We used to do about three or four book fairs annually, years ago when we had shops first in Somerville and then in Wellesley, Massachusetts. Since our move to Deerfield in the western part of the state, however, the allure of fairs has somehow diminished — as we grow increasingly busy adding inventory to our own (now much larger) store’s shelves, managing our online sales, and taking care of all the other details of running a book business full-time, we find that book fairs, though interesting enough events for exploring and schmoozing (and, of course, buying!) are becoming less appealing for us as exhibitors. We have, we’ve decided, quite enough on our plate as it is without doing several book fairs every year on top of it.
Of course, we do hear rumors and reports from book dealer friends who continue to exhibit at a variety of fairs. We hear gossip at the fairs themselves, and in our shop in the aftermath of fairs. And many of these reports are, I’m afraid, rather negative. We’ve heard dealers talk about the steady erosion of sales, the tire-kicking, the shrinking attendance of buyers and the concomitant falling off in the number of exhibitors. Not true of all fairs, to be sure (the ABAA fairs will, of course, always be the one plus ultra of Book Fair as Must-See-Shindig), and not everyone agrees that the smaller fairs are going downhill — I’ve spoken to more than a few booksellers who remain steadfastly optimistic about the viability of these fairs both now and in the future. Still — we have, as I say, heard things. One fellow gripes that whereas he used to count on a take of at least a few thousand dollars from just about any of the fairs at which he exhibited, now he’s often lucky to get his booth rental fee back. Another fellow reports indignantly that the number of dealers exhibiting at a particular fair was down to fewer than ten; the result, a fair so scantily stocked as to be downright embarrassing, was of course a thorough disappointment both to the dealers and to those stalwart customers who did manage to attend.
We also hear theories, lots and lots of theories (one thing booksellers love to do is theorize!). There is the Theory of the Internet Switcheroo, which has to do with tire-kickers taking notes of books they’re interested in at the fair, then searching for them in what they hope to be the greener, cheaper pastures of half.com or eBay. This is a theory not without merit — I’ve seen these folks myself, assiduously taking notes or clicking info into their PDAs. Whether they really do find equivalent books on the cheap is, however, up for debate. Another theory is the Theory of the Aging Bookbuyer, which contends that the serious book-buying public (or at any rate, the Serious Collector) is aging rapidly and there are few young collectors following on their heels. One fair I went to last year seemed a veritable roundtable for the exhibiting dealers to discuss this theory. “Youngest guy who came to this fair was as old as I am!” declared one silver-haired, dapper yet decidedly elderly gentleman. Another, surrounded by his stock of 1930s children’s memorabilia, concurred. “They’re dyin’ off,” he rasped. “Except for them Stephen King collectors,” added another. “Oh, them – they’re gettin’ old too,” claimed the first gentleman. “That King fella has been poppin’ em out for thirty years now!” Add to these complaints and theories the sheer physical labor involved in “doing a fair” — a process of selecting, packing, loading, parking, unpacking, setting up, re-packing, re-loading, and once more unpacking (not to mention the fact that often all this labor is for a fair in which one’s selling/spieling time is no more than a few hours during set-up and a few more hours when the fair is actually open to the public) and we can see how for some the book fair has become something of a relic, or at least an arduous task that just ain’t worth it anymore. Many folks are at the point of swearing off fairs altogether. We, however, are not exactly in this camp.
Aside from our continuing pleasure in attending fairs hither and yon, there’s also one fair where we still enjoy exhibiting. This is the Massachusetts and Rhode Island Booksellers Fall Fair held in Springfield, Mass. We do it because it’s close, because it’s more easy-going and fun than a lot of other fairs, because we know many of the other booksellers exhibiting, because MARIAB is a fine organization that deserves our support, and because we regard this MARIAB fair as an excellent advertisement for our shop and for MARIAB booksellers in general. And, because this is one fair where we can always find things to buy!
2003 marked the third year that MARIAB’s Fall Fair has been held in Springfield. We’d enjoyed exhibiting the first two years at this venue, and hoped that this year would mark a rise in interest and attendance. Of course, it always takes some time for word to get out about a newish event and for the show to “settle in” to its location. We knew that the show’s promoters planned an expanded advertising campaign, and we did our own bit by talking up the show in the weeks leading up to the occasion.
So how did it go? Well, for us it went fine. Using our usual strategy, we brought a range of material varying widely in subject and price — a small but sufficiently representative selection of books from our eclectic shop. Since we have a fairly large open shop with a lot of different subject areas, we may do things a bit differently than a specialist dealer who brings to his booth only his choicest (and priciest) material. In our case, we think it’s important to let folks know that we have unusual and interesting books in many fields, and that we offer books in all price ranges, too. This time we had everything from a mortuary monument dealer’s catalogue from the turn of the century to several newly acquired, fairly recent books on African Art to some low-priced books by authors we’re particularly fond of to Bronson’s magnificent four volume set detailing the traditional tunes of the Child Ballads. While Judith held the fort in the South Deerfield shop, Ken had fun at the fair. Attendance did indeed seem to be up a bit from the previous year, and there were about as many dealers exhibiting their wares as in the past two years. Ken spread the Meetinghouse Books word by handing out flyers and bookmarks and by chatting with both dealers and collectors, making some new contacts as well as reacquainting himself with old friends and colleagues. He also found a few items to buy. At the end of the fair Meetinghouse Books showed a tidy profit. It is interesting to note that more than half of our sales were to other dealers. Still, the “civilian” customers were quite enthusiastic even though they may have lagged behind a bit in actual buying.
The fallout from a book fair is sometimes its most interesting and valuable facet. In the few weeks since the fair, we’ve had customers come into the shop waving the flyer (complete with directions to our shop) they received at our booth. “Never knew you were here,” they say, “but we enjoyed your display and we appreciate your attitude. Like your books too.”
So, to sum things up, we believe that how a book dealer experiences any book fair has a great deal to do with what he brings to it – in expectations as well as in merchandise. In our case, we reckoned that the best way to make a profit at this particular fair was to bring a user-friendly variety of books. We further reckoned that a lot of the benefit we’d get from the fair would be in good will, word-of-mouth, and publicity – which would not be immediately apparent, perhaps, but is extremely important in continuing to build our business.
There were, as usual, varying responses from other dealers at the fair. For some, it was the “best MARIAB fair ever” and for others it merely confirmed their gloomy predictions of a depressing and inevitable downhill trend. As for us, we probably will continue our current plan of doing this one fair each year. It’s a damn fine fair, and it suits us.
Judith Tingley & Ken Haverly, Meetinghouse Books email@example.com