Analysis: Is the Internet Making the Book Fair Obsolete?
Or Is It Just Bad Weather, Military Karma And Economic Uncertainty?
By Abby Tallmer
At first glance, the answer to this question might be “of course not.” There are still book fairs and plenty of them, national and international, big and small. But let’s look further into what has actually happened at the book fairs attended by members of the AE staff over the past few months, most recently the New York Antiquarian Book Fair which I attended this past weekend. As seasoned book people will know, the New York Book Fair is traditionally one of the largest and most successful vehicles, in terms of book fairs in this country, for exhibiting and selling rare and antiquarian books. And yes, this past New York Antiquarian Book Fair was pretty well attended in terms of dealers, some of whom had amazing books, manuscripts, and prints to display.
However, one striking element was true at the New York Antiquarian Book Fair this year. This same element seems to have been true as well at several other fairs AE attended over the past year or so: as at the Boston International Book Fair (last October); the Boston Antiquarian Book Fair (last March); and the ABAA San Francisco Book Fair (last February), there may have been plenty of dealers and some lovely books on display at the New York Armory, but there were markedly fewer collectors and show attendees making the rounds. (Rumor had it that the New York Antiquarian Book Fair’s door was down 15% from last year -- this number, @6500 attendees, down from the usual 7000-8000 attendees, was confirmed over the phone to me by Sanford L. Smith, Producer & Manager of Antique, Art, Design & Book Shows and most importantly Producer of the New York Antiquarian Book Fair, although this 15% figure was supposedly also true of or lower than the numbers for comparable art and print shows held at the same Armory recently.
Also, the collectors and even fellow dealers making the rounds to the spread of dealer’s tables did not seem to be making many purchases, especially large ones. (This past observation was backed up by just about every dealer – over 40 – that I conversed with, although none understandably wanted to be quoted on the record. But everyone that I talked to, with the exception of a few, said things like “slow,” “very slow,” “disappointing,” and like terms when asked to describe business at the show to that point. Some went so far as to term the entire experience of being at the fair “a waste of time,” an unsolicited phrase that was repeated in exactly that language by many different dealers.) When I asked dealers directly what kind of experience they were having at the fair, they said “slow” and “down considerably from last year” and “uncomfortable” (the lack of air conditioning in the Armory made it feel like 100 degrees plus in there, thus making it a trying experience for anyone attempting to stay for more than one hour or so without getting overcome by heat.) Some of the reasons cited for the “slow” fair this year (not in this particular order) were: the war; the economy; general malaise; little disposable income; unemployment; the role of the internet. I was told repeatedly that generally not even minor sales are going on, much less major sales. “We just come here for publicity”: another phrase I heard often.