Shows: A Thousand Uneasy Pieces
The show at Santa Monica was quiet.
By Bruce McKinney
In Southern California, over the weekend of September 9th and 10th, The Santa Monica Book, Print,
Photo & Paper Fair sought to welcome, under a single banner, collectors of various persuasions.
Books of all types, ephemera, images and manuscripts were on display. The following weekend, the
Thirteenth Annual Antiquarian Book Fair was staged in Sacramento. This month the 2006 Seattle
Antiquarian Book Fair & Book Arts Show will be held on the 1962 Seattle World's Fair grounds on the
14th and 15th. The fall west coast show season is underway. Shows are an integral and important
aspect of the book business and their performance mirrors the changes and upheaval in the world of
In Santa Monica the show, with 82 participants, was promoted by Bustamante Enterprises who have
successfully staged collector events for years and as recently as June staged a successful Antiques
fair at Pasadena. This effort however fell short of many participating dealers' expectations for
sales and traffic. Reasons are difficult to gauge. The venue was good and the parking plentiful.
Even to out-of-towners the site was easy to find.
Many dealers, even if disappointed, have a sanguine view as shows are hardly the only sales channel
that has been increasingly difficult in recent years. Every aspect of the business, from finding
attractive material to connecting with motivated buyers, has become more challenging. Ken
Karmiole, an experienced generalist who exhibited successfully, explained it this way. "At shows I
hope to meet new customers but I expect to make most of my sales to other dealers whose clients
will want my material." John Howell, a new comer, had a tougher time and explained it this way.
"I've worked for other dealers and worked their booths in past years. This year I'm on my own.
Saturday was quiet so on Sunday I adjusted my prices and closed enough deals with dealers to pay
the tuition on my ongoing dealer education."
In Sacramento the following Saturday Bill Ewald staged The Thirteenth Annual Sacramento Antiquarian
Book Fair as a one day event September 16th. This show had a much more upbeat feel. Fifty
dealers, selling material of every description, found happiness while making show visitors
genuinely pleased. The show had a more blue collar feel than Santa Monica but the material and
prices offered was a good fit with the receptive audience. Four hundred and ninety-four admissions
At this fair AE conducted an exit survey of 30 random buyers who agreed to spend a few minutes
talking about this show, their motivation for attending, and their approach to collecting. What we
learned is worth discussing.
If dealers are frustrated in their efforts to find buyers they are not alone. Collectors feel
exactly the same way. More than half those surveyed said they attended prior incarnations of this
fair and indicated they were prompted about this year's fair by the promoter's postcard mailing.
About 25% said they learned of the fair in the Sacramento Bee, the local daily newspaper. A few
said they saw an advertisement that day and came over for a look.
Shows: A Thousand Uneasy Pieces
The Sacramento Fair was busy all day.
The person who traveled the longest distance came from Miami but it's not certain this was his only
purpose for visiting. Someone from LA actually came up for the show and the distance, per their
odometer, was 541 miles. They kept track. Everyone else lived within 40 miles and a surprising
number within 5. This seemed to suggest that, at least in the Sacramento area, there are many
motivated collectors. Getting their attention though is a challenge.
All participants of course indicated they attend shows and on the average 2 to 3 a year. They all
said they would attend more but couldn't find them. No one volunteered anything about what they
purchased but the average was 2 to 3 items and almost everyone bought several things. A few seemed
to labor under their weight.
They commented that some of the dealers' material were neither labeled nor categorized and they
resented the time wasted looking for the proverbial needle in the haystack. Most dealers were well
organized and visitors favored them. Everyone wanted to use their time efficiently. The typical
visit was two and half hours and many stayed longer than planned.
We asked where else they buy and a solid 40% said eBay. Those in this group were noticeably proud.
They view eBay as a more sophisticated form of buying. To a one they visit bookstores and like
to do so. Abe was the most frequently mentioned online source. Amazon and Alibris were also
mentioned several times. We asked about Choosebooks, ABAA-ILAB, Tom Folio and left space for
others. Few of these show attendees had more than a passing awareness of these other buying
alternatives and most consult only one online source. Their assumption is that they generally have
the same material.
As to collecting resources they use few. They generally view their collecting as a spur of the
moment pursuit. I think perhaps 20% felt they were making investments but for most it was strictly
fun and not entirely financially foolish.
For most the show was very satisfactory. To the question "if you could change one thing about the
show what would it be, the most common answer was "nothing" and the second "turn up the lighting."
The average age of respondents was an estimated 62, the youngest 35 and the most senior almost 80.
Women comprised 35% of respondents.
In October we'll survey the exiting audience at the Seattle Fair. This is a two day affair that
has in years past attracted serious buyers and sellers and is expected to do so again.
At each of these events exhibitors brought or bring the hope of finding customers and making sales
and they will continue to exhibit even in the face of uneven show performance because there are no
other more effective ways to meet local audiences. In the year ahead on AE we'll be focusing on
show performance and we'll offer some ways to both build attendance and sales. The audience is out
there. The challenge is to connect them with them.