The 2022 edition of a popular local event is back this weekend after a two-year pandemic hiatus.
The Seattle Antiquarian Book Fair returns to Seattle Center, which means it’s time for a preview of the sights – and smells – of one of the best-known book sales in the country.
A tradition since 1978
The first edition of this event took place one weekend in May 1978 in the old Georgian Room at what’s now the Fairmont Olympic Hotel. Its original title was the Northwest Antiquarian Book Fair.
By 1980, the fair began a new chapter by moving to a venue with more shelf space – the Seattle Center. That’s where it has been ever since. It’s regarded as one of the best antiquarian book events in the United States, along with the biggies of the book business in New York and California.
Local bookseller Bill Wolfe is the producer of the Seattle Antiquarian Book Fair. He owns Collins Books, which he took over from the late Louis Collins – a beloved figure in the Seattle retail book scene who passed away in 2018.
Collins had produced the book fair for a long time, but the event turned a page after his passing, and Wolfe is now author of the annual gathering. Like so many in-person events, organizers shelved the book fair in 2020 and 2021 because of COVID.
Seattle Center: October 8 and 9
Thus, the overdue fair returns this Saturday and Sunday, Oct. 8 and 9, at the Exhibition Hall along Mercer Street at Seattle Center. Wolfe estimates 40,000 books will be for sale from nearly a hundred exhibitors from the U.S., England and Canada.
Wolfe says there will be pricey collector stuff available, but the wide variety of printed material from multiple genres and from multiple eras – stretching from the 14th century to the present –means something for everyone.
“I’ve personally participated in sales of six-figure items to people wearing UW gear,” Wolfe told KIRO Newsradio. “So if anything, the ‘antiquarian’ word, I think, can be a bit tricky. I don’t want that to spook anyone [or] frighten anyone [into not coming]. There’s something for every taste, every budget. And this is not a fancy party. There are fancy items, that’s for sure. But we see strollers in the aisle every year, and a lot of young, sort of ‘new collector’ energy that’s there.”
At this point, you may be looking up from your e-reader and wondering why anyone is buying actual books in 2022. It’s a debate that has been raging for years: do we even need physically printed books anymore?
Nothing like a real book
Wolfe says there’s nothing that replaces the tactile experience of holding and feeling the weight of an actual book. There’s also the investment attraction of first editions, or books which belonged to a well-known figure, or the aesthetics and craftsmanship of one-of-a-kind hand-illustrated manuscripts, or even vintage mass-produced volumes with ornate bindings.
“All that’s lost when you’re looking at a screen,” Wolfe said. “So I think that’s what everyone keeps coming back for. And the printed word [has] been around for thousands of years; it’s not going anywhere. We see all kinds of threats to it all the time and we always make it out the other end better than before.”
Ahh… that old book smell
Along with all the tactile, investment and visual stuff, experts now say the smell of old books has been scientifically proven to be attractive – which many people know simply from visiting certain parts of their home and taking a whiff.
It turns out that pleasant smell, say scientists at McGill University, is “due to the organic materials in books (like cellulose from wood pulp) reacting with light, heat and water, and over time releasing volatile organic compounds or VOCs” including “toluene or ethylbenzene, which smell sweet; benzaldehyde or furfural, which smell almond-like; or vanillin” which smells like vanilla.
And there’s a word for this phenomenon, too: “bibliosmia” – pronounced “bib-lee-OZ-mee-uh” – which means “the smell and aroma of a good book.”
Smell of old books? What smell of old books?
“I think I’m so immersed in it in general, that I don’t notice it,” Wolfe said, chuckling. “I come home and they’re like, ‘what did you do today?’”
Wolfe says that since vendors only set up a few days in advance, they won’t be there long enough to permanently alter the aroma inside the Exhibition Hall this weekend.
“Maybe we won’t infect it too hard and heavy, but it’ll be there for sure,” Wolfe said.
Seattle Antiquarian Book Fair admission is $10, payable at the door, cash only. Wolfe also says the vendors decided to require masks in deference to COVID and their more elderly vendors and patrons – not to prevent people from partaking in all the bibliosmia.
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