The ABAA, the Antiquarian Book Sellers Association of America, recently held it’s annual west coast fair in the Bay Area at Oakland, California amid the sturm und drang of Covid and rising prospects of political uprising. Such shows have consistently been a casualty of Covid over the past two years, given the dominant demographic of the book collecting field is 50+. Collectors and collecting organizations love their books, manuscripts, maps and ephemera and, not unexpectedly, they love their lives and families more. Covid has provided a clear, highly personal way, to understand where these loyalties are. A hundred and two dealers and a reduced but committed audience, made the trek and found, once they navigated the strict compliance imposed by the State of California relating to health, the experience safe, comfortable, and worthwhile.
The exhibition hall was organized to fill the space completely, providing both exhibitors and guests room to sit nearby while observing mask and official distancing requirements and personal preferences. I can image that shows catering to collecting fields that appeal to a younger crowd will have a different feel. Covid is a predator that pursues the aging and everyone knows that, at 70, it’s a more serious illness. A few days after the show closed one participant disclosed they have come down with it. Hopefully they are younger. For that demographic it’s a different illness.
What was in the air however could not be stopped by masks, it was the sense of happiness that a major show was open. The most consistent words I heard were, “great to see you and hoping I’ll see you in New York.” Book fairs are opportunities to experience the rare paper community and such chances have been few and far between.
All this said, the show was about what was offered on the shelves, hanging on the walls, and under the sealed glass counters. The material included an increasing proportion of ephemera for which dealers have significant advantages. They have been seeing the ebb and flow of such material for years and their stock increasingly reflects the market’s interest. Sometimes problems create opportunities and dealers are intelligent.
Browsing the isles it was noticeable to me that such material doesn’t take much shelf space. The booths didn’t feel jammed, and neither did they need to. New-to-the-market ephemera does not usually encounter direct competition. Neither does it take up much space but when such examples are special they certainly attract attention. This is where dealers excel. Interestingly, the most consistent comments from participating dealers I heard is that they bought well. I bet dollars to doughnuts what the dealers bought was principally ephemera.
Given we now live in the Covid era, we are acclimated to pop-up electronic book fairs that Marvin Getman and the ABAA developed two years ago. The physical event in Oakland had about a hundred exhibitors and, a simultaneous electronic event, included another 30 dealers. With Covid declining, the field will soon be voting with their feet and their dollars to tell us how these two show forms will coexist.
Soon the rare book world’s attention will shift to New York.
The signs are encouraging. Shows are vital.