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Book lovers: special breed of antiquarians

An antiques collector may have nostalgia for the past or a desire to invest in a rising market. But book collecting is still mainly for people who love books.

A visit to London's 22nd Antiquarian Book Fair recently proved that this hobby can provide something for nearly every taste and interest: literary, cultural, historical, geographical, theological, artistic, or bibliographic. Or , more frivolously, perhaps, some books attract attention because of their curious appearance or beautiful bindings.

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The antiquarian book trade does not set itself boundaries of country, language, or date. All sorts of printed material are already featured, including account books and sales catalogs, musical scores and political pamphlets, and anything else that throws a light on how people live and what they read.

At the London Fair, dealers from the English-speaking world predominate, and this year brought a record number of US exhibitors. For $:25 (about $50) one London dealer offered a publication entitled "Sex in Industry," originally published in Boston in 1875 about the physical effects of work on women in factories. A more expensive book about the past is a first edition of John Mitchell's Jail Journal: "Five Years in British Prisons," published in New York in 1854. That cost $:1,000 ($2,000).

For impecunious book lovers, there was a special budget collection of items priced at $:25 or under. This included some tempting first editions of famous modern authors whose names are found on school reading lists: W. H. Auden, Hilaire Belloc, G. K. Chesterton, T. S. Eliot, E. M. Forster, D. H. Lawrence, Evelyn Waugh, and Virginia Woolf. Also in the group: a shorthand manual from 1810 and a 1792 edition of Laurence Sterne's "Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy." Clearly, a good memory for dates and other publishing details is at least as important for book collectors as having an eye for a bargain.

The trade is notoriously cagey about figures and prices, and bargaining is very private amid 25,000 items displayed. It seems that many people simply attend a book fair of this sort to learn about dealers and their specialties so that they will know where to go when they want to buy -- or sell -- a railway manual, an autograph collection, or Great Grandma's diary. Gutenberg Bibles are unlikely to be discovered in anyone's attic, but all sorts of other old books treasured by former generations still turn up to delight, instruct, and sometimes enrich their finders.

Almost any book can be the cornerstone of a collection and help to shed a new light on an author, a period, a subject, or a trade.But a supreme collection of book bindings such as that assembled for the London Fair is not likely to come together again for a while. Many were priceless and rare, and they illustrated the versatility of books, which can be treasures, a friend, or an item of conspicious consumption (like a gold bracelet with eight miniature books).

Like most personal possessions, book covers reveal not only the taste but the fashion of their time. There were some tiny London Almanacs, 150 years old, covered in gold or silver filigree; book covers in wood, snakeskin, lapis lazuli , or tortoise shell; and even the Museum of Modern Art's 1968 catalog made of tin and Perspex plastic.

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