Where have the Collectors Gone? Gone to the Internet Everyone!
This then leaves the fate of many fairs, as they are run today, to local advertising and it's both expensive and inconsistent to the point that some fairs don't even try. How then to find the book buyers whose piece of glass grows ever more distant? Many fair promoters have yet to devise effective strategies. It's important they do so because people attending book fairs say they like them very much.
Left unchanged, shows by degree, will fail. They fail by raising the cost of admission. The upcoming Boston Antiquarian Book Fair will cost you $15 to attend the first night. It's bound to be a very good fair but the price is a barrier to the new collector who may decide to wait until Saturday when the price drops to $8 or possibly not attend at all. Such events should be free as the goal is to sell books, not tickets.
Change is needed and inevitable and in time the very nature of these events will transform. To bring the typical online collector to a show they'll expect to know that material of personal interest will be there. Dealers undoubtedly have it but in packing for a show bring perhaps 300 of their 10,000 items. Collectors, who are transformed by the internet, collect intensively but within a narrow range. To be induced to attend they will first evaluate the inventories of participating dealers, identify and confirm specific material will be available for consideration at the show. The dealer, for his part, needs to encourage this. It will motivate the collector to attend, increase the likelihood of sales and build the client relationships that are the life blood of collecting books, manuscripts, maps and ephemera. It will be different and it will be effective.
In time show promoters will provide access to online show inventories with print-outs of booth numbers, titles and descriptions for those who want a plan. They will also provide direct comparisons with what is available online on all the listing sites. They will not pretend it doesn't exist. When this occurs, assuming that the examples provided and prices offered at shows are comparable, sales will take off. The collector won't have to go home to do his homework. He'll do it right there and then, if the price makes sense, close the deal.
The serious collector hasn't disappeared. He's simply gone to greener pastures. He'll return as shows make it attractive to do so.