Tuesday's Pop-Up Rare Book Fair at the National Library of Australia had some of the looks and the ambience of a corner of a busy trash and treasure market except that in this case there was absolutely no trash.
Instead there were only extreme and sometimes very expensive treasures, such as Thomas Pettigrew's signed and inscribed 1834 edition of his A HISTORY OF EGYPTIAN MUMMIES - and An Account of the Worship and Embalming of the Sacred Animals by the Egyptians, and a July 1773 edition of the London Gentleman's Magazine. The latter contained perhaps the first popularly printed picture and description of an improbable beast "The Kangaroo – an animal of a new species found on the coast of New South Wales".
No wonder, with all this treasure on display, a security man loomed at the room's only door.
Events and establishments that ephemerally and trendily "pop-up" (and then pop off) are popping up everywhere now, and this columnist popped along to this fair that was part of the Booksellers And Librarians In A Changing World conference, a two-day jamboree of Australasian antiquarian booksellers and of librarians. The ephemeral fair popped up at noon, with a dozen elite antiquarian booksellers each allowed just a square metre of trestle table tabletop (hence the trash and treasure ambience) on which to display some treasures of their emporiums, and then was wrapped up and packed up within the hour.
Fair organiser Sally Burdon explained that "Pop up book fairs are a new idea for ANZAAB [the Australian and New Zealand Association of Antiquarian Booksellers], the idea being that in some places it's not appropriate to have a great big book fair with all that's involved in bringing in many many boxes, and being in place for several days.
"So all these dealers have been asked to bring one square metre of items. And so they bring in some of their favourite things. They may not be their most expensive things and they may sometimes be their most quirky items. And you'll always find that they can talk about them with a great deal of knowledge."
Jonathan Dickson, presiding over the one square metre allocated to Douglas Stewart Fine Books (of Melbourne) certainly knew all about his most striking item, a very big book blessed with striking images and open at one in which a flame-haired woman (looking like the classic brazen hussy) is being menaced by a spectacular dragon.
The book is literally unique, Dickson told us, because it is the only one of its kind ever made. It is a handsome mock-up version (massively larger than the book that went on commercial sale) of Donald Friend's picture and story book Coogan's Gully: Young person's guide to bushranging, ecology and witchcraft, made into a facsimile by Friend's personal publisher Richard Griffin. On Tuesday this treasure, not a children's book in spite of its title, was on sale for $7500.
"It's unique. Only one copy was ever made, as a special gift to be presented to Donald Friend. It's made from photographs of the original [handwritten] manuscript of the book and of the pictures that Friend had painted for the book.There's a letter from the publisher to Donald, laid in the front of the book.
"Coogan's Gully is about the crazy, idiosyncratic characters that live in a fabulous town in the outback, inspired in Donald Friend by the time he spent at Hill End [the mouldering gold mining town in outback NSW]."
There were some idiosyncratic characters, too, at the conference and at its book fair, and I rubbed shoulders with them and eavesdropped on their very specialised conversations with the specialist antiquarians. There is something harmlessly odd about book collectors. When they are hunting and gathering, as they were at Tuesday's event, their eyes light up with a peculiar flame.
Other items to set the eyes aflame at Tuesday's fair included, presumably to be hung on barrack and office walls in the days of the British Raj, S.H. Prater's linen-backed, diagram-rich Chart To Tell Whether An Indian Snake Is Poisonous Or Harmless.
Did it ever happen that some servant of the Raj, just bitten by one of the sub-continent's serpents, stumbled up to the chart to find out whether he was going to live or die a grotesque death?
And which of us, as Hockey-driven redundancy hits us, wouldn't appreciate receiving at our tearful workplace farewells a beautiful handwritten testimonial like the one on sale at Tuesday's fair, given in 1910 to Miss Wilson as she left the staff of a Methodist Sunday School in Ballarat?
Let its language be the exact model for today's workmates saying goodbye to a lost colleague.
"We feel sure that the good works so faithfully accomplished for the Master's sake .. ..have been to you a labour of love. We feel sure that the seeds you have sewn have been and will be productive of a rich and abundant harvest in the lives of those brought under your influence. We express our sincere regret at your removal from our midst and it is our earnest prayer that God's richest blessings both in temporal and in spiritual matters may ever rest upon you."