Tante Trude’s Adventures at the 55th London International Antiquarian Book Fair
By Frank Werner
Well, we’re back from London. As I had expected, Tante Trude slept and dozed her way to Calais. Once on the boat, she roamed about excitedly, and was charmed to discover that the White Cliffs of Dover are indeed white, well, whitish. Driving on the “wrong” side of the road through Kent, she gave little squeaks of apprehension and was relieved when we reached our hotel in Earl’s Court. She had a lovely room on the ground floor with a little iron stair leading into the garden.
“Dear boy”, she said looking at the bright green lawn and the flowering bushes, “this is so very English!”
I agreed and told her that it was the frequent English rain that kept it all so green. Then I took her to the Blackbird pub, for ale and pies. She watched with awe as her half-pint and my pint were drawn. “I thought they just did that in old-fashioned films”, she murmured and then sipped. She made a face and decided she’d stick with German beer. Then we had pies, and again, she was intrigued that they served chips with them. The traditional vinegar on them seemed very odd to her continental tastes, and she absolutely balked at the HP sauce.
On Wednesday we set up our stand at the Antiquarian Book Fair. The venue is huge, with a high, domed glass roof and a very efficient air conditioning. Tante Trude proudly pinned her exhibitor’s badge to her blouse and busied herself with the stand until I asked her to go for a little walk. Then I set up the stand to my own liking and even sold one or two books to browsing colleagues. After a while Tante Trude came back:
“The books I saw! So many!”
I agreed that there were lots of books about, and asked her what she had liked.
“Oh, all sorts of books. There was even a man selling second-hand James Bond novels.”
I told her that those were not second-hand, but highly collectable and cost thousands. She goggled at me:
“But … but … they are not even really old!”
“Yes, I don’t quite understand it either, but if the dealer asks those prices, he probably gets them.”
She toddled off again in search of “old” books. I tidied up my stand, put out the bowl of Smarties (something of a trademark for me at fairs) and waited. More colleagues came by, attracted by the chocolates, we chatted a bit and exchanged news and gossip. Then Tante Trude was back, looking awed:
“Dear boy! I was looking at a wonderful prayer book just now, and the nice man let me handle it! It was over 800 years old! I was so exited! It was so beautiful! And I was allowed to touch it!” She was practically squeaking.
“He was probably hoping you’d buy it. You look prosperous.” I joked.
“No,” she murmured, with a far-away look in her eyes “ I need new shoes … I mean, I mean, I could never afford it.” And off she went again.
She came back several more times, having seen incunabula, costume plate books, amazing bindings and all the other sights of an international book fair.
“What a lovely profession you have”, she remarked, “always surrounded by beautiful things.”
“True, Tante Trude, but I still need to make money – even though with very nice merchandise. The bottom line counts. I don’t get these books I’m selling for free, you know, and even I have to eat occasionally.”
“Yes, yes, I know all that, but still …”.
When the fair opened the next day, she was there, hovering excitedly in the background while I did what one does at fairs: Talked to customers, to colleagues and, sometimes, to myself. After a while Tante Trude realized there was not much for her to do and toddled off to do some shopping. She came back much later bearing some mysterious parcels.
On the next day I had the usual strange customer. A man came to the stand and asked whether I had any books on chess. Even though I deal in travel books, I actually had one: “Chess in Iceland” by Willard Fiske. He asked:
“Is it a nice copy?”
I assured him it was and showed it to him. It is bound in cream half vellum with dark blue boards and some gilt to the spine. The book-block is uncut and quite clean. A nice copy.
“Oh, no”, the customer said, handing it back to me, “this is far too grand for me.” And walked away. He didn’t even look at the price.
The second and third day were rather slower, as they tend to be, and I got a chance to look around a bit, while Tante Trude minded the stand. It was a really large fair with 170 exhibitors. Even I got a bit confused as to what I’d seen, and I pitied the customers who just wandered around, sometimes looking a little lost.
The organization was very good, and on the final day we got our boxes within 20 minutes of closing time. Tante Trude helped me pack up and off we went for a final dinner. We went to a Japanese restaurant and Tante Trude eyed the menu with distrust. Fortunately, they had little pictures of the dishes, and she ordered something that didn’t look to foreign. As she watched me eating sushi she said with a slightly repulsed look:
“Well … what an experience! I didn’t see the Queen, but I saw Buckingham Palace, I saw Tower Bridge, I rode in a London taxi and on a red double-decker bus. And I saw some of the nicest books in the world. I’ll never forget that feeling when the kind man handed that prayer book to me! I do wonder how you can eat raw fish, though.”
And so we are back home again, Tante Trude in Bonn, probably showing the contents of those mysterious parcels to her adoring friends, and I in my bookshop.
When we parted, she said:
“Book fairs are fun and you learn a lot, but they do make your feet hurt!”
I have nothing to add to that.
(Posted in Books and Other Animals. Presented here by permission of the author.)