A History of the Boston International Antiquarian Book Fair

A Q&A with its long-running organizer and owner of Brattle Book Shop, Ken Gloss.

Photo courtesy of Brattle Book Shop

Photo courtesy of Brattle Book Shop

The Boston International Antiquarian Book Fair turns 39 this year—gracing the Hynes once again with its hefty exhibition of rarities. From November 13 through 15, visitors can see treasures like a manuscript from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, a document signed by John Hancock, and a first edition of Twas the Night Before Christmas inscribed by Clement C. Moore. We asked Ken Gloss, fair board member for all 39 years, chairman for 20, and owner of the Brattle Book Shop, where it all began. 

How did the Boston International Antiquarian Book Fair come to be?

There’s an organization called the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association of America. It’s a national organization now with about 400 book dealers. They had run a few book fairs in New York for a number of years and we thought ‘Gee, that’s a great idea. We should have one in Boston with all of the collectors, people, businesses, universities, and literary (history) in Boston.’ There was a dealer in Waltham, Harold Burstein, who sort of spearheaded the thing. He got six or seven of us on a committee to start it, with a woman named Florence Finn. We scheduled our first show at the Copley Plaza in November (1976.)

What was the first show like?

It was a pretty elegant thing; it went well. A lot of collectors and dealers flew in from all over the country. For the next ten years the show was run by Florence Finn at the Copley. Then we went to the Park Plaza Castle. The first show probably had about 70 to 75 dealers. The castle had about 90 or so, and now, at the Hynes, we have 120 to 125 dealers.

Any highlights from over the years?

One year someone had one of Emerson’s books inscribed to Thoreau. If it was a book without the inscription, it would probably have been worth 300 to 400 dollars. But it sold for $75,000 and ended up in a library, which was probably a good thing. There have been pages from the Gutenberg bible, the first printed book, and then you get some odd things. One dealer had pasties from Gypsy Rose Lee to go with her book.

Tell us about this year’s fair.

The fair has evolved to be a larger show with people from all over the world and a much larger display of items. One of the speakers this year is the producer of Antiques Roadshow, and we’re having a Typewriter Rodeo. A group of people from Austin are bringing old typewriters. If you give them a word, they type you up a poem on their typewriters. A whole lot of dealers will be bringing shelves of books under 100 dollars. We want to bring young people, give them an opportunity to actually buy something, and the chance to be collectors when they’re older. There isn’t much opportunity for young people to be exposed to rare books today.  We’re trying to attract and bring people in who don’t even know what a rare book is.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Boston International Antiquarian Book Fair, November 13 through 15. Information and tickets available on bostonbookfair.com.

Photo provided by CommPromo

Photo provided by CommPromo