Going to an antiquarian book fair with a university’s special collections librarian is similar to walking around Central Park with a leaky bag of bread crumbs. Or if you prefer a local metaphor, like a chum brick floating in Government Cut, with sharks coming for miles bumping their noses against the boat to test the edibility of the situation. Watching the dealers shout down a respected and well-known book buyer is a sight to be seen.
I went along on a reconnaissance trip to the 32nd Florida Antiquarian Book Fair in St. Petersburg with coworkers from the University of Miami Special Collections Library (I currently write a column for the library called “The Book Detective”). The head of special collections, Cristina Favretto, was attending the fair to look specifically for Florida-focused books and ephemera that would fortify the library's already vast local holdings.
The trip was preceded by some ominous book news. The Miami Herald recently ran a front-page article with the ominously doomsaying title “The Vanishing Bookstore,” in which the paper reported on the recent closings of many of the last remaining bookstores in South Florida. The proliferation of the e-book has shut down a great deal of booksellers, and this extends to the rare book community as well. The first edition market has bottomed out.
The independent rare book dealers in South Florida now mostly work out of their homes, or in a few instances, storefronts available by appointment only. A fair like this is an important networking event for the reclusive rare booksellers and an opportunity to unload a haul of books quickly.
Steven Eisenstein, proprietor of A-Book-A Brac Shop out of his Miami Beach residence, explains that “the local Miami scene is a mere shadow of itself.” But that there are “buyers here and if you have a good client list you do not need a store.” He goes on to explain that the “advantage to being here is the buying. There are good books here condition due to humidity is often a problem but the lack of competition makes up for it.”
Favretto and I walked the stalls and paged through rows upon rows of unusual and unique items, looking for our own deals and gems. Favretto knows the dealers from her countless years of experience in the rare book world. She tells each of them that she is in the market for Florida books and objects, and they try their best to present what they have brought with many of the dealers offering up pieces that are already in the library's impressive holdings.
But when she did find something, it was a truly amazing artifact. The most interesting purchase Favretto made was, strangely, a book about African safari by Captain Charles H. Stigand, an early 20th century adventurer. The book is titled Hunting the Elephant in Africa (1913, first edition). It would be fair to wonder what this could possibly have to do with Florida. Rare books, like works of art, can be particularly valuable if the provenance can be traced. This book in particular was from the library of Carl Fisher, the namesake of Fisher Island, “Mr. Miami Beach,” and one of the founding fathers of Miami. The book bears his ex libris bookplate and an elaborate inscription from Stigand himself.
Because Stigand was killed on safari at the age of 26, this book, and anything with his signature or doodles, is highly collectible. If you look closer at the inscription, there is a beautiful little depiction of two people holding hands with the front figure holding the trunk of an elephant. Eisenstein, who sold the book to the university, explains, “We see a caricature of Carl and Jane Fisher. He in his [Abraham] Lincoln-style top hat and long coat, and Jane is in her sunbonnet and sundress. Rosie has a flag on her tail and they are in a circus ring pulling Rosie by her trunk.” Indeed the inscriptions jokes that it is how Fisher hunted elephants.
Rosie, for those who do not know, is the most important elephant in the history of the city of Miami. Fisher brought her to South Florida as a publicity stunt, and he even joked that the elephant was going to “get a million dollars worth of advertising out of this elephant.” Asian elephants, at that time, were not an uncommon sight in South Florida, as they were brought to the area to do a lot of heavy lifting and bulldozing during the massive removal of native Florida landscape. Rosie, on the other hand, was effectively an early 20th century viral marketing tool, and pictures of her in random playful situations were meant to attract visitors to the nascent and burgeoning Miami Beach.
This book’s storied history is the kind of object that a rare book library such as University of Miami’s Special Collections is meant to preserve for future generations. This is a truly unique object that cannot be replaced or reproduced by any means. The journey that a random African safari book from 1913 can take us on is why rare books are important. South Florida’s collective history is a little safer due to the work being done by Favretto and her team at the university.
The University of Miami Special Collections is open to the public. For more information, or to schedule a visit, check out the library's website here.