On the Importance of Antiquarian Book Fairs


I would like to take a moment to talk about antiquarian book fairs: what they are; who attends them; where they have been and where they are going; why they are important; and how I as a bookseller fit into all this. My hope is that this will provide a touchstone for various groups: those who are unfamiliar with book fairs should be able to read this, understand their purpose, and decide whether they are interested in visiting one; those who have shopped at book fairs before should learn a few handy tips to make their next fair more enjoyable and successful; booksellers who have not exhibited at fairs in the past may be encouraged to give it a whirl; and booksellers who have hundreds of book fairs under their proverbial belts may be inspired to encourage those just starting out to explore them.

Like many booksellers, I have attended numerous book fairs, and exhibited at a decent number as well, from local and regional book fairs like Rochester, Cooperstown, Buffalo, and Albany, to major national fairs like Boston and New York City. These each have their own specific personalities which are formed based on a number of factors: the dealers exhibiting, the geographic location, the organizers in charge of planning and advertising the show, etc. But before we get into that it’s important to give some working definition of a book fair; i.e., what is the same about each of these? For my purposes here, I’ll use the following:

jag_bookfair2An antiquarian book fair is an event, generally held annually, which brings together numerous dealers in collectible books, ephemera, and other printed and bibliographic materials, for the purpose of buying material from, and selling material to, colleagues and the general public. Book fairs also provide valuable opportunities to network with collectors, representatives of institutional and special collections libraries, and fellow booksellers, both to advertise what material one tends to have available, and also what material one is seeking to purchase. Last but not least, fairs are social events, bringing together large numbers of like-minded people to enjoy a common interest and discuss the particulars of it with friends.

Who attends these fairs — are they only for advanced collectors and high-end dealers? Not at all. While there are certainly fairs geared towards wealthier clientele, most book fairs feature a wide variety of material at diverse price points. So, while serious collectors, special collections librarians, book dealers and book scouts are among those you would expect to see at an average book fair, be assured that you will feel right at home if: you are an avid reader hunting for something you can’t seem to find at your favorite shop; you are interested in a particular subject and want to meet booksellers who can help you find new material; or you want to learn more about books by talking to experts.

What sorts of dealers exhibit at book fairs? This tends to be a diverse group as well. At a given fair you might see: specialists in modern first editions, vintage children’s book dealers, postcard dealers, sellers of early photographica, experts in incunabula and early printed works, map dealers, purveyors of Americana, literature, the sciences, exploration, etc. Other dealers will bring a miscellany of works on various subjects. What you won’t see is an array of flea-market-style sellers with dog-eared, musty paperbacks; even the less expensive material offered at these fairs will often be in exceptional condition, and generally items that show significant wear, if exhibited, are present because they are particularly scarce.

jag_bookfair8As far as range of prices, this will vary depending on the fair: I have attended regional fairs at which many books are available for under $50, and few are more than $500; I have also attended fairs where exhibitors are mainly displaying books that are four figures or more. If you are interested in attending a book fair, consider doing some research — many have websites giving information on exhibitors, and some of these will mention items being featured as well. Knowing who will be there and what sorts of books they intend to bring will provide an idea of whether that fair will be fruitful for you.

This goes for book dealers as well: If you are considering exhibiting at a fair, do a bit of digging to see who has exhibited in the past. Perhaps attend this year to get a lay of the land, with plans to exhibit the following year if it looks like a good venue for your material. Remember that, for a bookseller, book fairs are useful for both buying and selling, so getting to know which dealers regularly attend a show can be a good way of knowing how to be successful there.

In the heyday of antiquarian bookselling (or as some have taken to saying, ‘before the internet’), book fairs were essential events in the trade. They provided centralized locations at which to browse stock from numerous dealers, without the travel expenses associated with visiting each of these colleagues individually. They also provided customers with opportunities to do business with booksellers they would not otherwise have occasion to meet. Sometimes getting on that one dealer’s customer list was the difference between tracking down that first edition Steinbeck or Hemingway, and missing out; or, conversely, the difference between selling it or not.

At first, the assumption was that the internet and other modern forces like e-books would have a negative impact on book fairs, because they facilitated the location of all sorts of material without the need to leave home. The same were made in regard to the future of used bookstores. What we have seen in the last several years, though, is a continual uptick in interest in used bookstores. Numerous book fairs throughout the United States (not to mention London and Paris) continue to thrive.

So, what does that mean for the future of book fairs? In my opinion, it is a bright one, and I don’t merely say this as a starry-eyed idealist, or as a spectator. This year will be my first as head organizer of the 44th Annual Rochester Antiquarian Book Fair, one of the longest continually-running regional book fairs in the country. It is a fair that has treated me well as an exhibitor in the past, and I am excited to work towards its continued success, and to introduce innovations designed to make it even better. These new efforts are designed to capitalize on what continues to make book fairs important and necessary events: the direct interaction of people. My hope is to bring together even more booksellers, and facilitate their interaction with local librarians (both public and collegiate), local literary societies, and with one another. An important element in a strong book trade is a strong literary community, and book fairs are an excellent way to bolster that community on a local level, and to form and foster relationships regionally and nationally.

Below are a few resources that should prove useful to those interested in learning more about attending or exhibiting at book fairs, including a link for the Rochester (NY) book fair, to be held Saturday, September 10.

Bookfairs.com
Antquarian Booksellers Association Of America Events Page
International League of Antiquarian Booksellers Events Page
Rochester Booksellers

Jonathan Smalter,
Yesterday’s Muse Books
32 W Main Street, Webster, NY 14580

Yesterday’s Muse Inc. is an independent used & rare bookseller located in Webster, NY. Owner Jonathan Smalter is a member of the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association of America (ABAA), and former vice president of the Independent Online Booksellers Association (IOBA), both of which are trade organizations created to promote ethical online selling practices, and to encourage continuing education among fellow booksellers. He is also a 2011 graduate of the Colorado Antiquarian Book Seminar (CABS). He has over fifteen years of experience in the book trade, during which time he has become adept at evaluating used and collectible books.

The Standard: The Journal of the Independent Online Booksellers Association

Check out the Independent Online Booksellers Association Website