In 1976, the title of World’s Smallest Book (printed with moveable metal type) went to an A-Z printing of the text type Gill Titling, with each letter, inked in 3-point-type, appearing on a single page. Unfortunately, the red leather book, created by the Scottish publisher Gleniffer Press and kept in a magnifying case inside a plastic box, was quickly stripped of its honor: the British Library declared it a pamphlet rather than a book.
The world of tiny tomes is a competitive one, and many publications have jostled for the title of tiniest. Take, for instance, an illustrated book called The Mite; published in 1891 and recognized as the smallest in the world printed from movable type, it was ousted from its seat in 1897 by an Italian text, Galileo a Madama Cristina de Lorena. Then there were the four miniature books published by Waldmann & Pfitzner, kept inside plastic magnifying cases, that held the title between 1952 and 1964, until a red leather bible published in Tokyo to coincide with the New York World’s Fair won the record. Today, claiming that honor is a story about a flea’s footwear, created by a Russian scientist.
Beyond serving as vessels of knowledge, these miniature books are all objects of marvel, and a number of the aforementioned, previous record holders are now up for sale in an auction by PBA Galleries. They all arrive from a former bookstore in Tokyo known as the Lilliput Oval Saloon. When the shop opened in 1979, founded by Kazushige Onuma, it was the world’s first all-miniature bookstore. It closed last year, following the death of Onuma’s daughter Rico, who had helped Onuma manage it since its establishment. This week’s auction is the second part of a memorial sale that Onuma set up to honor his daughter.
As the 450 lots show, the bookstore carried a range of finely crafted miniature tomes, from British almanacs with gilded covers to leather religious texts to books celebrating vices — like a tiny one from 1905 with 50 recipes for popular cocktails or 1866’s The Smoker’s Textbook, which features illustrations of water pipes and tobacco plants on an engraved title page. There are works of fiction and poetry, too, penned by names like Mark Twain, Edgar Allen Poe, and William Butler Yeats — whose “Song of the Wandering Aengus” unfolds on tiny pages kept between a carefully embroidered cover. The variety of material used by publishers to construct these diminutive books exemplifies their status as miniature works of art: one 1840 prayer book for children boasts a white bone binding, a vellum spine, and gilded edges.
The Lilliput Oval Saloon also sold miniature bookcases and bookends, and a selection of these, too, is for sale. Many are the works of one Osami Nakao, who meticulously manipulated leather into adorable cases of all shapes. There’s also an impressively engineered one, custom made for the bookstore by an anonymous craftsman, that contains 151 mini volumes by Barbara Raheb. Fitted with four glass-paneled, hinged doors and made of leather-covered wood, the entire case revolves for a browser’s convenience. Although the bookcase was displayed, it was never for sale when Lilliput Oval Saloon was still in business. But now anyone — with a couple thousand dollars to spare, that is — can own a part of the history of this special store, which, though focused on the minute, represented a world of grandeur.