I generally try to avoid saying anything nice about Los Angeles, but every so often the ole town will elicit a begrudging compliment from my lips. The weekend of February 1st – 3rd was one such occasion.
For an all-to-brief weekend, Los Angeles became the center of the rare book universe, hosting the 35th California International Antiquarian Book Fair. As it did two years ago, the fair occupied the entire bottom floor of the Los Angeles Airport Marriott, and featured some 250 dealers from every corner of the globe. All the dealers in attendance were members of the prestigious ABAA and, as might be expected, the books on display represented some of the finest and rarest titles available, books that many of us might only see in a dealer’s or auctioneer’s catalog.
By the time I arrived some 45 minutes into the day’s festivities, the place was already bustling with activity; browsers flitting from booth to booth, customers lovingly leafing through their impending purchases, dealers chatting with each other and catching up on the latest news and gossip.
As is my usual practice at book fairs, I made an initial circle of the exhibition floor, soaking up the general ambience, luxuriating in the presence of so many beautiful and important examples of the printed word. Two years ago, my initial lap around the perimeter revealed an abundance of Harry Potter material prominently displayed (and accordingly priced). This year, however, I immediately noticed that the pint-sized warlock had been supplanted to a large degree by Frodo, Gandalf and the rest of Tolkien’s beloved band of adventurers. The buzz created by the The Lord of the Rings movie has apparently increased the demand for quality Tolkien items; I spied a fine first edition of The Hobbit priced at $150,000.
Having completed my initial perambulations, I made a beeline for the nearest booth, and immediately started to drool. My area of specialization is the American Revolution, and at the booth of Joseph J. Felcone, I spotted two beautiful items.
One was a lovely first edition of British Lt. Colonel Banastre (The Butcher of the Carolinas) Tarleton’s A History of the Campaigns of 1780 and 1781, in the Southern Provinces of North America. Unfortunately, with an asking price of $5000, my wallet was light by about $4990, and I had to pass.
Felcones booth also had a wonderful 1777 broadside announcing Sir William Howes new strict regulations on traffic into the port of occupied New York. As I was peering through the glass, another browser bowed down to take a look. It wasn’t until I stood up and glanced at my similarly-intrigued neighbor that I realized he was actor Ricky Jay (most recently seen playing opposite Gene Hackman in David Mamet’s The Heist. Just another L.A. moment to add to my repertoire.
Having only attended book fairs as a browser, I was curious about the perspective from the other side of the display case. Along one wall of the exhibition room, I recognized the name of a dealer from whom I recently purchased a book, so I thought I’d introduce myself and get some impressions on book fairs from a dealer’s point of view.
Eric Waschke of The Wayfarers Bookshop has attended up to 30 book fairs in one year, although this year, he plans on attending around 15. Book fairs are an important facet of Wayfarer’s business and, along with mail order sales to regular customers, make up the majority of the shop’s business (by contrast, online purchases account for less than 10% of sales).
Waschke has found that the quality of material offered for sale is a key aspect of book fair success; the better the material, the better the sales. And, as the quality of his stock has steadily improved, he’s also found that He’s able to focus on larger book fairs, eliminating the need to travel as much as in the past.
I also stopped to chat with Nicholas Potter, a bookseller from Santa Fe, New Mexico. For Nicholas, book fairs play a less prominent but nonetheless important role. He travels to only 2 or 3 fairs a year (usually the large New York and California ABAA fairs). Potter runs an open shop in Santa Fe, and fairs in the larger cities offer him an opportunity to plug into the areas’ larger economies, and to find ready buyers for more expensive items that may not sell as quickly (or at all) in a smaller city. Potter tries to bring select stock in a variety of subjects to book fairs; he knows many dealers prefer to focus on a specialty subject (case in point, one dealer at the fair specialized in items by or related to Winston Churchill), but Potter finds that titles in a variety of subjects usually attract a wider variety of buyers and result in greater sales.
Potter notes that he usually doesn’t buy much for resale at book fairs; even New Mexico material that might sell well at home is generally priced at levels which wouldn’t allow profitable resale back in Santa Fe.
After leaving Potter’s booth, I paused to snap a few pictures. In my viewfinder, I noticed a small crowd clustered around a particular booth. I should have known from the warm smiles and laughter that I had stumbled onto the booth of Pat and Allen Ahearn, owners of Quill and Brush and fellow IOBA members.
I had traded a couple of emails with Pat before, and I was glad to have the opportunity to meet her in person. For those of you who haven’t had the pleasure of meeting the Ahearns, theyre a wonderfully gracious and engaging pair who obviously love each other and the business of bookselling.
I asked Pat what she valued most about attending book fairs, and without any hesitation, she cited the opportunity for personal, face-to-face contact with customers and fellow dealers. Many booksellers are spending more and more time behind their computer terminals, in relative isolation and anonymity. Pat feels that book fairs provide an ideal opportunity for book dealers to socialize and network (a phenomena I’d had plenty of opportunity to observe as I wandered around the fair).
Another IOBA member exhibiting at the fair, Vic Zoschak from Tavistock Books, echoed Pat’s observations. While recognizing the economic impetus for attending book fairs, Vic also stressed the importance of the networking and socializing opportunities book fairs provide, particularly with customers. As Vic put it, it’s important to take the opportunity to personalize your relationship with a customer; it may not only help you make the current sale, but numerous future sales as well. Indeed, during our chat, Vic excused himself several times to converse with several familiar customers, and it was obvious they appreciated the recognition and personal attention.
After talking with Vic, I spent a couple more hours wandering around the stalls, poking through dealers’ book offerings and a rather eclectic mix of ephemera; the strangest item I saw was a $3750 set of 60 artificial glass eyes manufactured in France in the 1860s. Being a firm believer in an ordered, balanced universe, I’m certain that somewhere in the world, an exhibitor at an ophthalmology convention was displaying a first edition Hemingway and drawing similarly curious stares.
When I finally departed the fair, my pockets were laden with dealer catalogs, and my arms were encumbered by my single purchase, a lovely Heritage Press set of Biddle’s Lewis and Clark journals (Gen. Howe’s broadside will just have to wait until next time). All in all, it was an extremely enjoyable, rewarding and educational day.