In Boston recently dealers from throughout New England and across America along with a spattering from Europe came together for a yearly right of passage – the Boston International Antiquarian Book Fair. There were in fact two fairs and the feedback from buyers and sellers about both quite positive.
The Boston International Antiquarian Fair dates to the mid 1970’s, to the 200th anniversary of the American war of independence, to bell-bottoms, mood rings, pet rocks, Rubik’s Cubes and the release of Jaws. In other words the fair has been around for a while, while still being essentially a modern affair. Its companion event, the Boston Book, Print and Ephemera Show, also has a history. It has lurked nearby, changing venues through the years, slowly gathering strength as the book selling community has grown. These days it's bigger, a primary event in its own right.
But if the dealers are the foundation of such fairs it is the active collectors, newbies and all the folks in between for whom the fair is emotionally important that make it, and have now made it for 39 years, a financially viable event. This is a trade fair with a strong personal component.
While the fresh and vigorous slip in with great agility, perhaps to come once and not again, among them there are some few for whom the books, buzz and community resonate deeply and they will return every year for the rest of their lives. They find companionship here; in others they see and sense the like-minded. In time they will pass through all the stages; as innocents, then knowledgeable, in time seasoned and finally anxious - about book fairs in the afterlife. The book business it turns out is a morality play and every person involved given a variety of roles that change through the years.
Toward the end of what for many becomes a life long long march there are fewer books to buy or sell. For them the fair is about companionship, the “hey how are you?” and “wow, it has been a while,” a reminder they have been part of something measured in decades. For Leigh Stein now in his mid 80s, who attended almost all of the 39 main fairs and exhibited at many of the shadow fairs, it was enough recently to spend a few hours on Sunday, exchanging hellos with many whose hair, like his, has thinned and whitened with time.
You didn’t have to buy a book to feel you belong here. Your presence and the presence of so many other kindred spirits simply resonate the animal spirits of collecting. Some people like movies. These folks like paper and for them it’s no passing fancy. It is how they understand life.
Interest in old books on both sides of the counter has a deep history in the region and has long made the area fertile territory for those animated by print. But it is also a field held hostage by the Internet and changing tastes and fear of the unknown is something the interested have had to get past.
This was once a gentleman’s game that has been replaced in part by those with keen intellects and a gift for arbitrage because much of what’s offered at shows today leaves no foot or fingerprints. So a dealer can buy something they are sure they can sell without fear their purchases [and cost] will show up in public searches. It’s perhaps then fair to say this show and most others were once more retail than they are today. That was checkers. Today for many the game is chess and the difference the Internet where access to databases instantly identifies rarity and value.
As Eric Caren of the Caren Archive, the exceptional collector recently said when asked about his Boston fair experiences, “I bought at both shows from 25 dealers, never sat down, never stopped. Marvin Getman’s, the Book & Paper show was the warmer, more open, the ABAA fair the larger and more traditional. I buy paper Americana, a category that has, in the past, been more in the shadows. This year the ABAA was well represented, a welcome change in my view.
“Knowledge is now the essential factor. Both sides expect the other to be prepared and interest then quickly converts into negotiated prices. It’s a wonderful time to be a collector because the material is so appealing. With clarity about value easily obtained it’s then just a matter of price.”
Nina Berger, who manages the ABAA show’s publicity, reminded me to not forget the young. “We believe about 15% of those attending were under 35. They sat in on our various public presentations and seemed particularly taken with Saturday’s Typewriter Rodeo where Texas poets created instant poetry based on terms and themes provided by those queuing for some personalized poetry.”
Will Monie, of ABAA exhibitor Will Monie Books, called the fair “a good outing and well worth the 4 hour drive to Boston. I understand that most dealers did well. We need fairs and apparently so do collectors.” If Eric Caren and Will Monie are any gauge both sides did well.