For the largest London and International dealers this is bread and butter work for them: an international round of book fairs in London, New York, San Francisco and elsewhere keep them occupied a lot of the time and they use these occasions not so much as a place to sell books but as a venue for schmoozing their best customers, networking and making contacts. In amongst these big players are tens of other though, very often they are respected dealers who work on their own from their own homes and have no shop front except, these days, the Internet and, a few times a year, a major fair. There are also a smattering of exhibitors like ourselves who still cling onto existence as a bricks and mortar bookshop.
Setting up on the Thursday morning is always something of high-wire act. The fair starts at 2pm and everything on the stand has to be preened and ready for the public by then, we arrive into the drive-in section of the hall at 10.30 and unload 15 crates of books from the van. If you've ever been to sell at a card boot sale you will understand what I am about to say, as you cram all those crates into the small area of the stand, about the same number of dealers crowd in with you, like the walking dead, mumbling to themselves, and each other, trying hard to maintain the semblance of dignity whilst actually making a grab for almost every book as it comes out of the crates to go onto the shelves to check it out and see if it's a sleeping bargain. It's a strange ritual in which even the most high falutin' of bookdealer must descend, just for a moment, into the world of grubbing around for things to buy and sell. We usually say that if you haven't made a profit on your fair costs by the time it opens, you are in big trouble. This year, we sold a third edition of Jane Eyre for just under £2,000 and a few smaller items but not enough to cover the costs and I won't deny that our spirits were actually a little down as the doors opened and the queue (which stretched round the block almost) began to pour in. More on our fortunes later...
There are two brilliant things about this fair: the books and the people. Being tied to a stand for most of the day isn't an ideal way to see the gems in the hall but be assured there are gems. For three days some of the rarest, most beautiful and most important books, manuscripts and related items still 'in the wild' anywhere in the world are all gathered into one place. I was walking down one aisle and happened glance at a scrap of paper in a glass cabinet and saw a scribbled note signed "M"... for Mozart. There is a tiny notebook in which Aleister Crowley scribbled pornographic gay poetry. There is a soldier's snapshot photograph album with photos of Lawrence of Arabia and another album of photos of a young Alfred Hitchock on holiday... including one in which he is playing tennis in a dress! There are staggeringly beautiful maps and wonderful pieces of ephemera. The stand opposite ours has a letter by Siegfried Sassoon and a copy of the libretto of Peter Grimes signed by both Britten and Peter Pears (come to think of it, on our stand there is a limited edition of The Children's Crusade signed by Britten). The hall is stuffed to the glass dome with museum quality items and they are there to be looked at and handled. There is no end to what you can learn just by wandering the aisles.
And then there's the people... another source of learning. Unlike the objects at the fair, the people move around and even when you are staffing a stand you get to meet the most amazing variety of people and as a general bookseller, you learn much more from them than from any number of reference works. Yesterday I had a long conversation with a gentleman who collects rare and important books on Golf, there was a discussion with a completist collector of Lewis Carroll, a rare books librarian from a UK university came and chatted and shared his incredible knowledge of private press books (and bought a sumptuous copy of The Chamber Drama by John Guthrie at the Pear Tree Press for his library) and so on... all day long the procession of people continues, contacts are made, knowledge is exchanged. It's nothing short of thrilling.
So what of our fortunes. Well, yesterday it seems, our conscious decision to take affordable books (by which in this context I mean books in the £50-£150 range) appeared to be paying off. Smaller book after smaller book was selling quite steadily and so it all began to add up. Today, when I was replaced by other staff for the day, I hear they did very well and sold our beautifully boxed copy of Ulysses by James Joyce as well as a number of other items and so we are now well into profit on the cost of the fair and should we have a similar kind of day tomorrow, it will go down as a good one.
So, another early start, driving up tomorrow morning (now in fact that should read, later this morning - in about five and a half hours time!) and another day of talking non-stop, meeting some wonderful people and hopefully contributing a little to that rarest of all book-things, a real-world bookshop.
I shall be tweeting as much as possible from the fair - if you don't follow me already then please do @CallumJBooks. If you are close enough, come and see us. We can even at this late stage find a complimentary ticket for you, just contact me through twitter if you'd like to come in for free.