The 28th Annual Boston International Antiquarian Book Fair, November 19-21, 2004, Hynes Convention Center, Boston, MA On Saturday, November 20, 2004 I attended my first antiquarian book fair. As a voracious reader, compulsive collector, and fledgling online bookseller, with dreams of my own “Bricks and Mortar” store, I was excited to be attending. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but I didn’t expect to become a 5-year-old again! I bought my ticket, entered the hall, and stopped, stunned. I stood there for several minutes just to get my bearings. I saw row upon row of treasures to explore, voices of booksellers and buyers, people who understood the magical feeling I was having at that moment. I was overwhelmed, to say the least.
I knew I would be writing this article, so I decided to take a quick walk around the perimeter first, just to get a feel for how the booths were set up. I had already gone through the exhibitor list and circled the names of booksellers who specialized in my particular interests, namely, children’s books, illustrated books, beat generation, and poetry. I had a goal – this article – and a plan. I arrived at 12:00, which gave me an hour to browse before attending the first of three seminars being offered that day. Two hours later, I emerged from only the fourth booth, dazed and bedazzled. Needless to say, I missed the seminar.
The book fair was held in conjunction with the 6th Annual New England Print Fair, which featured nine exhibitors adjacent to the book fair and printmaking demonstrations throughout the weekend. I can’t say much about the Print Fair, because despite my best intentions, I only had a chance to pass quickly through on my way to the second seminar of the day.
The scheduled events that day were as follows:
1:00 pm: The Art of Bookbinding presented by North Bennett Street School.
2:00-4:00 pm: Nicholas Basbanes Book Signing for his new book, A Splendor of Letters.
2:30 pm: How to Shop a Book Fair: An Insider’s View presented by John Schulman of Pittsburgh’s Caliban Books, Ann and David Bromer of Boston’s Bromer Booksellers, and Jeffrey Marks of Jeffrey H. Marks Rare Books in Rochester, NY.
4:00 pm: The World’s Most Beautiful Papers presented by Sidney Berger, Professor at Simmons College.
The How to Shop a Book Fair seminar was presented as a panel discussion, then opened up for a question and answer period.
The first speaker was John Schulman from Caliban Book Shop. He opened with an opinion that book fairs seem to be dying out for a couple of reasons:
Middle-class collectors, who generally purchase books priced under $500, are spending their book budget online; and
Collectors aren’t attending like they used to because they assume all of the vendors’ books are listed online anyway.
The panel agreed that not everything is online, nor is every bookseller. Some don’t use computers at all.
Other good reasons to attend a book fair:
The approach is different from shopping online. Online buyers are typically searching for something specific and are not as likely to discover the unexpected books you find browsing at book fairs.
The ability to begin establishing relationships with dealers who can help you find what you are looking for or call you when something you might like comes in.
He also suggested some points of book fair etiquette, which may seem like common sense to a seasoned book fair attendee, but I found useful as a newcomer.
Stand in the middle of a dealer’s booth and have a conversation. (I actually saw this happening, and there were probably items I didn’t see simply because I couldn’t get in to have a look.)
Ask for a discount. Most dealers price at what they expect to sell the item for, and you don’t want to get off on the wrong foot.
Put an item on hold unless you plan to buy it.
Leave the item on the shelf if you do plan to buy it. It may not be there when you return!
finally, he addressed the question: “How do you know if an item is priced reasonably?” He suggested Collected Books by Allen Ahearn and Patricia Ahearn, other price guides, and the Internet:Bookfinder and Addall were suggested sites. Additionally, ABAA (Antiquarian Booksellers Association of America) sponsored fairs feature dealers committed to their strict ethics code.Next, Ann and David Bromer of Boston’s Bromer Booksellers, seated at opposite ends of the table, demonstrated one of their tips for shopping a book fair: walkie-talkies. David’s approach is to walk up and down each aisle so he can see everything, while Ann takes a quick walk around the entire fair to see which booksellers are there and get “into the rhythm and revved up”. She tends to check out items in the glass cases first. Then, if she sees something she likes, she calls David on the walkie-talkie.
While I intended to use Ann’s approach when I arrived, I ended up using David’s approach which is my natural inclination and, like gravity, cannot be defied.
The Bromers contributed their thoughts on why one should attend book fairs:
There are unique and unusual books that you just won’t find online.
There is nothing like the hands-on experience – the true beauty of many books just can’t be reproduced online.
With 100 or more dealers, you have the ability to compare multiple copies of the same book and get a feel for how different dealers price.
Not all Internet sites have photographs of the books, and descriptions are not always detailed. At a book fair, you can pick up the book and examine it yourself.
