The World Divides
Wet weather did not deter the determined
By Bruce McKinney
At the recent three day ABAA book fair in San Francisco buyers and browsers turned out in substantial numbers to renew their love affair with works on paper. The show, which is first a pre-show dealer-to-dealer event on Friday morning becomes an open-to-the-public free-for-all in the afternoon that lasts into Sunday. The private fair was by all reports quiet, the public fair well attended although the buying at the low end of expectations. The importance of shows for dealers varies from essential to simply useful. For those who needed a big fair it was mostly disappointing. A typical dealer probably spent about $5,000 to exhibit.
As to what a weak show in February in San Francisco in a difficult year may portend for the full year I spoke to several dozen dealers to get their views. These are interesting people, the Niagara Falls tightrope walkers of specialty retail and as you can imagine, united only in their individuality.
No dealer I spoke to sees any reason to be optimistic. "We're part of the real world." And if the group wrote, rather than sold, books the next one might be called "learning to survive the downturn." Every view is wary for the field and cautiously optimistic for themselves. Booksellers are the tough breed that see house fires as an opportunity to roast marshmallows. In truth, there is no money in pessimism so optimism, honestly held or not, is almost automatically expressed to book collectors and the people who write about them. This has always been the case so this year's evident caution is unusual.
The widely held view is that great material sells even in a weak economy. Dealers are less certain they want to sell their best material into a declining market. Most would prefer not to sell it at all. One dealer years ago explained: "I always sell my second-best copy. The best is my copy." Such items are a dealer's IRA; selling them a sign of concern.
The good or bad news is that almost everyone feels they have such material. What's less apparent is buyer enthusiasm, confidence and budgets. The tie-breakers may be the competing elements: exceptional copies versus exceptional prices. In a deep downturn it may take reduced prices to sell even the best copies. If the downturn continues, as is now widely expected into 2010 and 2011, dealers may face increasingly painful choices.
Near term, dealers appear to be adopting one of three strategies. The first is that "sales will be made." That may mean going out on the road or consigning to auction. One way or another material will be sold. Price is open to discussion. At the other end of the spectrum is the dealer at the show who, with barely concealed frustration explained, "My price is my price and the collector will eventually figure it out." This is a brave but difficult position to maintain. In between, most dealers are hoping for more while expecting less. "We booksellers are just like everyone else. When it's tough on main street we suffer too."
While books sound like one category, there are in fact many printed forms, periods, types and quality levels. There are also manuscripts, maps and ephemera. In fact, ephemera dealers, with material starting at $20, were busy throughout the fair. Ken Harrison, who specializes in ephemera, said he reprices material in difficult markets. "Times are tough and prices are down. In many cases I've reduced prices by 20 to 30%." Even so, transactions are down. Bill Ewald, another ephemera dealer was noticeably busy at the fair. Collectors want to buy. Bill and Ken's price points were attractive.
The World Divides
The Veatches brought exquisite material
Joe Felcone of Princeton, New Jersey, a bookman for 35 years, speaking about the business generally more than about the recent show in which he exhibited, expressed it this way:
"I've been in the book business for 35 years and never seen anything like this. The orders have stopped."
Bill Reese called it a difficult market but was satisfied with the business he did at the recent fair. "People [referring to dealers] have formed unreasonable expectations. The notion that value constantly accrues is false." Bill and his staff are refocusing on building client collections.
Another dealer, one of the most successful in the field said, "I'm in the business of selling. I adjust my prices and will consign to auction to generate cashflow."
Ed Postal of Barnaby Rudge called his fair acceptable. "Everyone is doing less business. I felt the traffic was good. People were looking but buying less often and, more than in the past, paying by credit card."
Finally there was one dark note. One dealer was reported to have marked up some inventory by 20% and then falsely discounted it at the show. The ABAA is a fine organization. Without question many of the best dealers in the United States are members. Manipulation of prices to create a false impression of discounts casts an aspersion on the integrity of the show itself. Prices are written in pencil, the ABAA standards in ink.
Book Fairs and auctions are probably going to be even more important in the down market than they were in the up. Sales and prices may decline but the market data and face-to-face contacts at shows will be invaluable in accessing how the market is adjusting. Dealers who are going to hold out for the last dime aren't going to do well while dealers who adjust, will make less but build client relationships that will continue into the recovery.
We know every dealer is a book lover. Now we are going to find out how many are canny business people.
Editor's Note: Several people in the ABAA have taken issue with my statement "Finally there was one dark note. One dealer was reported to have marked up some inventory by 20% and then falsely discounted it at the show." They point out this may simply have been an error rather than intentional. We hope so.