Something about a thawed-out skating rink that makes a book dealer’s heart skip a beat.
The moldy walls, the gloomy vault of the ceiling, the scarred, unforgiving concrete floor… And the lights! Those Am-I-Going-Blind/I-Am-Going-Blind war surplus mercury-xenon floods… That’s how we know we’re home! Like bats in our cave. (Mental flash here of a flock of dealers hanging upside down from the rafters, waiting for dusk, reminding me that soon (August 20th) we’ll be at Hartford’s Summer Papermania, in the mother of all concrete and neon hellholes, the Hartford Civic Center, now known creepily as the “XL Center.”) But I’m getting ahead of myself.
It just goes to show what a hardy lot booksellers are. This year’s Vermont Antiquarian Book Fair, despite the fact that it was held in a skating rink, was smoothly managed by promoter Garry Austin. The aisles were wide, the dealers attentive, and the stock attractive and well displayed – ranging from the minimalist presentation of Matthew Raptis’ eponymous Raptis Rare Booksto the more traditional cornucopic display curated by old pal Eugene Povirk of Southpaw Books.
Matthew, I’m told, hosted a wonderful gathering for exhibitors the night before the fair. Mr. Povirk, on the other hand, may not be left-handed. (I’m calling for an ethics committee investigation.)
Still, the sad truth is that with only thirty-nine dealers, this show is on the verge of losing its critical mass. Furthermore, it was a hot and humid day. Attendees seemed rather bedraggled, and Peter Stern likened the experience to "doing a fair inside a toaster oven.” I doubt any of those brave thirty-nine dealers made a killing at the fair. Professional scouts like Bill Hutchison probably made a day’s pay (somehow he ((almost)) always does), but I wonder how many of the other thirty-eight booksellers turned a profit?
I was just shopping, not exhibiting, so I was free to flee. But before I left, I sat down with long-time colleague Steve Finer for some traditional and comforting whining about the death of book fairs, how difficult the book trade is, and how close we are to extinction.
But Finer, always the contrarian (in his blurb on ABE he describes himself as a “retro business: most of the stock in inventory sells either through periodic hard copy, subject-oriented catalogues, distributed first through snail mails, to be later uploaded to www.ABEBooks.com..”) had something surprising to say to me.
He told me he was amazed and thankful that promoter Garry Austin kept promoting these shows, even when they didn’t make sense financially. He talked about how organized Garry was, how attentive to detail and solicitous of dealer needs. He reminded me of all the money Garry spent on advertising and amenities, and wondered how he made any profit at all. In Finer’s estimation Garry’s efforts were more ideologically motivated than business oriented, and rather than complaining about the demise of book fairs, we should be thankful that there are people like Garry who keep them alive.
Talk about uplifting! And from a grizzled old pro like Steve Finer, none the less…
On the drive home, still glowing from his oration, I realized Finer’s sentiments would apply equally to the stubborn, sturdy lot of book dealers who keep doing these shows, to the dealers who faithfully shop them, and to those few book-mad souls who still get a treasure hunt buzz from walking the aisles and nosing through our wares. Here’s to us all!
And to skating rinks where they don’t play hockey in the summer!
And to this wonderful trunk I picked up at the fair. It measures 20 x 10 ½ inches, made of pine with a rounded top, once covered in wallpaper, and still lined with this lovely broadside taken after a lithograph, circa 1850, by James Baillie.
I priced it at $750, but if I never sell it that’s OK. It’ll be a perfect container in which to display my ephemera at all those book fairs Garry keeps promoting.