Rare Book Monthly

Articles - March - 2008 Issue

Book Fairs: Lights, Camera, Action

3.generations

3 generations, no one under 40


By Bruce McKinney

On two successive recent weekends, first in San Francisco and then LA, the San Francisco Book, Manuscript and Ephemera Fair and then the ABAA annual west coast Book Fair offered California book collectors a chance to buy interesting and collectible printed material. For the serious collector it was the venti-double-cappichino of show me, tempt me, sell me and for dealers a double hand of "dare" to invest to be present. As in poker, you have to ante up to play. Between the two shows almost 360 dealers exhibited, about 40 of them at both fairs.

The traffic at both shows was acceptable if not consistently strong and for most dealers the investment paid off. Randomly some dealers did exceptionally well and as randomly some were disappointed. As often happens the alchemy of shows is a brew of material brought, buyers attending, floor chemistry and national sentiment. The book business has always been more a souffle than a cakemix. When emotions are positive, books and collectibles generally sell well. When they are not watch out.

The San Francisco fair was held at the Concourse at 7th and Brannon, an aging building designed for railcar repair and maintenance that became a convention center in the 1970s, an era when trust was the rule, not the exception, so the building's perimeter is a series of doors. These days most are sealed. The cow barn ceiling may once have seemed a 7th wonder, today it's city-rustic: the place a "tweener", that book not yet old and valuable but no longer new. But never mind, no one comes here to buy the real estate. They are here to trade dollars for works on paper. For exhibitors it's the chance to sell; for collectors the opportunity to acquire. It is very large and organizer Walter Larsen sets booth rents low by closing off the 8th Street side to minimize access, security and manpower issues. Booth rents come in at and under $500, an attractive price that entices more than 200 exhibitors to rent every square inch. Mr. Larsen has told me he focuses on efficient shows and delivers.

When the lights come on Saturday morning February 10 attendance is comfortable, the audience interested if not zealous. Compared to the ABAA Fair to follow, the mix of material is eclectic, books more in the middle price range with plenty of posters, ephemera and collectibles. There will be no hard numbers for total sales and average transaction by vendor for either show but anecdotal comments later suggest mild disappointment in San Francisco, a sentiment that carries over to LA the next weekend. Both shows will succeed but LA will do better although it's unclear what participants net after expenses. If there are any calls home to say "I won the lottery" it will be buyers more than sellers making the calls.

Forty exhibitors in San Francisco also exhibit in LA and the same material, in the two settings, has a remarkably different feel. In San Francisco bluejeans and sneakers feel right in the unheated air and cement floor in a space large enough to dock the Graph Zepplin. In LA, Gucci loafers, Dolce & Gabbana sports jackets and Cartier watches are more appropriate. The Los Angeles Hyatt Regency Century Plaza on Avenue of the Stars, the show site and resting place for most out-of-town participants, provides an elegant setting that makes both booksellers and book buyers feel they are, at least for a few days, part of a special universe of the highly intelligent, the mensa of books afficienados. Dealers who do both shows later indicate they do better in LA although they don't necessarily do well at either event. In hindsight the local fair is blue collar, the LA fair white glove.

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