The fun of the fair

There’s nothing like a book fair to trigger self-reflection in a cover designer, but what esteemed company it is to keep. Daniel Benneworth-Gray visits the York Book Fair

Oh my. Look at that. Nine hundred and fifty pounds. Pencilled casually onto the inside cover as if it were just a throwaway paperback in a charity shop. Oh dear me no. Oh my.

I place the first edition of Philip K Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? back onto the shelf, where it had been so nonchalantly resting a moment ago. Shouldn’t it be in a case or something? Behind protective glass? They just put it there for anyone to grab and molest? It should certainly be kept far out of reach of the likes of me. I’m suddenly very aware of the acidity of my fingertips.

This is just one of many fragile temptations at York National Book Fair. A two day jamboree of out of print, hard to find and specialist books, it’s the largest event of its kind in the UK. It’s absolutely wonderful and ever so slightly terrifying.

A couple of hundred traders are spread over three large floors. Most of them have shut up their provincial bookshops for the weekend to be here. So what we have here are the very best books from the very best bookshops in all the land. Precious things. And because everything here is rare and old and fragile, nothing gets special treatment. It all gets slung onto the cheap standard-issue shelves and picked at by wandering book-lovers and clumsy oafs like me. I’ve been told there are items here priced at tens of thousands of pounds.

(Tens Of thousands. Now, I know full well that I’m not holding a glass of Merlot, but I hear that number and it really feels like I’m holding a glass of Merlot, and at any given moment, I’m probably going to spill a glass of Merlot on something that has spent many, many decades not having a glass of Merlot spilt on it.)

As far as the eye can see: book design and book design and book design. Covers aplenty. A perfect opportunity to refill the old tanks and contemplate what the hell I’m doing with my own work. Electric Sheep back on the shelf and fear of Frank Spencerian calamity pushed to the back of my mind, I cautiously explore the Fair to see what else it has to offer.

I find shelves packed with numerous Le Corbusier texts, spines cracked with love; enormous bound editions of maps from obscure military campaigns; a baffling array of books about trains. One stall has an 18th-century text entitled An Inquiry Into The Reasonableness And Consequences Of An Union With Scotland. Nearby, the first issue of Viz.

The variety here is mind-boggling, but a few patterns emerge. The shelves are proceeded with the Penguin orange and Gollancz yellow. Wildly inappropriate, racist children’s books of a bygone age are brazenly displayed, anachronistic politics be damned. For some reason that I can’t quite fathom (perhaps a bookseller in-joke?), there are lots of the same illustrated edition of Der Struwwelpeter for sale.

And there’s more than just books for me to not spill wine on. One trader has a selection of Mormon pamphlets for sale, another has a pile of 1960s blues ‘zines. Throughout the building, old posters and placards – NIXON’S THE ONE! and END AMERICA’S WAR ON VIETNAM! – appeal to the overwhelmingly baby-booming crowd.

There are some rum old characters here today, sporting a fine array of bookish affectations (elaborate waxed moustaches, ludicrous hats, peered-over pince-nez) and right-leaning neck-cricks caused by prolonged spine-perusal.

Meanwhile, the booksellers sit quietly beside their stalls, coiled and ready to pounce with their bookular patter. But I’m not here for the humans, I’m here for the covers. Oh the covers. Everything demands attention, there’s just so much of so much. This is the printly equivalent of the Natural History Museum, and it’s utterly humbling. Here is everything that has come before, you are insignificant. I came in terrified, I’ve come away daunted.

The day comes to an end. I leave empty-handed, but my head is full of inspiration and ideas (and a sense of accomplishment, as I haven’t spilt anything on anything). Maybe in a hundred years, one of my books will be here, a ludicrous price tag scribbled into its pages.

Soon all the antiquarians and their antiquarities will disperse and the Book Fair will be gone. Books have changed hands and go on to live their lives in new homes. Delicate things outliving us all.

Daniel Benneworth-Gray is a designer based in York. See and @gray

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