Book Fairs: An Endangered Species?
A very nice affair
By Bruce McKinney
Two hours north of San Francisco, on a recent beautiful May day, John and Susie Hardy, for the 7th year hosted the Gold Rush Book Fair at the Nevada County Fairgrounds in Grass Valley. It was a trip well worth making. It was also a
melancholy adventure for it provided a measure of the drought that plagues the world of rare and collectible books these days. Those selling, 50 dealers in all, were mostly
from California with the occasional otherlander thrown in. They brought their best material, met many dedicated collectors and yet did not encounter the next generation of collectors. The day's visitors tended to be local and older. The show was publicized in various trade publications and exhibitors were encouraged to
circularize the show to their clienteles. Nevertheless, attendance was thin. It should not have been.
We filmed the proceedings and provide here high resolution, and
low resolution versions, and at the end of this 1,074 word article another set of film links.
The true believers came and were easily identified by their grey tending to white hair that ran in all directions from here to Sunday. They brought money for books, their combs at home safe for another occasion. Limps were visible as were a few walkers and portable seats. Many in the crowd knew the Second World War first hand, a
few Lincoln. It had the feeling of a reunion. Younger people collect books but apparently do not spend their Saturdays browsing book sellers' revival meetings. From what you saw at this fair you could believe there are no new collectors, but we know they're out there. We saw several thousand fledglings at the Anarchist's Book Fair in February and know they closely mirror the world of online book buyers. They are
typically in their 20s, buy books to read, reread the good ones, and save them all as adopted pets to be carried into middle age as talisman of broadening perspective. They buy books for their content, not their covers, the edition mattering not-at-all. Many of those purchasing at the Gold Rush fair mentioned they too were looking for "readable
content." It just wasn't what these sellers wanted to sell.
Those visitors who described themselves as collectors, to a person, said they buy online. They all mentioned Google as the search engine they use. Yahoo too came up a
few times. Amazon, Alibris, Abebooks and eBay came up as sites where they buy and AE Monthly was mentioned by fully half of those we spoke to. The last time  we did this show AE was a blip on the radar. The world is changing.
By a casual census the average age of visitors was north of 60. Many who attended were
enthusiastic but the enthusiasm was not contagious. Conversations with those attending
indicated real pleasure. You really can't make this stuff up. You feel it or you don't and those we spoke with had what the Righteous Brothers called "that lovin'
feeling." The feelings are genuine.
Book Fairs: An Endangered Species?
The list of participants
Younger collectors seem to be looking for something else these days, and for shows to survive they'll have to find a way to remix their formulas into something that accommodates both the aging hardcore and the new-ager. The next generation expects efficient searches, clarity and logical prices. They want material that appeals to them. They don't want to be told what to collect nor be lead in directions. They simply want to be told how to collect. They'll take it from there and when the
stars align buy. For them it isn't that they "lost that lovin' feeling." It isn't that, "it's gone, gone, gone." They simply haven't found it yet, but will. No doubt every aging generation shakes their collective heads at the bull-headed upstart next generation and I suspect Thomas Streeter thought the same about his son Frank whose collection recently set dozens of auction records.
What's disconcerting today is that the next generation is now buying in different
places. The opportunity for older dealers and collectors to mix it up with emerging collectors is quickly diminishing and that may have negative consequences for both generations. The orderly transfer of material and information is disrupted and both sides lose something.
Bill Ewald, a Sacramento dealer, made interesting comments that point to some of the problems, if not the solutions, for such fairs. He mentioned that just as the internet has intensified collector focus so too it has deepened dealer emphasis. Years ago he found it appropriate to be broad but today is more narrowly focused on valuable, rare
and important material that is unlikely to be found elsewhere. Hence, for the collector whose interests overlap a dealer's focus the fit can be spectacular but if their interests fall outside the dealer's emphasis there may be little for them. Bill, who has promoted a show in Sacramento for many years, speaks from experience when he says "Success is what brings them back." But with both collector and dealer focus
narrowing this is more difficult to accomplish.
John Hardy, the show's producer told us that though attendance was off, "in dollar terms, this was the second most successful show for Hardy Books. Most of the Western Americana dealers had a very successful show, again in dollar terms. Most of the high end sales came from special collections buyers and veteran, well-known collectors. On the whole, it was a knowledgeable group which bought specialized and unique material.
The gate was down but the right folks showed up."
So at this show younger collectors never arrived though their shadow was ever present. Traditional, older collectors carried the day making it successful but cautionary. Book fairs are falling victim to declining attendance as younger collectors find innovative ways to locate material online. It isn't that the material is less interesting. It's only that the alternatives for finding it have increased. For this fair and many others the challenge is to find a role in the changing marketplace.
So the shadow of the next generation of collectors was ever present and it diminished what is and ought to be a wonderful opportunity for people who have never met to find, in their common interests, an emotionally satisfying common ground.
Here are links to a 9 minute movie created from footage shot at the fair:
high resolution, and
low resolution versions.
It takes about 30 seconds to download a buffer before the film starts.