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Victories sweet at book fair in St. Petersburg

Palm Beach Post Staff Writer

Thursday, March 10, 2005

The game is afoot!

Every year, every spring, book lovers make their way, lemming-like, to an old wooden-floored former skating rink in the heart of downtown St. Petersburg, for the Antiquarian Book Fair in the old Coliseum. This is the 24th version.

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Splendid bindings glow under lamplight, golden and stitched into quartos, octavos, duodecimos. The really pricey stuff is under glass, but you can have it fetched forth and handle it, if you look like a serious buyer. Most of the books are out in the open, and can be picked up and leafed through at will.

It is like visiting a vast museum of the mind, where everything is for sale. Opening a long-desired book is like opening a door to Elysium. Books are the Slaves of the Lamp, ever-obedient, right out of the Arabian Nights. Library books are all very fine, but you have to give them back. Once bought, these books are yours forever. Yours! Yours, do you hear?! Bwah-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha!

At my first fair in 1996 there was an 1851 Moby Dick, the first American edition (Moby Dick was published in England before appearing in America) with a gold whaling ship embossed on the cover, in mint condition, priced at $7,500. There was a first edition of Petrarch' s minor poems, printed in Padua in 1472, for $3,100; a first edition of Mark Twain's The Prince and the Pauper, for $1,000. A complete set of Ambrose Bierce's works was $900. Gaston Maspero's 13-volume History of Egypt, gorgeously illustrated, was $400.

It is a terrible truth that the book you remember most fondly is the book you never bought. Two years ago I passed up an opportunity to buy a first edition of Robert W. Chambers' bizarre horror short stories, The King In Yellow, for $40. That book is like a fish-hook in my heart today. I can still see it in my mind. The agony of losing it!

On the other hand there have been sweet, smug victories. I got a very nice two-volume copy of Sir William Gell's Pompeii, published in 1837, the year Queen Victoria acceded to the throne of England. The book is full of Pompeiian wall-paintings, cheerfully nude and quite beautiful. The rigors of Victorian prudery were still in the future.

Also picked up were a three-volume edition of Robert Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy; a remarkable reprint of William Blake's The Grave illustrated by Schiavonetti's tremendous engravings, and a very beautiful 1760 Pharsalia by Lucan, published by Horace Walpole at his private press at Strawberry Hill.

More than 3,000 people usually turn out for the fair, and it's an older crowd. The youngsters are home playing with their Xboxes or getting drugged, or drunk, or shot, or run over, or pregnant, or just lying on the beach or the sofa, asleep.

Every generation thinks the new generation is a bunch of idiots. But this time, dammit, it's true! Still, one shouldn't bad-mouth the young. They'll be paying our Social Security someday soon. I think. Maybe. I hope. Meanwhile, we read on, gentle readers.

Nothing compares with the pleasure of handling and reading a dear old book. It's a very active experience, unlike passive TV-watching or radio-listening, though radio comes closest. All the brain-machinery is in gear. A thousand mental cogs are twirling, in motion.

It is sometimes possible to get giddy off the sheer smell of an old book. A certain 1832 edition of Cicero's speeches, printed in Paris, wafts up vague airs and molecules from the Seine and the Cathedral of Notre Dame, the rainy evenings and gaslit bridges, the very air that Honore de Balzac and Victor Hugo smelt and breathed. In the old words are the accents of the dead, the silvery ghosts of brilliant fellow-men.

But that is just the beginning. Early editions of Ian Fleming, Stephen King and J.R.R. Tolkien can fetch enormous sums. The Harry Potter books by J.K. Rowling are sought after like Holy Grails. Zora Neale Hurston's books, in first editions with dust jackets, are extraordinarily valuable today. You could have had them for a dollar or two when they first appeared. Dummy!

A book's age can be meaningless as a barometer of worth. A first edition of William Faulkner's Mosquitoes went for $425. If its paper dust jacket had survived, it would fetch $2,700 or more. First editions of Gone With the Wind, published in 1936, go for at least $700. A first edition signed by Margaret Mitchell, with its original dust jacket, was $4,250 at the 1998 fair — another good reason to go to book signings.

A first edition of Frank Herbert's sci-fi novel Dune is worth up to $150, depending on condition. A 1929 Tarzan book, Tarzan and the Lost Empire, with a beautiful crisp blue dust jacket, went for $750 at a recent fair. One dealer was selling a huge, inner-party Nazi edition of Adolf Hitler's Mein Kampf at a recent fair, big as a Bible, for $3,500. Nobody bought it. Still, it was a horrible, fascinating book to behold.

Dealers pay $300 apiece to set up a booth on the polished hardwood floor of the Coliseum and there is sufficient security to discourage lightfingered bibliomanes. A tiny slip of paper with a famous author's autograph on it can be worth a good deal of money. Sometimes people yield to lust, and try to steal things. Books have the eerie power to warp people and madden them into committing indiscretions.

All the dealers have successfully overcome "bookseller's disease," the urge to keep everything and sell nothing.

The fair opens at 5:30 p.m. Friday. Friday is a good day to go, if you want to get the jump on the weekend crowd.

It runs from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday. Saturday is a good day to go because there is a crackle of excitement as hundreds quietly circulate amongst the shelves, their heads crooked at a near-90-degree angle, devouring titles on bindings.

It lasts through Sunday (11 a.m. to 4 p.m.) Sunday is a good day to go, because the booksellers are looking to lighten up their inventory for the return trip, and will often cut deals.

The master of ceremonies is Larry Kellogg, a tightly knit, wire-framed man with a huge, booming voice who has been with the fair practically since its inception. Kellogg himself is worth talking to. He is a fanatic about circus books. He collects everything that has to do with circuses. I spoke to him a few years ago, after he had picked up a very rare official report regarding a gigantic circus fire in Hartford, Conn., in 1944. He was almost incoherent with pure joy. Such occasions go beyond words. They are incommunicable. Only we lunatics understand the thrills of the chase, and the exquisite joys of snaring the prey at last.

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