The Toronto International Antiquarian Book Fair, Where Some Books Cost More Than Cars
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The Toronto International Antiquarian Book Fair, Where Some Books Cost More Than Cars

The Toronto International Antiquarian Book Fair is more dazzling than dusty.

“Whoa, Canada is so cool.”

This is how Stephen Fowler, a member of the board of the Antiquarian Booksellers Association of Canada and curator of The Monkey’s Paw, a bookstore in Toronto specializing in the “old and unusual,” described Canada’s reputation among the members of the International Association of Antiquarian Booksellers, which held its latest International Antiquarian Book Fair over the weekend.

Around the world, each country’s Antiquarian Bookseller’s association chooses a “patron of honour,” a cultural figure who could serve as a representative of that country’s relationship with old books. Canada’s patron is filmmaker David Cronenberg.

Though illness kept him from attending the event in person, Cronenberg sent a statement to be read when the fair opened, declaring that “Books are the walls of our house. They are the physical embodiment of our culture, and the storehouse of our cultural memory…as we move deeper into the digital age, the responsibility that we gave to preserve our old books becomes all the greater.” This love for the printed word suffused the entire room on the third floor of the Art Gallery of Ontario, which was filled with rare books and other objects, many of them surprising.

The Antiquarian Book Fair held many of the objects one would expect to find: unspeakably valuable first editions, and old tomes made on the earliest presses and illustrated by hand. Many of these texts were kept under glass and lit carefully to preserve their delicate vellum. Their prices were in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. Dante Aligheri’s Divina Comedia and Thomas Hobbes’ philosophical text Leviathan were among the most recognizable titles, but they may have been overshadowed by an incredible copy of The Nuremberg Chronicle. Dated from 1493, and written by Hartmann Schedel, the exceptionally lovely illustrated book served as a distillation of bible stories, as well as an extensive world history from the medieval point of view. Copies of the book have frequently been cut up, their individual pages sold as illustrations.

There were also exquisitely beautiful illustrated texts, such as a collaboration between painter Joan Miro and poet Robert Desnos. The two had been close friends, but their plans to work together had been thwarted, first by the Spanish Civil War and later by World War II. After surviving both Auschwitz and Buchenwald, Desnos succumbed to typhoid mere weeks after he was liberated. His widow suggested that Miro illustrate one of his unpublished texts, and Pénalités de l’enfer ou les Nouvelles-Hébrides was born.

With so many historical treasures and examples of high art on display, the Antiquarian Book Fair also boasted an excellent collection of 20th Century literature, beloved genre fiction, and pop art. One seller boasted an exceptional collection of first editions of Ian Fleming’s 007 novels. Beloved classics like Frank L. Baum’s The Wizard of Oz and J.R.R. Tolkein’s The Lord of the Rings were also well represented. The fact that Alice Munro recently won the Nobel Prize for Literature clearly influenced the books some sellers chose to bring, as more than one booth proudly displayed multiple copies of her work.

Along with the rarified, there was also the decidedly cheeky. In one aisle, where organizers had set out chips and bowls of white-cheddar popcorn, old music magazines and erotic pamphlets rubbed spines with thick tomes about visual art. Above one booth, an example of Campbell’s “Souper Dress,” a promotional item made to capitalize on Andy Warhol’s use of the company soup label in his art, hung proudly. Attendees were encouraged to touch the smooth green formica of a cyrillic typewriter. A first edition of Georges Bataille’s The Story of the Eye was all but shoved into our hands so we could get a feel for the book’s weight, and the texture of the pages.

Click through the photo gallery for a closer look at some of the books that were on display.