Book Fairs: An Endangered Species?

- by Bruce E. McKinney

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A very nice affair


By Bruce McKinney

Two hours north of San Francisco, on a recent beautiful May day, John and Susie Hardy, for the 7th year hosted the Gold Rush Book Fair at the Nevada County Fairgrounds in Grass Valley. It was a trip well worth making. It was also a melancholy adventure for it provided a measure of the drought that plagues the world of rare and collectible books these days. Those selling, 50 dealers in all, were mostly from California with the occasional otherlander thrown in. They brought their best material, met many dedicated collectors and yet did not encounter the next generation of collectors. The day's visitors tended to be local and older. The show was publicized in various trade publications and exhibitors were encouraged to circularize the show to their clienteles. Nevertheless, attendance was thin. It should not have been.

We filmed the proceedings and provide here high resolution, and low resolution versions, and at the end of this 1,074 word article another set of film links.

The true believers came and were easily identified by their grey tending to white hair that ran in all directions from here to Sunday. They brought money for books, their combs at home safe for another occasion. Limps were visible as were a few walkers and portable seats. Many in the crowd knew the Second World War first hand, a few Lincoln. It had the feeling of a reunion. Younger people collect books but apparently do not spend their Saturdays browsing book sellers' revival meetings. From what you saw at this fair you could believe there are no new collectors, but we know they're out there. We saw several thousand fledglings at the Anarchist's Book Fair in February and know they closely mirror the world of online book buyers. They are typically in their 20s, buy books to read, reread the good ones, and save them all as adopted pets to be carried into middle age as talisman of broadening perspective. They buy books for their content, not their covers, the edition mattering not-at-all. Many of those purchasing at the Gold Rush fair mentioned they too were looking for "readable content." It just wasn't what these sellers wanted to sell.

Those visitors who described themselves as collectors, to a person, said they buy online. They all mentioned Google as the search engine they use. Yahoo too came up a few times. Amazon, Alibris, Abebooks and eBay came up as sites where they buy and AE Monthly was mentioned by fully half of those we spoke to. The last time [2003] we did this show AE was a blip on the radar. The world is changing.

By a casual census the average age of visitors was north of 60. Many who attended were enthusiastic but the enthusiasm was not contagious. Conversations with those attending indicated real pleasure. You really can't make this stuff up. You feel it or you don't and those we spoke with had what the Righteous Brothers called "that lovin' feeling." The feelings are genuine.