Sifting through frayed paperbacks at a local rummage sale is a time-honoured ritual for many book lovers. There's an inexplicable but distinct satisfaction in finding a good read amid a dank pile of literary castoffs.

Eric Waschke understands that feeling. But he isn't hunting for back issues of National Geographic or titles plugged by Oprah's book club. For him, the stakes are higher.

As an antiquarian bookseller, Waschke has his eye on tomes that are usually out of print, off the radar and older than a top-shelf wine.

That's why he and other antique bibliophiles plan to converge upon the Metro Toronto Convention Centre this weekend for the mother of all book fairs. Or, given the average age of the literature: the great-grandmother of all book fairs.

The Toronto International Antiquarian Book Fair brings together old-time booksellers and curious bibliophiles from across the globe.

It isn't your standard white elephant sale. Peculiar tomes like 19th century gardening books and time-worn atlases will be on display. Highly coveted first editions from literary heavyweights such as C.S. Lewis and L. Frank Baum might also be available.

"It's fascinating how books can become these types of historical items," says Waschke. "Finding and reading them becomes this form of time travel. It's exciting stuff."

But literary time travel comes at a cost, a steep one at that.

  • For instance, bibliophiles who want to own a first-edition copy of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes adventure "The Hound of the Baskervilles" will have to dish out more than $7,000 (CDN).
  • And forget about the flimsy Ernest Hemingway paperbacks teachers distributed in elementary school. A hard-cover version of "Across the River and into the Trees" complete with gilt lettering is available for about $20,000.
  • Fans of much-loved English author Jane Austen will have to pay a little more than $6,000 to get their hands on a 10-volume set of limited edition hardcovers that include the classics "Mansfield Park" and "Emma. "

Suffice to say, pocket change won't work at this book fair.

Inquiring minds can view offerings from exhibitors online before heading to the fair. Dealers such as horticultural specialist Antiquariat Botanicum or prints and maps expert Donald Heald have catalogues available on the fair's website.

When books become bounty

There is some debate as to how old a book should be before it's considered "antiquarian," admits Waschke.

"An antiquarian book seller buys and sells books that are generally over 100 years old," he says. "Some use a loose interpretation and say books over 50 years old."

For instance, one of Waschke's favourite finds dates back to about 1485 — more than five centuries ago.

The book is a written speech from the King of Portugal to the Pope at the time. It offers the first recorded account of Europeans going south of the Equator, says Waschke.

"Books like this had a humongous effect on the current world," he notes.

Jet-setting for a rare read

While the act of reading is meant to figuratively transport the reader to another place, the act of book collecting has literally sent Waschke to the farthest corners of the globe.

The 43-year-old specializes in travel and exploration books, an area of expertise that has taken him from Tanzania to Peru and everywhere in between.

"I've found books in Timbuktu, Kathmandu…I've even found books in Fort Portal, Uganda — a tea-producing town on the Congo border," he says.

He estimates he's visited 4,000 book shops in more than 80 countries, an approximation that might impress even the most frequent flyers.

While not all antiquarian booksellers have to go jet setting, Waschke recommends the intrepid approach for anyone looking for the rare and exceptional.

"The thing is, you never know where you're going to find a great read," he says.

A brave new world (wide web)

For the web-savvy, the antiquarian book fair might appear to be something of an anachronism.

E-books and full-colour reading tablets dominate consumer wish lists. Classics by authors such as Nathaniel Hawthrone and Robert Louis Stevenson are available on public domain sites such as Project Gutenberg Canada. Even the Dead Sea Scrolls are available online.

Waschke says he's aware the Internet can depreciate the value of rare books by revealing that several copies of the book exist.

"It's made some books undesirable because book collectors want things that are difficult to find," he says.

Still, he says, there's a unique appeal in holding an antiquarian book. Whether the book was discovered in a small African town or at a local yard sale, the satisfaction of digging up an obscure read endures.

"Our profession is now dependent on selling things as artifacts, as historical sort of objects," says Waschke. "That's where the business is going."

The Toronto International Antiquarian Book Fair runs from Oct. 28 to Oct. 30. For information on times and exhibitors, you can visit the fair's website.