Well, it’s that time of year again. The ladyslippers are out.
There’s a secret patch in the woods
where the white ones grow.
Ever see a white ladyslipper?
Didn’t think so…
It’s also the time of year for the London book fairs – PBFA at the Novotel, another one across from the Olympia, one at the Royal National in Bloomsbury, an Ephemera Show, also in Bloomsbury and, finally, the Big One, the London ABA International Antiquarian Book Fair at the Olympia.
Back around the time of the Millennium, when I had a little money, we got a place in Ireland. My wife stayed there while my daughter spent her junior year at Ashton School in Cork City learning an Irish brogue. I’d work a triangular route – buy books in England and mail them home, go to Ireland to visit the girls, then go home and sell the books I’d bought - repeated in a bi-monthly cycle.
I had great fun bombing around London, particularly during book fair week – nosing through each fair on its opening day. The stink and press of nervy book addicts at the Russell, the marginal gloom of the Royal National, and the unaffordable splendor of the Olympia. All punctuated by visits to shops like Maggs, Shapero, the Harringtons, or Anthony Simmonds. I never made a killing, but I always paid my expenses and came back with interesting new material for my catalogs. (Don’t tell anyone, but Britain used to be a maritime nation.)
The thing that made the London scene so exciting wasn’t the symbiosis between shops and shows (those days may be gone forever) but the sheer profusion of shows. We think we’re clever having shadow shows accompanying the big ABAA shows in Boston and New York, but London has at least four shadows, maybe more.
Then the money was gone and the girls came home. My London visits were reduced to annual affairs, which rarely coincided with book fair week.
But just recently, two essays on book fairs by colleagues Garrett Scott and Lorne Bair have gotten me thinking again about book fair week in London. Specifically, the manner in which those PBFA and other independent book fairs serve as nurseries for book collectors.
If you fancy used paperbacks, or five-figure high spots, or maps, or prints or first editions, or travel books, or leather bindings, or any of hundreds of categories, the chances are good that you’ll find something to your taste at one of the London fairs. Whatever the book is, you’ll get to hold it in your hands; to learn about it and other books like it; to meet and talk to people with similar interests. Sometimes you actually buy the book. Your interest deepens. You become a collector.
Lorne points out that this function used to be served by book shops. However, with the demise of the traditional used book shop, regional book fairs had to take up the slack. Now, he says, “small regional book fairs all over the country are disappearing at a rate matched only by that of the (not coincidental) disappearance of brick-and-mortar used bookshops.”
He’s right, of course, but as I lolled among the ladyslippers I found myself wondering why? Are the Brits more of a bookish culture? Are we too distracted by flatscreens and Kardashians
to be interested in books? Or is it simply that we’re too big, too populous, too spread out? If that’s the case, why don’t we have regional equivalents of the PBFA? Why are American book fairs dying, and why do they seem to be thriving in England?
Here’s what the home page of the PBFA says:
“The Provincial Booksellers Fairs Association was founded in 1974 with just 20 members, in order to provide provincial bookdealers with a shop window in London by holding a regular book fair.”
Now they have over 400 members, and an astonishing eighty-three book fairs scheduled throughout the country in 2012.
A shop window in London – I love that concept! Why can’t it work in New York or Los Angeles?
I’ll be pondering that question at the New England Antiquarian Book and Ephemera Fair at the Everett Arena next Sunday. Opening a shop window in Concord, New Hampshire.
Meanwhile, here are some of the books I won’t be bringing to New Hampshire, or London, for that matter…
Bennett, Frederick Debell. NARRATIVE OF A WHALING VOYAGE ROUND THE GLOBE, FROM THE YEAR 1833 TO 1836.