I recently received a review copy of Fairs, Markets and the Itinerant Book Trade (various editors and authors), hot off the Oak Knoll Press, those heroes of books about bookselling. It is based on papers given at the 27th annual conference on book trade history, and covers such diverse topics as the rise and fall of the early German fairs; itinerant booksellers, printers, and peddlers in Sixteenth-Century Spain and Portugal; the legal entanglements and Italian-French-Spanish book trade insights occasioned by the 1586 street murder of prominent publisher Symphorien Beraud; rural East Anglia and urban Netherlands distribution channels; Scottish chapmen; and London street booksellers in the period 1690-1850. In the end, this is really a labor history, though the writers clearly embrace the subject of bookselling more than most labor historians would feel akin to, say, fish mongering, or some other early trade.
The tenuous thread of bookselling history recedes into the mists of time. The earliest references here are to the early modern era, where Latin works were brought to market at such internationally convenient gatherings as the Frankfurt fair. Eventually, colorful traveling merchants kept more popular printed material on hand for the edification of country folk. Books were carefully chosen due to the weight factor, and their main stock often consisted of more ephemeral leaflets, newsletters, pamphlets, songbooks, ballads, lurid broadsides, almanacs, prognostications, catchpenny prints, jest books, lampoons, nominas, and chapbooks. Street selling in towns and cities took on a variety of forms. There is a lengthy discussion of bookstalls, as opposed to barrows or mere boards on the ground, though all were hopeful stepping stones to the established shop. Hawkers would often gather a crowd by telling stories or singing from their texts, which were then sold on the spot. Itinerant peddlers and lowly street vendors, often blind or disabled, naturally left very little historical record. Finally, bookselling was a constantly evolving vocation, subject to a great number of natural and regulatory market forces, not the least of which was the law of supply and demand.
Fairs, Markets and the Itinerant Book Trade, edited by Robin Myers, Michael Harris and Giles Mandelbrote. New Castle, DE: Oak Knoll Press, 2007.
The little we know of these early practices and networks comes down largely in the form of legal records. Inquisition-style religious intolerance, Old Bailey transcripts, and a myriad of minor disputes and proceedings have added to our understanding of an otherwise transitory means of existence. Researchers are also aided by early market registers, handbills, lists, guild minutes, tax data, licenses, correspondence, accounts, reminiscences, and the occasional engraving. Booksellers were centuries ahead of other trades in the development of trust and credit, and in the use of printed catalogs.
Details emerge from these sources. In 1488 printer-publishers accounted for one-twelfth of the rental income for stalls at the Frankfurt fair. At one point there were 31 tolls on the Rhine just between Basle and Cologne, and it is calculated that such transportation costs added about a quarter to the price of the goods. Sigmund Feyerabend’s records for the years 1590-1597 shows he had around 350 customers from 110 different locations, 10-15% of these being individual readers not in the trade. Foreign imports at the Frankfurt fair declined from 39% down to 0.3% between the 1560s and 1710. A carrier is waylaid outside of Wimpfen and broken barrels of books thought to contain greater riches were ruined by a heavy rain (“There went my profit.”). There is even some speculation on the origin of double entry bookkeeping. An unspoken theme throughout this work is the trial and error of pioneer booksellers, often working under difficult and unstable conditions, that paved the way for us today (not to say that difficulty and instability have been eradicated).
Anyway, I read this on the train to Manhattan on May 30, where the boys caught a rock concert at the Garden and the girls a Broadway play. Meandering along endless blocks, I observed modern street booksellers representative of those who came before. One sharp fellow was selling Curious George reprints off a folding table at two for $5, while another on her last legs guarded a hopeless sheet of crappy paperbacks. The weekend fleas resemble ancient fairs, and Book Rows have been springing up for millennia. This connection to the past is somehow reassuring in the middle of the internet revolution. I also dropped into Bauman Rare Books for a look at the pinnacle of the commercial aspect, and from there into the Grolier Club, which exists solely for the deep appreciation of the printed word. (Check out their current miniature books exhibit before the end of July if you have a chance.) We passed through the Diamond District on the way—also built on the backs of those who came before—where the pecking order and trading is even more intense, but what a cold and facetless commodity when compared to the beauty and mission of books.
The electronic Standard arrayed in front of you includes a discussion of professional book appraising; an elegant interview with a modern old school bookseller who has been plying his trade since the 1940s; and a Perlman book trip to the Joe-Me state. There’s an ephemeral assay on fair of face postcards. Laura Smith tools over to Book Expo America; and Chris Volk presents the second installment (Alibris) in her series on search service Pros and Cons. There are Bookseller Profiles from PA, CO and CA; and there wasn’t much flotsam for the Addenda section so it’s mostly jetsam this time.
October, then, for the next issue. Have a nice summer.
IOBA Standard, Summer Edition 2007, Volume 8, No. 3.