Win, Place, Show
By Bruce McKinney
Book fairs have always been important for booksellers. Great material on shelves does not often make it into libraries, private or public, without exposure however indirect, to the world at large. But over-exposure is considered bad form and no exposure fatal so shows have evolved into events that function at two levels: first dealer to dealer and then dealer to collector. The dealer fair occurs before the doors open to the public.
For many, perhaps most, dealers who have more great material than great customers, the pre-public show is their chance to sell to better connected dealers who can bargain for, buy, or borrow interesting material they expect to sell to libraries and collectors. The book, manuscript and ephemera business is ultimately a ten thousand piece puzzle that many conceptually understand but few successfully execute.
The collector understands little of this. Most think the show is about the material on display and, in most years, many try hard to find things to buy. This can be tough given that dealers cover a range of subjects and periods from pre-Gutenberg to recent limited printings, everything from poetry to science and all the stops in between. If, at the show, you find spot-on material you are very lucky and it happens often because dealers, with decades of experience, often correctly select what will be hot or of broad interest. What dealers bring however is only a fig leaf. What they leave home is a forest.
One way for collectors to view shows is as windows into the dealer's world. Thinking in these terms, shows become particularly interesting. At the recent Book fairs, about 200 exhibitors displayed 40,000 to 50,000 items, a massive number no doubt but a tiny fraction of what they own. So you're thinking, "if I'm interested, I'll look them up on line." You assume their inventory is substantially posted. It's not. There are dealers that have half of their stock on line but they are rare. Many, probably most, dealers have almost nothing posted. A reasonable estimate is that, at most, 20% of what dealers have is searchable on the net. The rest is mostly uncatalogued.
Not so many years ago most dealers had shops. That is no longer the case. In 1986 "The Collector's Guide to Antiquarian Bookstores" listed 30 shops in Maine. Today the ABAA lists 13. Today some remain but most dealers now sell at shows, list on line, issue catalogs from time to time and receive the occasional visitor. The day of the main street shop, in the antiquarian field, even in places where the rent is low, fades into the sunset. With their closing the opportunity for casual browsing disappears. This leaves shows with the extra task of providing some of the magic shops used to provide and it isn't easy. Browsing bookshops has always been low key, walking fairs a tiring proposition that encourages brisk exchanges.