The Gold Rush Book Fair, 2010
Folks line up to enter the Gold Rush Book Fair.
By Karen Wright
A couple of years ago, at the pinnacle of the financial downslide, we had a booth at the Gold Rush Book Fair in Grass Valley, California. It is a beautiful area east of Sacramento, back up in the pines. It was a very hot, hot weekend and we were glad for the air conditioned building. We didn't do too well financially, but we sure enjoyed the fair. Besides the fact that it is in close proximity to our store near Reno, it attracts quite a few west coast dealers. Many of us know each other from other book fairs, so the camaraderie is fun, though sometimes the financial rewards could be better. However, this year, it was quite good. The weather was gorgeous, not too hot, not too cold; just right! Financially it was pretty good, at least for me, and most of the dealers I talked to said it was anywhere from "okay" to "pretty good."
John Hardy from Hardy Books was the "fairmaster" for a number of years, but he has passed the scepter to Tom Burnham and the Nevada County Friends of the Library. They did a great job and it was well organized. I believe the turnout of dealers was not quite as prolific as other years, but it seemed to me that we had more attendees than the last year.
They do some really nice, unique things at this fair. Nevada City and Grass Valley have a wealth of wonderful bookstores - you could almost call them a collective "booktown." One of my favorite events is the night before the fair after everyone has set up their booths, they have a sort of wine and beer "social" at the library or at a local bookstore and then they have a dealers' dinner afterwards. The Friends had an open store for the dealers for a couple of hours. It is the only West Coast fair that I know about (and we've been to a bunch of them) that does these things. Most everyone attends, often with a partner or friend, and there is a really tasty spaghetti feed with nice, abundant Nevada City area wine. And, it's on them!
This year Pacific Book Auction (PBA) from San Francisco sent Greg Jung and Bruce MacMakin up to do appraisals for people for the huge sum of $1 each. These guys are great. I had a couple of really old books that I had priced but was not sure I was in the right neighborhood, but Greg looked them over and said they were okay. He was quite excited when an attendee brought in a first edition of the Book of Mormon, but not as excited as were the people that brought it in - shades of Antiques Roadshow!
The other thing they do at the Gold Rush Fair is to honor one bookseller each year who is outstanding in his or her field (though I'm not sure any women have had that honor, yet). That bookseller gets Big Booth #1, located just as the patrons come through the door, a nice little plaque, and he or she can stand up at the dinner and wax poetic about his or her history and experiences as a bookseller for as long as the audience can stay awake.
This year, William Maxwell of Maxwell's Bookmark in Stockton, California, was the honored guest. Like so many of us, his love of books and reading started as a child, encouraged by parents who were also readers. Where are those people these days? Playing video games and text messaging, I guess.
The Gold Rush Book Fair, 2010
William Maxwell addresses fellow booksellers.
Maxwell "discovered the joys of second hand book shops" while in college at UCSC. He did some odd jobs as he went along, even working in a mortuary for a while. Then, while working at his father's printing plant in Lodi, he made the rounds of the local bookstores until he found The Harvard bookstore in a rather Skid Rowsy part of downtown Stockton near where, as he put it, the "working girls" hung out. He was hired on for the summer by the owner, who then handed him the keys and left him to more or less manage the shop. Maxwell said, "He also showed me the security system: a baseball bat leaning against the inside of the counter under the register and off he went." After working with this gent for a few years, and with the new owner when the old guy sold it, Maxwell decided it was about time to start his own store, Maxwell's Bookmark, where, until 2003, he had excellent success. Then in 2003, he closed the brick and mortar Bookmark and is still selling his high quality books online and at book fairs. He has an envious new job as well. He is now Archivist of the Bank of Stockton's 27,000+ historic photographs and 143 years worth of bank artifacts.
