist dressed in a dapper yellow plaid suit confirmed. “He was in the booth like 10 minutes ago. I had to leave. You can quote me on that.”

A work by Matthew Wong on view at the Harper’s booth


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