Peter Pan, Queen Elizabeth, and Other Book Fair Encounters
By Ronnie Blair
Step into the annual Florida Antiquarian Book Fair in St. Petersburg and you enter a time portal for bibliophiles.
On this shelf is a first edition of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain. On that shelf is a 1922 biography of World War I hero Alvin York. Around the next corner is a 1930s volume of a Nancy Drew mystery, still in its aging dust jacket, having somehow survived 90 years of potential childhood book-desecration mischief.
Antiquarian book dealers from across the country travel to the fair each spring to display their treasures for people seeking military books or poetry collections or children’s chapter books or whatever other type of vintage book someone might deem worthy of collecting. This year’s fair is March 10-12 and, as always, is at The Coliseum, 535 Fourth Ave. N., St. Petersburg.
Well, nearly always. In 2020 and 2021 the fair went on hiatus because of the pandemic, but returned in all its splendor in 2022. Somewhere in the neighborhood of 100 dealers are expected for this year’s fair, which is the 40th. They will bring with them books on architecture, hunting, travel, history and geography. Some dealers are chatty, some businesslike. Some display books on a variety of topics, others are more specialized. All are fascinating depending on where your interests lie. Love books about dogs? About Florida? About Arctic exploration? You will find them.
One year I came across a 1937 book titled The Princess Elizabeth: Probable Future Ruler of the Greatest Empire in the World by Eric Acland. This book came out soon after Elizabeth’s father became king and the world was charmed by the little girl princess. Another year I found a photoplay edition of Peter Pan by James M. Barrie, illustrated with black-and-white scenes from a 1924 silent movie starring Betty Bronson as Peter Pan.
Sometimes you come across unexpected and unusual finds, such as Noah’s Ark, a photoplay edition for a 1928 movie that was part talkie, part silent movie. The book and the movie are about the biblical story of Noah’s Ark. Sort of. The characters in this strange tale go back and forth between Noah’s day and World War I, which was just 10 years in the past at the time. The Great Flood is juxtaposed against the Great War, an interesting approach and a fascinating addition to my collection.
My first visit to the fair happened in 1998 and the first book I purchased was a biography of Daniel Boone published in the 1800s. Boone is quite the hero in my home state of Kentucky so it was an appropriate find and still holds a cherished spot on my book shelf with other Kentucky-themed books. My copy of the Boone biography is not a stunning achievement in the care of antiquarian volumes, though. Over the decades, the text had begun to break loose from the cover, so someone made a repair job. The end papers are no longer original end papers, which may explain why this extraordinary find cost a mere $40.
Which brings us to the price of books at the fair.
They vary – a lot. You may pull a volume from a shelf and, if you are like me, hastily but gingerly return it to its place after you spy the four-figure price lightly penciled in on the first page. Some dealers keep their more desirable and expensive books behind glass, requiring you to request they bring them out for examination. Don’t despair if you lack Warren Buffett’s bank account. I’ve paid as little as $3 for a book at the fair. This is because the pricing of collectible books is based on any number of factors, and age alone does not result in a fatal blow to your wallet. Is the book a first edition? How rare is it? What condition is it in? Is the original dust jacket still intact? How desirable is the book among collectors? As you peruse the shelves, you will encounter books priced for thousands of dollars. You also will encounter plenty priced at $20 or less.
Your wallet. Your choice.
Here are the hours for this year’s fair: 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. March 10; 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. March 11; and 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. March 12. Admission on the evening of March 10 is $10 and that is good for all three days. Admission for the other two days is $6 each day. The box office is cash only.
Ronnie Blair is lead writer for Advantage Media and the author of Eisenhower Babies: Growing Up on Moonshots, Comic Books, and Black-and-White TV.