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Is It Really a Rare Book Fair Without the Smell of Old Books?

March 7 was the last time Will Baker went out to dinner. It was the weekend of the International Antiquarian Book Fair, which went off just before the city’s official “pause” order on March 20. The owner of W.C. Baker Books and Ephemera recalled an off feeling in the air. “There was this sort of unease,” Baker said. “People didn’t really realize what was about to happen.” 

Susan Benne, executive director of the fair’s organizer, the Booksellers Association of America, says that an online fair was always a discussion– the ABAA’s website has had an e-commerce platform since the early 2000s– but there wasn’t enough demand to make it happen. Rare booksellers can be stuck in their traditional, brick-and-mortar ways. “We don’t really want to do too much to change things,” said Sunday Steinkirchner, co-founder of B&B Rare Books Ltd. But the coronavirus has necessitated change. 

Once lockdown set in, and rising covid-19 cases made a return to “normalcy” an ever distant prospect, several fairs like the Chicago Book & Paper Fair and the Virginia Antiquarian Book Fair were postponed or canceled. ABAA took this as an opportunity to test their existing e-commerce platform, and from June 4 to 6, rare book aficionados will converge on the ABAA Virtual Book Fair’s website where they can search and browse through 150 exhibitors —the closest option to wandering the aisles of the Upper East Side’s Park Avenue Armory. 

Over the next three days, buyers and sellers can search the offerings of ABAA members by name or book type, or “browse” by aisle. Items will range anywhere from $50 to $1 million, according to Benne. And if buyers want to see material before they make a big purchase, sellers will have links for phone and email. Half of them will have options for Zoom or Google Hangouts calls so buyers can see the material in real-time. 

Like most things, the day-to-day operations for rare book sellers has shifted during the pandemic. Baker has been using his newfound free time to catalogue. Acquiring materials amid social distancing practices and canceled fairs has been a major challenge, he said. Steinkirchner is operating out of her living room—as she did before she and her previous-husband but current business partner Joshua Mann opened a shop in 2013. Business, she said, has been slower, but they’re still selling. On the other hand, some sellers, like STEM-book-focused Kuenzig Books in Massachusetts, said business has been up—while sales took an initial dip at the onset of the pandemic, they’ve been steadily rising since April 1.

Ultimately the rare book market is a niche one, so it hasn’t been hit as hard as commercial or indie bookshops. “Basically people that have money to buy expensive books have all their other needs taken care of,”  Steinkirchner said. In Benne’s words: “Truly rare, truly unique, truly special material is always in demand.” But that isn’t to say that nothing has changed in the rare book world. In the past decade, there’s been increased demand, especially from universities, for books and paper materials related to the LGBTQ, civil rights and labor movements of the twentieth century. “Those materials are being collected,” Baker said, “and it’s giving us a chance to listen to people’s voices that we haven’t heard enough over the generations.” 

Benne has been working in the rare book trade since 1999 when she started out as a book cataloguer for Aleph-Bet Books, going through materials and describing and detailing their value for potential buyers. (She once handled a signed first edition of a childhood favorite, Where The Wild Things Are, that sold for about $7,500.) Steinkirchner and Mann stumbled into the business after wandering into an open-air market in New York back in 2003, where they found an original copy of Animal Farm. They bought the book for a dollar and sold it for several hundred. They also found a copy of an early-20th-century re-print of Alice and Wonderland, which the two still keep on display at their storefront at Madison and 33rd Street. Baker, who works primarily as an appraiser nowadays, works with materials that typically range in value from $50 to $100,000. His highest appraisal was for a rare original copy of naturalist John James Audubon’s Birds of America, which he valued at over $7 million on the retail market. 

Many of these high-dollar-sign listings necessitate in-person inspection. So while the virtual fair is necessary now, it’s not a replacement for future in-person fairs. If anything, it will be an addition. Benne says the in-person fair will always be important. In some sense they serve as  a compliment to the antiquarian materials the sellers are showing. “For bibliophiles who do this, it’s what they do,” says Benne. “It’s in their blood. They want to acquire, they want to connect with the booksellers, they want to connect with each other.” But the virtual fair has also provided an opportunity for sellers who don’t typically exhibit in-person. About 15 percent of the virtual fair’s 150 sellers fall into this category, according to Benne.

Baker says that he doesn’t like to “romanticize” the physical book too much, but he does say the physical is important. After he graduated college in 1998 he traveled to Egypt to study Arabic at the American University in Cairo. During his time there, he encountered the Muslim and Middle Eastern Christian concept of “barakah”  via a cab driver. The word, which translates to “blessing” in English, is the idea that objects, places, saints and everyday people can serve as vessels for spiritual forces. In Baker’s mind, it reflects the idea that experience can live and radiate from a physical object, like a book. 

After our phone interview he added in an email that there’s real value in that. “I just think that as embodied beings who live and have evolved in the natural, physical world,” he wrote, “our imaginations and sense of connection are better activated by objects we encounter in actual, rather than virtual, space.”

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