Dispatch from a fading Twin Cities Antiquarian and Rare Book Fair

Arts / Article

Minneapolis’ Dreamhaven Books at the Twin Cities Antiquarian and Rare Book Fair. Photo by Susannah Schouweiler

The Twin Cities Antiquarian and Rare Book Fair was this past weekend, and I made my way to the Minnesota State Fairgrounds on Saturday to hear Booktryst blogger and rare book dealer Stephen Gertz talk about what he calls “heteromorphic literature.” He chatted us up about books “that deviate from the same old-same old, taking a turn into ‘je ne sais weird’ territory that puts them a cut above” the merely strange. Things like: arcane treatises on subterranean beasties and astrological advice for politicians, medieval heresies and fringe theological proofs, graphic biblical epics and grand typographical experiments from the early days of printing; Age of Enlightenment gems like “The Benefits of Farting Explain’d” and L. Ron Hubbard’s early Cold War fabrications. (Good stuff.)

On site in the Progress Center for the 23rd Annual TC Antiquarian and Rare Book Fair. Photo by Susannah Schouweiler.

On site in the Progress Center for the 23rd Annual TC Antiquarian and Rare Book Fair. Photo by Susannah Schouweiler

Photo by Susannah Schouweiler.

Photo by Susannah Schouweiler

After Gertz’s engaging tour through literature’s marginalia, I browsed through the wares, hoping to find some of my own – some 60 booksellers from 15 states were represented with booths in the Progress Center this year. I was struck, even more than in years past, by the predominance of pulp and novelties on the shelves: vintage paperbacks and posters, pop culture collectibles, old comics collections and limited-edition book tie-ins and t-shirts. There were plenty of the usually bookish things on view, to be sure: an intriguing assortment of contemporary artist books and old maps; oddball regional histories, chapbooks and poetry broadsides, as well as the standbys – 20th-century, Great American Novelist-types like Hemingway, Vonnegut, Fitzgerald and Roth; signed first-editions by genre favorites like Clive Barker, Neil Gaiman, Asimov, Heinlein and Stephen King. But as I looked around, I saw few truly out-of-left-field surprises.

Vintage comics. Photo by Susannah Schouweiler.

Vintage comics. Photo by Susannah Schouweiler

Posters. Photo by Susannah Schouweiler.

Posters. Photo by Susannah Schouweiler

Vintage paperbacks. Photo by Susannah Schouweiler.

Vintage paperbacks. Photo by Susannah Schouweiler

The dealers seemed to be playing the fair defensively this year, taking fewer chances on the idiosyncratic stuff, and offering as much high-margin ephemera as books (lots of what my old boss at Hungry Mind used to call shmatte). But for some notable regional finds (on cowboy culture and the West, on Minnesota history), it looked to my eye like the sort of stock one can see at just about any used bookstore or well curated vintage shop. I walked out with a Rain Taxi t-shirt, but nothing else – and I’m an easy weird-book sell.

I worry for the future of book fairs like this, and more broadly, for the sort of expert bibliophiles who run brick-and-mortar, ink-on-paper bookshops. It’s not news that the industry is declining, I know, but this seems evidence of a watershed moment in the publishing business, albeit writ small. The audience in attendance this weekend was a notably graying one, hip Out of Print t-shirts or not; what’s more, not many were toting new purchases around. I’m not the only one who noticed the difference this year; I overheard one vendor, looking around at the light foot traffic on what should be the biggest day at the book fair, asking his neighbor, “Where is everyone? Don’t people like books anymore?”

Artist books. Photo by Susannah Schouweiler.

Artist books. Photo by Susannah Schouweiler

Go next year if you have the weekend free. After what I saw this year, I’m not sure how many more chances we’ll have. Find more information on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/TwinCitiesAntiquarianBookFair.