Book Fairs: Lights, Camera, Action
3 generations, no one under 40
By Bruce McKinney
On two successive recent weekends, first in San Francisco and then LA, the San Francisco Book, Manuscript and Ephemera Fair and then the ABAA annual west coast Book Fair offered California book collectors a chance to buy interesting and collectible printed material. For the serious collector it was the venti-double-cappichino of show me, tempt me, sell me and for dealers a double hand of "dare" to invest to be present. As in poker, you have to ante up to play. Between the two shows almost 360 dealers exhibited, about 40 of them at both fairs.
The traffic at both shows was acceptable if not consistently strong and for most dealers the investment paid off. Randomly some dealers did exceptionally well and as randomly some were disappointed. As often happens the alchemy of shows is a brew of material brought, buyers attending, floor chemistry and national sentiment. The book business has always been more a souffle than a cakemix. When emotions are positive, books and collectibles generally sell well. When they are not watch out.
The San Francisco fair was held at the Concourse at 7th and Brannon, an aging building designed for railcar repair and maintenance that became a convention center in the 1970s, an era when trust was the rule, not the exception, so the building's perimeter is a series of doors. These days most are sealed. The cow barn ceiling may once have seemed a 7th wonder, today it's city-rustic: the place a "tweener", that book not yet old and valuable but no longer new. But never mind, no one comes here to buy the real estate. They are here to trade dollars for works on paper. For exhibitors it's the chance to sell; for collectors the opportunity to acquire. It is very large and organizer Walter Larsen sets booth rents low by closing off the 8th Street side to minimize access, security and manpower issues. Booth rents come in at and under $500, an attractive price that entices more than 200 exhibitors to rent every square inch. Mr. Larsen has told me he focuses on efficient shows and delivers.
When the lights come on Saturday morning February 10 attendance is comfortable, the audience interested if not zealous. Compared to the ABAA Fair to follow, the mix of material is eclectic, books more in the middle price range with plenty of posters, ephemera and collectibles. There will be no hard numbers for total sales and average transaction by vendor for either show but anecdotal comments later suggest mild disappointment in San Francisco, a sentiment that carries over to LA the next weekend. Both shows will succeed but LA will do better although it's unclear what participants net after expenses. If there are any calls home to say "I won the lottery" it will be buyers more than sellers making the calls.
Forty exhibitors in San Francisco also exhibit in LA and the same material, in the two settings, has a remarkably different feel. In San Francisco bluejeans and sneakers feel right in the unheated air and cement floor in a space large enough to dock the Graph Zepplin. In LA, Gucci loafers, Dolce & Gabbana sports jackets and Cartier watches are more appropriate. The Los Angeles Hyatt Regency Century Plaza on Avenue of the Stars, the show site and resting place for most out-of-town participants, provides an elegant setting that makes both booksellers and book buyers feel they are, at least for a few days, part of a special universe of the highly intelligent, the mensa of books afficienados. Dealers who do both shows later indicate they do better in LA although they don't necessarily do well at either event. In hindsight the local fair is blue collar, the LA fair white glove.
Book Fairs: Lights, Camera, Action
SF: Not fancy, just functional
In LA, ensconced in the Hyatt lobby, I spend Saturday morning talking to participants.
I speak with Manfred Nosbusch of Euskirchen-Kuchenheim, Germany, in town with ILAB. He's been a dealer for more than twenty years and is exhibiting at the show. I ask him how it's going. He says the collector traffic is slow and turns his thumb down as he speaks. For him the shows are about selling. For others they are about buying. After LA he'll exhibit next in Japan and is looking forward to Paris in the spring. I ask him whether he issues catalogues and he says "not in five years." He knows collectors want them but finds no time to do this. He would and perhaps once again will as and if the time and opportunity present themselves. As to volatile exchange rates, something I've wondered about for the European dealers, he hasn't felt a significant impact. Most of the booksellers in this show hail from California. He comes from around the world, will soon be exhibiting in Japan, paying for his dinner in Yen and not long after exhibiting in Paris with the Eiffel Tower as backdrop to a tourist photo if he chooses. In the book business this is about as good as it gets.
Next I spend an hour with Vince Golden of the American Antiquarian Society to talk about sources, perspectives and relationships. He is in pursuit of single copies and complete runs of early newspapers on behalf of the Society. Neither he nor I quite know where their accumulation will lead but I understand the pursuit. This material is emerging and the Society is after it. The AAS is one of half a dozen deeply influential institutions in the field in the United States and the Society's presence at ABAA fairs is an implied endorsement of the quality and prices offered. I expect the association is generous in turn. They have a symbiotic relationship.
I have brought with me, to discuss with him, a unique copy of three short but complete runs of 1830s Massachusetts newspapers and today seek his opinion about it. To PBS' request for suggestions for their sleuthing series a week earlier I proposed they consider unearthing the history of these apparently never recorded newspapers that were edited by M.F. Whittier and contain the poems and prose of his brother, John Greenleaf Whittier. He will speak to PBS about them if called.
It's now almost 1:00 pm and I haven't been into the show yet. There has been a steady flow of visitors all morning. Now it's my chance. The show is downstairs in a series of elegant open spaces that comfortably accommodate 180 dealers. The temperature and lighting are a-la-Hollywood – perfect, the spacing and depth of the booths comfortable. As if on cue, Bill O'Reilly in a Fox News jacket walks by. He doesn't ask for my autograph so I don't ask for his. He seems to be looking more at images than books. I'm also told John Larracette has been browsing.
I spend the afternoon speaking mostly to members. When a customer makes eye contact with the dealer I slip away. Every prospect and minute is precious. The pace can seem to slow and as quickly recover. The visitors are better dressed, more upscale than their San Francisco cousins, the books they discuss more expensive. Jenny notices that some dealers are preparing invoices and others wrapping material for pick-up, a good sign. For some the show will be fine. And it will continue into the afternoon on Sunday so there is both continuing opportunity and time.
If it turns out not to be a knockout it will be disappointing. Many of these dealers are friends and I know these events are important.
On Sunday morning I sit in the lobby to outline this article and speak with dealers who happen by and wish to talk. Don Heald, the New York map dealer, is doing well. Several collectors mention they are well satisfied and hope to buy a few more items before the show closes. So it's mixed. It seems to be turning out like the European lottery where many seem to win 1/32nd of the second prize. That is, you come out undamaged and undeterred and maybe even a bit ahead.
Come April the show venue shifts to New York for the ABAA's biggest fair. A few dealers already committed may pull out but others, ever hopeful, will take their place. The Armory on Park Avenue will be gussied up, new catalogues prepared, new material offered. On April 4th the lights will come up and the show will begin again. There is always another show.