A couple of the questions posed during the Q&A portion:
Q: How do dealers decide what to bring? A: Some dealers bring their most recent acquisitions or what they think will sell based on their experience, but it can be hard to forecast. Ann Bromer suggested that dealers bring items that have the title on the spine.
Q: Do dealers price differently at book fairs vs. online? Would a dealer have two prices for the same book – a book fair price and an online price? A: The panel agreed that this was unlikely. The books they bring to the fair are some of their best items and may not be listed online. If there was a difference, the price would probably be lower at the book fair, for example if an item is not selling the price may be reduced as the dealer contemplates boxing everything up and carting it home or back to the shop.
Jeffrey Marks of Jeffrey H. Marks Rare Books provided another key piece of advice: for the best chance of finding what you are looking for at a book fair, contact dealers in advance (their e-mail and mailing addresses and telephone numbers are usually listed on the exhibitors list) and let them know if you collect a specific type of book. He also provided the following anecdote:
“Many years ago, at a New Hampshire book fair, I was in my booth when a man walked up and began a long and impassioned lament about a book from his childhood that he had been trying to replace for what sounded like most of his adult life. One was meant to get the impression that this book would be the making, if not the saving, of that life. I happened to have the book there, and took it off the shelf. When I handed it to him, he, after glancing at it for no more than a second, and without opening it to learn the price, returned it to me, saying, I guess I’m still at the stage where I’m just looking for it.”
This is where I noticed something unexpected. I don’t know if this is the case at other book fairs, but when a book was purchased it was placed in a bag and the bag was then sealed closed with a neon-colored sticker that said “SOLD”. Then the name of the bookseller, booth number, and number of items was written on the label. This label was then checked each time one entered or exited the exhibit hall. I didn’t wear a coat, but I did notice that there was a free, but mandatory, coat check.
After the book signing I allowed myself to wander and explore. There seemed to be a good mix of titles and price ranges. There were maps, broadsides, prints, and autographs as well. As a collector, I found some interesting items. One bookseller had a copy of an 1894 octavo editionRubaiyat of Omar Khayyam translated by Edward Fitzgerald with drawings by Elihu Vedder (Houghton Mifflin), which I happen to have a copy of that I picked up for $4.50 at a library sale years ago simply because it was beautiful. I believe it was priced around $350. After that, I started noticing many beautifully illustrated editions of this title. I realized that I, myself, have more than one edition and could make a collection of this one title alone. Another tempting item was a broadside hand-colored by poet Kenneth Patchen, who I absolutely love. I must admit, that I didn’t know what a broadside was until now. I would have called it a “print”. So, I learned something!
On day two, I revisited one of the four booths I had been immersed in the first day. At McIntyre and Moore Booksellers I stood outside a moment trying to remember why I wanted to revisit the booth. I had written the reason on the back of their business card as a reminder, but I didn’t bring it with me. When the seller asked if he could help me, I explained that there was a reason I returned to the booth but couldn’t remember what it was. He said, “To buy a book, I hope!” I entered the booth and then remembered: they had some interesting math and physics books. I recently acquired a collection of these and was interested to see how they were priced. As I browsed the booth I came across the most unlikely title – one I had been searching for since I read it in the 5th grade! I remembered the anecdote about the collector who was “still at the stage where I’m just looking for it.” Not me! I purchased a first edition of Joan G. Robinson’s When Marnie Was There for $30. This is a prime example of a good reason to attend a book fair. I didn’t find this book online. It was waiting for me among math, physics, and occult books in Boston. As the book fair was nearing the end, I was determined to actually speak to some booksellers. I am not normally at a loss for words – I have spoken at IT conferences and was VP of membership in my Toastmaster’s club – but I felt tongue-tied for some reason.
On the plus side, I accidentally discovered my digital camera’s movie mode when attempting to photograph Mr. Harrington’s booth. (No wonder the flash wouldn’t go off!) I have a lovely 30-second film of books sitting on a shelf, which I did manage to convert to images.
I would like to thank John Schulman of Caliban books for responding to my e-mail request for the name of Jeffrey Marks since he wasn’t listed as a panelist for the “How to Shop a Book Fair” seminar, and also Jeffrey Marks for e-mailing me the story he told during the seminar.
I thoroughly enjoyed the Boston Book Fair, although I think I could have spent a week there. I learned a lot, met a wonderful author, friendly booksellers, and found a favorite childhood book. What more could I ask for?
Lynn Naylor operates Magical Readers Books at http://www.magicalreadersbooks.com and specializes in children’s books.