Dealer Will Money diverts David Whitesell of the AAS while Peter Stern sneaks rare pamphlets from a box.
Took a road trip this weekend with an affable Brit named Iain Sinclair. He’s presently a visiting writer at the Gloucester Writer’s Center and, because he’d been a book dealer in London before he became an author, (one of my favorite Sinclair books follows the adventures of a ring of sub-noir book dealers in search of the ultimate find, juxtaposed with an inquiry into the true identity of Jack the Ripper, dragging the reader through Londons dark and darker) I thought he’d enjoy visiting the Pioneer Valley Book and Ephemera Fair.
We got a perfect day for it. Blue sky and blazing New England foliage. Breakfast at Sylvester’s followed by a quick booth setup (I only brought one shelf of books) followed by two hours of diligent but mostly fruitless scouting.
I mean, I bought three interesting things – a whaling log, a tattoo artist’s sample card or “flash,” and a run of maritime periodicals including a Fitz Henry Lane lithograph – but all of those had been quoted to me prior to the fair. I could have stayed home and gotten them in the mail.
I also had an interesting conversation with Tina Bruno of Flamingo Eventz, promoter of this book fair. She was concerned that I’d described one of her earlier shows as having been done “by the numbers” and wanted me to know that she was working on some new and innovative book fair ideas.
I’m rooting for Tina, but let’s face it. Under current constraints of contracts and venues, promoters like the Flamingos or Garry Austin are locked into a formula that leaves little room for innovation. The same dealers keep showing up at the same places with the same kinds of books for the same customers, and everybody gets a little sleepy. The finances of these events don’t leave much surplus for advertising and, as yet, no one has figured out how to successfully link a provincial book fair with the dog show, beauty pageant or stock car race necessary to fill the aisles with new blood.
Indeed, there was a decent line at the door, especially considering that it was such a beautiful day, but they were all the same faces. Iain went out to walk around Northampton, and I spent the morning looking at the whaling log – which turned out to be about a ship departing from the Hudson River on one of the most hellacious whaling voyages I’ve ever heard of. Three captains died; men deserted, mutinied and went mad, and the hunt was continually botched by crews too green or dispirited to be of any use.
Not wishing to go down that road myself, I spent a good part of the afternoon talking to my colleagues about their sales – high, low and average – and learned that, for the most part, dealer sales yielded a higher average price per item than retail sales. Just what you’d expect, right? The surprising thing is the degree to which dealer and retail sales diverged at this event. Dealer sales averaged in the three figures, while retail sales seemed to hover around the low twos.
Colleagues Lin and Tucker Respess reported a booming trade in pamphlets about books. They sold over one hundred of these – at $3 each retail, $2 to the trade. The rest of the informants in my admittedly informal survey reported retail sales predominantly in the $15 range.
Compare this with results as reported by Malcolm Kottler from last week’s Seattle Book Fair:
1. 24 invoices (for 32 books), no $ total given, but described as a "break-even fair"
2. 12 invoices (for 17 books), more than $23K "fewer invoices than normal"
3. 7 invoices, $16K (new customers accounting for only $3K)
4. 6 invoices (to 3 libraries, 2 individuals, 1 bookseller), $15 K ("not our best or our worst ... largely to the same customers who visit us every year" )
5. 3 invoices, $10K
Although the samples are small, this seems to point out another difficulty faced by promoters like Austin and the Flamingoz. An urban fair is going to yield bigger bucks for participants than a fair in a lovely college town like Northampton. The Boston Shadow Show (side kick to the Boston ABAA International Antiquarian Book Fair) will yield bigger numbers than the Boxborough Book and Paper Show.
Smaller venues will be less expensive for dealers, but the yield will be lower, attracting dealers with less expensive books – Don Heald or Bill Reese won’t be doing Litchfield anytime soon. The attendees at these shows will be other dealers looking for stock, hard working librarians like David and Vince from AAS, devoted bibliophiles and collectors, random passers-by, and the occasional nutter. Big spenders will not turn out.
So another interpretation of “by the numbers” might be that “the numbers” tend to lock promoters like Tina Bruno into economic limits from which escape is difficult.
If anyone has ideas about how to break out of this provincial book fair ghetto, Tina and I want to know.