If you are a pilgrim in the world of books, you can't afford to miss the New York Antiquarian Book Fair, held every April.

Like everyone in the room I lusted after these books, but was too shy to caress or even touch them. They were beautiful, rare, uncommon. And very expensive. $500 for a book was cheap here. The average price of most of the books I was looking at was $15,000. Several were half a million. Like the fourth Shakespeare folio that beckoned from the window at the Peter Harrington booth. In the next booth was the other legendary antiquarian book seller from London, Bernard Quaritch. They were all here, 200 rare book dealers I had only heard or read about, from London, Paris, Barcelona, Frankfurt, Tokyo, Milan, New York, and San Francisco. They had brought with them the brightest copies of some of the rarest books in the world to show and sell at the 50th New York Antiquarian Book Fair.

The fair, sponsored by the ABAA (Antiquarian Booksellers' Association of America) is perhaps the most important rare book fair in the world. It takes place every year in April for four days at the Park Avenue Armory, a cavernous stone structure in the heart of Manhattan. For several years now the fair has been organised by Sanford L. Smith and Associates, ‘the foremost arts and antiques show management company'. I might have spent the rest of the fair just gawking at these books without touching them if it wasn't for Angel, a witty, erudite, vivacious young woman at the Bauman's Rare Books booth who simply threw open the closed glass shelves, encouraging me to handle them. She knew the provenance and bibliographical points of these editions intimately. She took out from the shelf a signed and inscribed copy of The Fountainhead, and handed it to me, noting that Ayn Rand had inscribed it to the architect who had helped her research the book. Price: $56,000.

Old friends

Soon, I was handling copies of first printings of books that I had once known only in text book form. In my hand, for instance, was a first edition, first issue of Keats' Endymion, 1818, Octavo, uncut, top edge gilt. A copy that possibly the poet himself may have once touched. A few minutes later, I was holding a signed, inscribed first edition of Forster's A Passage to India, Edward Arnold, 1924, Octavo, original half brown cloth, gray paper spine label. Oscar Wilde's Poems, 1892, signed. (Signed!). I put it back and picked up a copy of A Room of One's Own, Hogarth Press, 1929, limited issue. One of 492 copies signed by Virginia Woolf in her characteristic purple ink. Original cinnamon cloth. I exchanged that for a copy of The Wasteland, signed by Eliot.

And just a little later, the book in my hand was the true first edition of Alice in Wonderland, the earliest known edition, preceding the first published London edition, 1866, beautifully rebound with 42 illustrations by John Tenniel. I realised, with a shiver, that I had just touched the very same copies that these authors had held in their hands. I stopped by at Imperial Fine Books to say hello to Bibi Mohammed, special for being one of the few South Asians in the antiquarian world and one of very few bookwomen in the trade. It was a particular treat to meet in person Allen and Patricia Ahearn of Quill and Brush, who put out the definitive book on modern collecting prices, and that renowned contemporary bookwoman, Priscilla Juvelis, specialising in Artists books.

I was interested in modern first editions but there were so many dealers with so many bright copies of the high points of modern firsts, that they nearly became commonplace! Only at the New York fair! And most of the copies here were not only in mint condition, they were also signed. First printings of The Big Sleep, The Maltese Falcon, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, The Hobbit, a whole run of Ian Fleming, Philip K. Dick, Pynchon, Wodehouse, all signed. Bright first issues of The Dharma Bums, Naked Lunch, Moby Dick, Dracula. Advance reading copies of the first Harry Potter book. Anywhere else, these copies would be considered hard to find, but here it was raining high points. At Biblioctopus you could browse through a complete set of Edgar Rice Burroughs' Tarzan, dust jackets intact and signed!

I went looking for that holy grail of modern first editions: the true first edition of The Great Gatsby, in that scarcest of dust jackets. And found it, naturally, at Between the Covers Rare Books. It was nice to finally meet the folks at BTC, Tom Congalton and Dan Gregory, who put the book in my hands, and explained how this copy had all the points to make it the true first edition. The price? $175, 000. BTC also possessed one of the highlights of the fair: an inscribed first issue of Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises in that very, very scarce dustjacket. I was also in search of my own personal holy grail among modern firsts: a signed first edition of The Catcher in the Rye, but no one seemed to possess the grail.

However, Ken Lopez Bookseller, another legendary book dealer in modern firsts, sharing the booth with BTC, had, what was at least for me, the next best thing: the first state printing of Salinger's Raise High The Roofbeam Carpenters in the hard to find edition lacking the dedication page. Only 20 or so copies of this state are known to exist in the market. I opened it, saw it lacked the dedication myself, and handed it back, feeling very privileged. In fact, every moment at the fair was a privilege; a bibliographical shock. Peter Harrington had a Shakespeare folio, something I had only seen pictured in catalogues before. And no one seemed to mind when I cautiously took it out of the glass bookcase and carefully, very carefully, turned the pages.

Aesthetic surfeit

By the time I had done just one round of the booths, I had handled books that few people ever see, much less touch: a copy of Origin of Species that Darwin had held, a copy of the New Testament that Martin Luther had used, an illuminated Book of Hours from 1455, incunabula (early printed books before movable type), antique maps, a complete set of Winnie the Pooh, signed by A.A. Milne, original Pooh drawings of E.H. Shephard, the very scare privately printed copy of Beatrix Potter's Peter Rabbit (80, 000 pounds), the very scarce first printing of Don Quixote, the Olympia editions of Lolita, first editions of Kierkegaard's Either/Or and Kant's Critique of Pure Reason, signed sets of Kipling, Jane Austen, Bronte, Dickens, Flaubert, Sylvia Plath, and issues of the Strandmagazine in which the Sherlock Holmes stories had first appeared.

It was enough to make any bibliophile swoon. I decided to leave before I actually fainted from so much aesthetic shock and ecstatic bookishness. But I was going to return of course, with two more days of the fair, I couldn't resist. As I walked out, I looked at what I had bought: several lavish and beautifully illustrated book catalogues. It was all I could afford at the New York Antiquarian Book Fair.