ST. PETERSBURG — In the case of the Florida Antiquarian Book Fair held in St. Petersburg's historic Coliseum over the weekend, casual readers and career collectors alike learned that sometimes you really can judge a book by its cover.
The book fair celebrated its 33rd year over the weekend with 99 vendors, showcasing everything from first edition rare children books like “The Cat and the Hat” to original Civil War texts signed copies of literary classics like “Moby Dick” and “Ivanhoe.” The longest-running and largest fair of its kind in the Southeast, and the fourth largest in the country, attracts the best specialty book dealers from across the country each year to “enjoy the spring weather, visit and swap stories with each other and sell books — selling books being lower on the priority list,” said book fair manager Sarah Smith.
“Any dealer in here will say their favorite thing about selling books are the patrons and talking with them about their individual interests and sharing their knowledge,” Smith said. “The purpose of this fair isn't so much to move these books as it is to bring together all these incredible people and stories.”
That's not to say the rare and often pricey books on display at the fair are hard sells. This year, the Florida Antiquarian Bookseller Association ordered 10,000 shopping bags and by Sunday evening were down to their last 500, Smith said. While the fair typically draws about 2,000 over its three-day run, this year event organizers estimated about 2,500 filtered through. It's a sign that the economy is improving and interest in literature throughout the country is as strong as ever, but most of all a reflection of the interests of St. Petersburg residents, she said. Proceeds from the fair will benefit the St. Petersburg Public Library.
“We're an area that prides itself on interest in the humanities in general, we have lots of culture, museums and that's really part of the charm of St. Petersburg,” Smith said. “I think particularly in St. Pete there are tons of people from every walk of life who are passionate about books, and even if they can't get passionate about books, they can find something here that fits any interest imaginable.”
It's a delicate process of reading which items the audience would be most interested in, which items would still be affordable and which still have that “wow factor,” said Joe Delfino, who runs The Book Chaser in Gainesville with his wife Dotti Delfino, vice president of The Florida Antiquarian Booksellers Association. Of course, its fairs like these where sellers can also find their next gem, and when you run your own bookstore you can “buy items that reflect what you like and what you would want. It keeps you unique,” Dotti Delfino said.
“The fair always matches the economy, so last year was the first time in a while everyone noticed an uptick and this year has been really, really good,” Dotti Delfino said. “People are more confident, and more willing to spend, and at least here you'll find everything from reasonably priced Florida books to signed, first edition Hemmingways.”
Mike Slicker, owner of Lighthouse Books in St. Petersburg, has been involved in the fair “since the idea was born,” he said. His booth contained these treasures: a 1969 limited edition copy of Lewis Carroll's “Alice's Adventures in Wonderland” with illustrations by Salvador Dali that's been signed by the artist himself; a $1,500 first edition of “The Cat in the Hat”; a $2,400 copy of “The Yearling” signed by both author Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings and artist Edward Shenton; and a $2,600 map of Florida from 1591 — the first printed map of the state.
Even with the rise of e-books causing more chain bookstores to shut their doors, Smith said the Antiquarian Book Fair will continue to get better with age.
“The Kindle kind of cuts out the fluff for us,” Smith said. “We're in an era of mass publication, with millions of copies being printed each day, and for a book that you're just going to read once, it's wonderful to have a format that doesn't create a whole lot of waste. It really makes the market more sustainable, because any market is based on scarcity and I think the good books, the ones we'll want to refer to again and again, the ones we treasure, pass down to other generations and hold up as representative of our culture, will become all the more special.”