Saturday, May 24, 2014

The 2014 London International Antiquarian Book Fair at Olympia

For a couple of days every week I work for a large provincial antiquarian bookshop as a cataloguer and general helper. This is entirely separate from my running of Callum James Books which is why I don't mention it very much here, nor do I ever mention their name on this blog. However, one of the things this role enables me to do is to attend book fairs, in particular, the London International Antiquarian Book Fare currently going on at Olympia, not as a visitor but as an exhibitor with the shop. The fair is about as 'high end' as it gets in bookselling and everyone exhibiting has to be members of the Antiquarian Booksellers Association or, the international equivalent if they are coming in from overseas. But it is open to the public and if you have an interest in books, no matter what your budgetary constraints (more on that later), it is absolutely, one hundred percent worth the price of admission.

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.


J said...

I go to some bookfairs (like the NYC one in the Armory) and wonder why the dealers bring so few "affordable" books! And some of the items I see have been carted from fair to fair for two or three years now. They are surely not earning their keep, but the dealers refuse to lower the prices to "move" them.

Anonymous said...

And that's the reason why I no longer go to bookfairs. Most of the "good stuff" or bargains go to other dealers before the fairs open and before the plebs - I mean punters - are allowed in.

Callum said...

Anonymous's frustration is something I hear a lot and I do understand where he or she is coming from. I think there are a couple of points to consider alongside that comment though. The first is that contrary to popular belief the books which move around before the fair opens are not really bargains in the first place in the sense that the smaller bookshops and dealerships, when selling to the larger ones are expected to provide such large discounts that the two dealers in the transaction would offer the book at roughly the same price to the public (of course there are exceptions but as a rule I think that is true): the 'good stuff' might move between stalls but the price at which it is offered is unlikely to change much in the process.

More pertinantly I think, obviously book fairs aren't the place to go for 'bargains' but then, why should they be? Bargains are usually found in yard sales, thrift stores, car boot sales, junk shops and the like, the notion that there should always be bargains to be found everywhere is almost contrary to the definition of a bargain.

Book fairs are not somewhere to go for a bargain they are somewhere to go to browse and buy books that often are difficult to find elsewhere. To see and handle things from dealers who often don't have physical shops, to make use of the knowledge and expertise of the dealers gathered there and to make face-to-face contacts with people you might otherwise only 'meet' via email.

I do understand the cynicism and obviously there are book fairs at all levels of collecting, booksellers could do more to promote the well-being of the collector I'm sure, but in the end I would just caution a little about allowing cynicism to creep in too easily, on the whole, it isn't really justified.

Anonymous said...

I take your point which is, of course, correct but having frequented book fairs for many years, I now find that most of the "good" books are tucked under tables and reserved for dealers who have rushed round before the fairs have opened to the public to be picked up or negotiated upon further later in the day. I think it is more reasonable if no one is allowed to sell displayed books before the doors are opened to the public. I know so many booksellers who exhibit with pretty mediocre stock but whose main purpose for exhibiting is to "cream" other dealers stock in advance of the fair's opening...
So saying, it is nice to see books which may not be in one's own collecting field but are interesting - or beautiful - books in their own right and which one may never see again.

J said...

I have to revise my original comment. The last time I went to the fair at the Royal National, I saw a British first edition of a Rex Stout mystery I needed. It was rather pricey, but many of his books are hard to find in collectible condition. I made a mental note so I could come back if I didn't spend all my money. After browsing around, I went back to take another look at the book. The dealer came over to me, and said he could let it go for a smaller figure if I was interested. As I'd already more or less decided to take it at the marked price, I was surprised and pleased. This has happened to me more than once--I have never asked for a price to be lowered, I either buy an item or pass on it. (Another dealer offered to "eat" the tax on the sale when I bought all three books in a series...) So while it's true that some dealers never lower prices, I've had some luck at fairs--and, as Callum says, there are many other benefits besides simply purchasing books!

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