Showtime In Boston: Booksellers Look At The State Of Their Trade And Offer Advice To Collectors.

- by Michael Stillman

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Noted Americana Bookseller Bill Reese at the Boston 2002 ABAA Book Fair.



While most exhibitors were booksellers, there were a few exceptions. The American Antiquarian Society (AAS) had a display of their facilities. Asked why the AAS would choose to display, Vincent Golden explained that the Society likes to build public awareness, and to maintain a presence among collectors and dealers. The AAS is also always on the lookout for items not yet in their collection, and hoped to come away from the show with a few “new” items. The AAS maintains an amazingly extensive collection of Americana from 1640-1877. But, that’s a topic for another time, or to be more specific, for next month’s issue of AE Monthly when the American Antiquarian Society will be featured in depth.

The ABAA naturally had a booth, and Liane Thomas-Wade said that they were “very pleased” with turnout at the show. When asked what the aim of the ABAA is, Ms. Thomas-Wade pointed to the first sentence of the “Objects of the Association,” which says “…To encourage interest in rare books and manuscripts and to maintain the highest standards in the antiquarian booktrade.” When asked what about the ABAA is most important to collectors, she immediately said their code of ethics. She pointed out that anyone not satisfied with a purchase from an association member can file an appeal with the ABAA.

Another bookseller who felt business was all right at the ABAA fair, but who also said that many of the regional fairs were not doing as well, was Melissa Sanders of Ken Sanders Rare Books from Salt Lake City, Utah. A dealership that specializes in Western Americana, Ms. Sanders explained that the eastern book shows were very important to them. “We have a huge market in the East,” she explained. “It’s like Europeans collecting Americana. The West is Easterners’ version of the New World.” Asked her advice to new book collectors, Ms. Sanders recommended “Buy a book in good condition that is scarce and you genuinely love.”

Another bookseller who felt the book fair was going well was Bill Reese of William Reese Company, New Haven, Connecticut. Mr. Reese is in a better position than most to make comparisons. He’s attended all 26 ABAA book fairs in Boston since they started in 1976, and has for many years been one of the most important dealers in Americana. Sales for Reese Company for the first half of the year have been comparable to the first six months of 2001, 2000, and 1999, although he did note there has been a little softness in the market so far in the second half.

Mr. Reese forthrightly addressed some of the concerns that are on everyone’s mind, even if not often spoken. Major declines in the stock market have evaporated billions of dollars in personal wealth, but Mr. Reese noted that most of his clients were reasonably well diversified and are still better off financially than they were ten years ago. Add to that the fact that people no longer feel, as they did a few years back, that they “can’t afford not to have money in the market,” and that low interest rates makes putting money in the bank less than appealing, and Mr. Reese stated that the book market and many types of antiques have actually done quite well. As Mr. Reese explained, “The best of the best continues to do very well. First rate is always saleable.”

Questioned about the proliferation of bookselling sites on the internet, Mr. Reese looked at this as something that requires certain adjustments by the bookseller, but is not a threat. “In some areas,” he noted, “the immediate effect is to lower prices.” But, this isn’t always the case. The bookseller needs to “be responsive to prices online, which means sometimes prices are going down and sometimes going up.” A major problem with books being sold online, he feels, is that the quality is highly variable. Bookselling websites have allowed many people to become booksellers, and while they may do their best, not all have the experience to fully understand such things as condition. This in turn can make it hard for the collector to know exactly what is being offered. One of the results is what he described as an “unsettling diversity of prices.” If you search a title on “ABE” that has several listings, you are likely to see Mr. Reese’s point. Prices can be all over the place without their being any clear understanding from the descriptions as to why. Mr. Reese joked that his ideal would be to be able to put up 10,000 titles on “ABE,” each of which was completely unique.