Report from a Beantown Book & Antiques Fair

Last weekend we had a booth at the Boston Antiquarian Book &
Ephemera Fair
which was part of Boston Antiques weekend. There were
somewhere in the neighborhood of 250 booths – about 1/3 books and the rest
antiques and textiles. It was held at the Seaport World Trade Center
which is a lovely venue in a somewhat forgotten part of town (though next
door to the brand new, excitingly cantilevered, Institute of Contemporary Art) in Southie.

It’s funny that a recent post here was about optimism, because no where is the typical
bookseller’s lack of optimism more evident than at a book fair – what’s
even funnier (funny odd, not funny ha ha) is that we brought a first
edition of that very Helen Keller Optimism book pictured in the
aforementioned post. It didn’t sell (just $20! Ex-library though).

So between the complaints and justifications about why no
one was buying books (which I must admit I participate in, although often
internally) – weather’s too good, weather’s too bad, it’s the start of bar
mitzvah season, dancing with the stars, etc. (there was a group of antique
booths stuffed into the back of the book section – they probably signed up
late – and after a couple hours on day one, they must have tromped up to
the front to complain about being forgotten because every hour for the
nest day and a half there was an announcement to “not forget about the
antique section at the back corner of the book dealers”. Their reasons at
least were simple – we got stuck at the ass end of the book section or
else we’d be selling like mad. ) – here’s what went down:

Most of the fancy Boston dealers showed up, Peter Stern, Bromer who was
flogging their great book on miniatures (and who had a great Ubu Roi in a fine binding replete
with robots on the front and back cover with visible internal gears. I
can’t seem to find a picture of it though), Brattle, The Boston Book Co. –
and a fine array of print and book dealers looking for that cross over
business with the antiques. These latter probably fared the best. We’ve
only done a couple of these, but the prices seemed to run the gamut – good
prices on general stock in the $10-$75 range, but also a wide variety of
marked up merchandise that I would have thought was too common to bring
along. The high end was exciting, though as often happens, it can be a
little duplicative. I think I saw at least four first editions of
Huckleberry Finn in the original decorative cloth. As always, this has to
make buyers wonder if it’s worth dropping 8k on a book that everyone
apparently has.

Buying seemed to concentrate on prints, ephemera (lots of customers
wandering about asking “journals, registers, diaries?” and then moving
on), and a fairly brisk business in children’s books and postcards. The
rest of us were forced to slog on hoping for a few good sales to fill the
gaps (we ended up doing fine – no champagne and strawberries afterwards,
but it turned out – a few prints, a lovely pirated Fanny Hill with filthy
illustrations, an Adrienne Rich first). Partly because it was a mixed
show, and partly the changing times, there was a very high browser to
buyer ratio. Since we’ve only just started doing shows, this may be
normal, but it can be intensely frustrating to have hordes of people
passing through the booth without selling anything. Of course, since
there were two of us at the fair, I wandered through dozens and dozens of
booths and only came away with a copy of Make Way for Ducklings for my
daughter, so I’m part of that particular problem.

What was interesting was what people picked up when they came into the
booth – it wasn’t the old books, I’m pretty sure no one even touched a
book printed before 1800, and our first edition of New Experiments Upon
Vipers which was on display, got no love at all.

Vipers - an old frontispiece

Despite having the world’s greatest frontispiece, there was no interest in
this book

What seemed to pique people’s interest were the prints, the illustrated
books, and the art and architecture. What they passed over was probably
more interesting – little to no interest in: a pile of Limited Editions
Clubs that we brought (most in pristine condition – many even retaining
the glassine wrappers. This might have been part of the problem – though
the wrappers make the book rarer, they also tend to be intensely ugly),
noir pulps with great cover art, 19th century almanacs, Modern Firsts (I’m
not a big fan, but I felt compelled to at least make a token effort to
bring some. Interesting that the only one anyone even touched was poetry
– we even had a cheap Ishmael Reed novel, signed, and I think he’s the
bomb) and anything in a foreign language, no matter how fantastic I might
have thought them.

I draw no conclusions and if you don’t do book fairs, I can neither
recommend them, nor warn you off. However, in the next week we sold two
books that we’d taken to the fair – an early 20th Century illustrated book
in Spanish, and a first American edition of The Works of Laurence Sterne.
Both for good money, and both, I have no doubt, from filling them with
bookseller mojo in packing them, shelving them, looking at them fondly,
etc.. So, there’s that.

Post by: Tom Nealon

Pazzo Books
4268 Washington St.
Roslindale, MA 02131

7 thoughts on “Report from a Beantown Book & Antiques Fair”

  1. I admire your taking the chance of laying down some cash, blocking off some time out of your life and stepping out as you did. Someone had to do it and I appreciate your report. Just wish there was enough champagne and strawberries for you to invite the rest of us over and treat us. (Although remember for next time I like steak and lobster…)

    I gather from what Chris (of optimism fame linked above) said concerning her experience at a book show, handing out business cards (and I think perhaps discount flyers) counts for a lot. Some of the customers might be tapped out before they get to your booth.

    I’ve wheeled and dealed at swap meets with junk from my garage but don’t know if I could do a book fair. Perhaps someday.

    In the interim I appreciate the reports from those that do go. – Thanks for your posting –


  2. Thanks Paul! We’ve already had a couple customers come in and mention that they saw us at the fair, so from an advertising point of view, it seems to have worked o.k. This probably only works if you’re reasonably close to the fair location or specialize though. I should have mentioned that we were clearly the youngest people with a book booth at the fair (I’m 37, my brother/partner is 27), so I hope the Book Fair isn’t on its slow way out – even though it was a bit of a pain, something quite charming and valuable would be lost if the Book Fair died out in the US.

  3. There’s been an absolute explosion of niche conventions with the internet age to organize and advertise them, so many of the younger vendors may be trying their hands at those rather than a dedicated book fair. They get their feet wet at a hobby convention, then move up the ladder to the big time.

    I doubt the book fair will die out, its just going through a brief “between generations” slow down ’til the younger ones feel ready to move up to the big time.

  4. Hi Tom,
    I’d go super niche and advertise a collectors book fair on 19th century books, crazy covers, medicine books etc (these are just ideas – you could come up with better i’m sure)
    We do the same here in the UK but with architectural antiques. We organise and partake in antique fairs that are specifically targeted at buyer niches and this works well for us!

    Question: Are you selling on amazon?
    Where can I buy new experiments upon vipers 🙂

  5. While I’ve never been to a book fair I have set up many a booth in antique glass shows and from the sounds of your story there isnt much difference. Everyone always seems to over look the best items and land on something you would never expect.

  6. As an attendee at the fair (and a true book aficiando) – I’m always amazed at that the things that draw my attention. Mostly the ephemera. I think book buyers, like myself, are smothered in our niches. I can find everything I dreamed of on the internet and now when I go to a book show I focus on the “rest” of the stuff, that I never even knew existed. Thanks for the great blog. – jeff D. Andover

  7. What a lovely insight on what seems to be a typical day at a book antiques fair. The New Experiments Upon Vipers book that you mention looks intriguing. Thank you very much for taking the time to blog about it.

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