Hollywood, the land of [bad] dreams
The LA Book Fair: quiet
By Bruce McKinney
The determined and the interested in the world of books arrived in LA for the once every two year ABAA book fair over the weekend of February 12-14 and came away more concerned than enriched. The fair was thinly attended and the material, on offer, noticeably dated. The net result was disappointment along with the occasional 'good fair' comments to keep hope alive. The ABAA, the American Antiquarian Bookseller's Association, has long been the preeminent trade association in the rare book field in the United States and its disappointing show can not be discounted. The rare book business, an insular trade in the best of times, has seen in recent years the economy in decline, its core audience aging and its hold on the public's imagination diminished. As well the timing is complicated. Mid-winter school vacations, the super bowl some years and Valentine's Day others create diversions that every year deflect some of the natural audience. As was reported by one wag in the trade "we may all soon need to get real jobs."
Jeremiahs in the ABAA are talking about moving the next LA Book Fair to Pasadena. "If we can't increase the attendance let's reduce the cost," to which Bill Reese, the preeminent dealer in printed Americana, commented "if we move to Pasadena we can reduce both the cost and attendance."
Others are talking about making San Francisco the permanent site of the west coast fair, an idea Mr. Reese favors. "The audience is larger and more motivated, the costs lower and San Francisco a destination. The appeal of a great book fair in a great town is a great combination."
Book fairs are of course only one thread in the braid. Open shops, catalogues, listing sites and tailored offers delivered by email, phone, letter and in person are also in the mix. Few dealers pursue all avenues with equal vigor if at all. Those who emphasize shows, to the exclusion of other selling avenues, are particularly distressed by the recent lackluster results. LA, although a glamorous destination, today lacks the core of open rare book shops that once made the city a nirvana for the book trade. Urban sprawl, slowing highway traffic and the internet have all contributed to make LA a big place where it's increasingly hard to draw a big crowd.
While participants generally reported disappointing results, Bill offered "I did what I thought we would do. Several transactions were initiated and they later closed. I have no complaints."
The feedback about the Antiquarian Book, Print and Paper Fair in San Francisco the previous week, February 6th & 7th, was better. Attendance was strong the first day, Saturday, and quieter on Sunday. Participants expressed relief that costs in San Francisco were lower while the outcome was good. It simply makes participation easier. The significantly higher costs for the LA fair may also have caused some dealers to bring their most expensive material that in some cases had been around for a while. Book fairs thrive on fresh material.
Hollywood, the land of [bad] dreams
Principia: $191,200 to an internet bidder
As to whether a disappointing LA fair predicts disappointment in New York, while it's not certain it appears that LA made a market bottom. Rare books are sold in many places in many ways and the auction data on AE during 2009 showed clearly that at auction the US bottomed well ahead of Europe and began its recovery sooner. The auction charts [link] turned positive this past December after auction results stabilized last summer. Just as North America and Europe have recovered on different schedules so too it's likely shows recover at different rates. Book selling occurs under a big tent. What happens in the first row and the back rows are probably almost light years apart. Certainly these channels do not move in lock step. That shows may lag the recovery is not entirely surprising. That the New York Book Fair may mark the return to health for book fairs should not surprise either. I believe it will.
That the market channels are evolving independently seems apparent from the three auctions held in LA during fair week. Heritage held two sales: February Rare Books in which 814 lots were offered and 662 sold for $1,750,371; and Historical Manuscripts in which 400 of 464 lots sold for $568,405. Bonhams on Sunday, the 14th sold 220 of 397 lots for $723,913. The Heritage sales were held ahead of the book fair when optimism was present. By Sunday, the mood turned sour and Bonhams faced a tougher audience.
For the New York Fairs in April it's important that dealers bring fresh material, specifically the out-of-the-ordinary and attractively priced. Collectors are ever better able to judge condition and price. They want the unusual, the special and the unique. If dealers bring that type of material they'll turn the show chart positive, something the field needs and collectors will be hoping.
As for LA, not everyone went home empty handed. Bill Reese reports that he and Jim Cummins bought 700 boxes of books and manuscripts, the remainder of the Copley Library that is to be sold by Sotheby's over the next two years.