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Published March 30, 2005 at 5:00 p.m.

Vermont Antiquarian Booksellers Spring Fair. April 3, Clarion Hotel, South Burlington, 9:30 a.m. -- 4 p.m. Info, 527-7243.

The phrase "antiquarian book dealer" calls to mind images of gentlemen in smoking jackets fondling the spines of First Folio editions under the glassy gaze of a hunting trophy. But don't look for scenes like that at the Vermont Antiquarian Booksellers Spring Fair this Sunday.

The event isn't a professional gathering of specialists, but a chance for more than 40 regional sellers of literary collectibles from around the region -- including some who usually sell by appointment only -- to peddle their wares to the general public. While some pricy artifacts certainly will be for sale, most items are "modestly priced, five to 50 dollars," says event organizer Donna Howard, who owns The Eloquent Page in St. Albans.

To be sure, there will be plenty of leather bindings and archaic typefaces on display. Jonathan Flaccus, of Putney's The Unique Antique, plans to arrive with a station wagon full of 18th- and 19th-century Vermontiana, part of a collection he's been accumulating since 1976. Among the treasures he'll bring is a first edition of Woodstock author George Perkins' conservationist classic Man and Nature, priced at $2000. There's also an unrevised 1812 edition of a History of the Indian Wars that garnered such bad reviews its author, a president of the University of Vermont, tried to remove it from circulation.

Flaccus also deals in old maps, ledgers, broadsides and ephemera -- cheap throwaway items, such as wanted posters, letters, postcards and tickets, that now provide valuable glimpses of the past. "People like to see what I have for their town," he remarks, pointing out that some of his antiques reveal surprising bits of Vermont history. Case in point: the annual report of a Ply-mouth gold mining company, which opened in 1884 and went out of business six months later.

A very different sort of "antiquarian" bookseller is Beth Kanell, of Kingdom Books in St. Johnsbury. "We have very little published before 1950," she says. Kingdom Books, which Kanell owns with her husband Dave, specializes in poetry, mystery and Vermont authors. Their table will feature such contemporary names as David Mamet, New Hampshire poet Donald Hall and mystery author Charles Todd. Kanell has also carved out a lucrative business in Beat poetry, watching her titles increase 30 percent in value over the span of a year. With their bold cover graphics and edgy text, "something about [Beat] appeals to young people, people recapturing excitement in their lives," she says.

Some book fair visitors may come just to browse and pick up an antique postcard. Others may find themselves bitten by the collecting bug. Howard says collectors tend to start small. She has customers who want to own every book by a particular romance author -- "Most just want to spend two or three dollars, but it is a legitimate collection." By the time you find yourself shelling out a week's paycheck for a first edition, "you're hooked," Howard chuckles.

What inspires people to seek out first editions of a favorite author, or every book they can find on a particular topic? Love of books, of course, is a prime motive. "Some people think the first edition is closer to the author's vision of what the book should be," says Howard. Kanell agrees that collecting can draw the reader closer to an author, sometimes in a literal sense. An editor of poetry when she isn't selling books, she likes to snap up copies of "early works by significant poets" and hand the early editions back to the authors, who are often seeing them for the first time in years. Signed copies have special value, Kanell says, because "You know you're holding the exact copy that the author has literally held. It's a sense of connection to another person."

But the collectors also agree that, at a certain point, pure obsessiveness takes over. "It's the same reason people collect teaspoons," says Howard. Deb Barnum, of Burlington's Bygone Books, compares her shelves of Austen and Steinbeck to her son's limited-edition sneaker collection.

"The one thing collectors have in common is this kind of hunt or search. "That's what keeps us going," says Ben Koenig of Plainfield's The Country Bookshop. "There's no rationale you can give when your husband or wife asks, 'Why are you buying another book on bells?'" Koenig, whose large store contains over 350 books on just that subject, found his focus through his other job as a music teacher. His search for an instrument kids could easily play led to a bell collection, which led to collecting books on everything from carillons to cowbells to Big Ben. "I do have this collecting gene," he allows.

Think Koenig's collection is esoteric? Howard had one customer who sought out books on enemas. Barnum knows of a "gentleman in Germany who's obsessed with the granite industry in Barre. He visited here once, and that set it off." She recalls another customer who told her that he and a friend were in long-term competition to see who could amass the most children's Golden Books -- with purchases on the Internet defined as cheating.

"Cheating" or not, the Internet has revolutionized the antiquarian book business. Books for which collectors would formerly have scoured local stores and attics are now available at the click of a mouse that connects them to an international database. "There are fewer collectors [at fairs] these days," says Flaccus. "They tend to stay at home in front of their computer." He himself doesn't sell on the Internet, in part because "I like to steer where [the item] goes," he says. "I like things to return to their origin."

The Internet has increased public awareness of the value of old books, often crowding the market. Howard remembers what happened to a once-valuable edition of Grant's memoirs: "When the Internet came in, people started cleaning out their attics, the number of copies went up, and prices plummeted."

Barnum says that nowadays "people often come with books they've already researched on the Internet and have prices they want for them." But these sellers may be less informed than they think. Many amateur sellers and buyers don't realize that a book's physical condition can make or break its fetching price. "A lot of people say, 'It's old, it should look like this!'" says Barnum. Likewise, people who buy rare books on eBay or other sites easily fall victim to the principle of caveat emptor, says Howard.

That's one argument for continuing to frequent face-to-face book fairs, where you can see and touch what you're buying. Another is the chance to build relationships between dealers and their local community. Booksellers at a fair "never mind starting with beginning questions. They love to nurture new collectors and readers," says Kanell. "A lot of it is getting to know someone who has an interest in subjects I sell," says Koenig. He isn't expecting to move a large volume of books in his specialty, folk music, but rather to connect with potential long-term customers.

Many book fairgoers look forward to chatting with the experts or peppering them with questions. Some come in search of that elusive childhood favorite whose title they've forgotten -- "I want a book from the '50s about the Hell's Angels in Canada with a German author," says Kanell, by way of example.

While such demands may be daunting, Barnum says booksellers welcome the chance to interact with a broader public than they'd normally see in their shops. "[Bookselling] can be a lonely job, because it's just you against piles of books and the public," she says. "It's nice to have that kind of contact with other people." By bringing together people who love to drink in the look and feel of books, the book fair gives a social dimension to reading, that eminently solitary activity.

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