by Susan and John Knott
The 2019 Book Fair season has officially come to a close for me with a successful exhibition at the Boston International Antiquarian Book Fair this past weekend. An engaged and vibrant crowd viewed a terrific display of material assembled by Lloyd Currey and I with the invaluable help of Susan (Knott). The chill in the air in Boston heralded the approaching end of the year, and it seems like a good time to reflect on What We Learned As Booksellers This Year.
This year we exhibited at more book fairs than any other year. As a bookseller, every book not catalogued is a book not sold. That is the single main reason that booksellers are reluctant to leave the confines of their office and exhibit at book fairs. Time away from cataloguing must be weighed against the prospect of the possibility of selling more books at a fair than from the office. It’s a big “maybe” as you never know who will wander into your booth at a fair.
This year was a trial balloon for us. We crisscrossed the country a few times, and even checked out the London fairs to see if they appealed to us as booksellers. Each fair taught us something new about both being booksellers and book buyers. In retrospect they were all worth our time. We would like to share with you, dear reader, what we learned. Perhaps you may see something of yourself in our musings.
First, the greatest thing about exhibiting at fairs is getting to interact with customers in person. I am reminded of the general premise of the Star Trek series, which was to meet new civilizations. Not by text or email, but face to face. Nothing beats the feeling of talking to a person who has been collecting a long time and has an “aha” moment when they find the perfect book in just the right condition. Or the young person starting a collection, or an idea of a collection, and realizing that they cannot only buy the book they didn’t know they really wanted, but talk about what that book means to them to a willing listener. And we learn from customers all the time. Their being willing to share their own expertise offers us new perspectives and insight into books and authors that we may previously have thought we understood. A relationship has already begun forming between the dealer and customer (back to the Star Trek reference) and now the dealer has an idea of what the customer is looking for and can help the customer further their collection.
Second, as a fair attendee, I get the chance to spend time with colleagues. Without an open shop, book selling can be a lonely business. Nothing replaces being in the same room, face-to-face, engaging in dialogue with another human who has also devoted many years of their life to this business. We laugh, we cry, we share wild stories (some true!), but most of all we enjoy being together.
Last, but not least, is the opportunity at book fairs for both customers and dealers to handle books. This may be the most important reason to deal with a member of the ABAA when looking for information or to purchase books. While on-line buying of any product is wonderfully convenient, buying a book is different than buying, say, a pen. I can read a description of a pen and know what color ink it holds, what kind of tip it has, and even get an idea of how it would feel in my hand. The same is not true of a book. ABAA Book dealers spend hours (yes, hours), writing descriptions for a book and price it accordingly. Yet I can find a book with a similar description on a web site for a fraction of the price. A bargain, I yell to my computer! Then I receive the book in the mail and realize the description was not as posted. Do I have recourse to return the book to the vendor? Maybe, maybe not. If I buy a book from an ABAA member, there is a person standing behind their description and ready and willing to take the book back.
Thank you, reader, for taking the time to let me muse about my past year on the road at book fairs. I look forward to your comments, and maybe your own experiences. See you at book fairs in 2020! Hope you will stop by and we can have a conversation about books.