My favorite anecdote stolen from Maxwell's talk was the one all booksellers long for: "I got a phone call from a long-haul trucker in the foothills who was selling his mother's books. He claimed he had a whole box full of books signed by their authors. He'd shown them to an antique's dealer up there who said he really ought to call a book dealer. Luckily, mine was the only name in their phone book. 'Which authors?' I asked. 'Uh, James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck...' he replied, trailing off. 'Sure, bring 'em in,' I said, convinced that this was obviously too good to be true and that they must be facsimiles or something.
"An hour later a wiry young fellow in a cowboy hat and a belt buckle the size of a dinner plate comes through the door carrying a box. Sure enough, I find myself pulling one pristine copy after another of limited signed editions by all of the above-mentioned authors and then some. It turned out his mother had been the girlfriend of something of a local legend: a milkman who got in the habit of buying limited, signed editions by popular authors in the '30s, '40s and '50s. He had donated his personal library to UOP in the 1960s. These [remaining] books were apparently gifts to his girlfriend.
"I stacked the books on the front counter and took a deep breath. I went into the back office and retrieved my check book. I checked the meager amount in my bank account, subtracted the outstanding checks, and offered the truck driver the balance. His jaw dropped. 'Those books are worth that much?' he said. 'The antique dealer only offered me a hundred bucks.' Actually, I replied, they're worth a lot more than that. But I plan on making a profit."
Says Maxwell, "I will be the first to admit that I have lived a charmed life, thus far. Being in the book business and getting to spend my time with folks like you has been a large part of that charm."
The next day at the book fair, was the usual early press of book dealers swapping and selling to other book dealers, then at ten o'clock, the public charged in and we got to work. Attendance was better, according to other sellers, than last year. Most of you who know me know I'm a big time dog person, so the highlight of my day, other than selling a couple of my pricier books, was the lady who came in with a 225 pound bull mastiff, companion dog name Zeus who was so big that his head was bigger than my whole little Staffordshire Terrier. He reminded me of a portly, velvet soft colt!
The Gold Rush Book Fair, 2010
Argonaut Book Shop of San Francisco displayed at the fair.
After the fair was over, the books were packed up, and we were free at last. We headed down to Auburn to spend the night. We've never had great luck finding good food in Auburn, but this time we really did score. We had dinner at Latitudes which is across from the historic courthouse in downtown Auburn. We like to sit at the bar and eat, so we went downstairs. I had an African stew called Doro Wat, which is hot and spicy and delectable. It was served with half an artichoke, one of my favorite foods, and some saffron rice. My more conservative husband had a good steak and potatoes and we settled down to eat while we listened to a delightful duo, Billy Bensing and Kellie Garmire. Bensing played a good guitar and his original music was quite first class - sort of folksy, rockish, jazzy, with an insinuation of 30s and 40s style. His voice was reminiscent of Cat Stevens and their harmonies were really fine. Kellie played excellent mandolin and sang with an old-fashioned huskiness that was quite winning.
In closing, I'd like to thank the Nevada Country Friends of the Library for putting on a very nice, friendly book fair. I'd just like to say that I know a lot of booksellers have stopped doing shows because they can't make enough money to pay the costs incurred. The booth price, rooms, food, etc. are expensive, there is no denying that. First of all, they are great fun, in spite of the pack up, unpack, set up, sell, repack syndrome. However, here are a few tips to help sell more books and enjoy the fairs. Be happy if you break even. You've gotten your name out to new customers, you've met new booksellers that may have something you can't resist, and you've probably bought some very nice books from old buddies at a good discount. For heaven's sake, price your books better. Don't mark them up for the show, mark them down a bit. A lot of small sales add up and are better than no sales at all. You don't have to make all your money on one customer. I told people, as they came into my booth, that every book was 10% off the price just for the show. I know I made a couple of sales just because of that. Also, do some networking with your own customer data base a couple of weeks before the show, announcing that you'll be at a particular fair and offer them something special if they show up; if you email them send them a little coupon for 10% or more off. The show promoters do as much as they can, but they could use some help. It is important for us all to try to go to these fairs and support the ongoing struggle to keep people reading and collecting real books. Otherwise, we might just as well stop being booksellers and let the dollar book people take over.