For the last five years, I have been involved in planning the annual Rochester Antiquarian Book Fair, and this year will be my third year as head organizer. This year’s fair is coming up in about two weeks, so I thought this would be a good time for me to share my thoughts on the value of trade events like this for professional dealers in books and ephemera, serious collectors, and the collectibles market in general.
As a bookseller, my first experience with fairs started about 12 years ago, the first year I exhibited at the Rochester fair. Since then I have exhibited at and attended a handful of others, but the Rochester fair is the one to which I keep returning, so I’ll concentrate on my experiences there.
In some ways, it feels like 12 years was not that long ago, but compared to the length of my professional career, it is a significant portion. My first job at a bookstore began 19 years ago, I founded my business about 15 years ago, and my shop will celebrate its 10-year anniversary at the end of this year. So, when I first appeared as a vendor at the Rochester fair, I considered myself a neophyte.
I brought what I thought was my best material, and I did not do very well. I forget the exact figures, but what I do remember is that I did not make enough money to cover the cost of exhibiting. I do not recall if I bought anything, which probably means that even if I did, it was not anything remarkable. Considering I had spent a whole day transporting books to the venue and setting up my display, and the whole next day manning my booth and then carting everything home, of course I felt rather disappointed. Did I bring the wrong books? Did I price things too high?
Then I looked back at the experience more carefully to assess what I had learned, and what I could do better next time and realized that what the weekend had lacked in sales, it made up for in experience. That day I met five colleagues with whom I still correspond, a number of serious collectors (at least one of whom still frequents my shop), a few book scouts, and some buyers from university libraries and local museums. Many of the customers I see at the book fair these days are people I recognize from that first year. Two of the colleagues I met would later play a significant role in the development of my career as a bookseller. That sounds a lot better than my original assessment, doesn’t it? Just think how beneficial this sort of event could be for me once I improved my approach!
I decided to take a closer look at what my goals should be for the next year, and compare that with the experiences of other dealers. After asking a few veterans, I quickly noticed a consensus among colleagues that fairs are most valuable for establishing and nurturing relationships, both among sellers, and between sellers and customers. Sales were only part of how they measured a fair’s success. I have since learned that many sellers also factor how much they purchase at a fair into their calculations of profitability (more on this in a future post).
Fast forward to today. The last three years I have had phenomenal success at the same fair. Relationships I have nurtured are now bearing fruit: I bring material with specific fair-goers in mind, other exhibitors who regularly attend the show know what sort of things I buy and bring them along (and I try to return the favor where possible), and I have learned a few tricks about how to display things in a more attractive way (for some more detailed comments on this last point, have a look at my earlier blog posts). In the weeks following the event, customers who bought from me at the fair visit my shop and make additional purchases, or make appointments for me to view collections they are selling. My e-mail subscriptions grow, and I get requests to perform appraisals. Not bad for a couple days’ work.
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Up to this point, the collectors, readers, and thrift shop junkies reading this may be saying, “Alright, but what does this have to do with me?” Well, quite a lot, it turns out. What I’ve been describing is one of the ways that dealers in collectibles become better at their jobs. The more exposure dealers have to diverse selections of items, new customers, and colleagues dealing in a variety of subject areas, the better equipped they are to find and offer for sale the things you want to buy.
Trade fairs provide a denser concentration of items than any single municipality can offer on a daily basis. This provides dealers the opportunity to purchase material previously unavailable or unknown to them, and the opportunity to sell material they have been unsuccessful in selling elsewhere. It puts a wide array of inventories at the fingertips of customers who might not otherwise have seen them, and provides a context in which their cultural significance or historical importance is more easily discerned.
It is important to understand, though, that just as there was a learning curve for me as a seller, similar challenges exist for buyers. Say, for instance, that you are a collector of ephemeral items related to radical social movements (e.g., posters advocating worker strikes, privately printed social protest literature, etc.). The chances of stumbling upon exciting items in this field on your first visit to a book or paper fair, while not zero, are probably not particularly high. The same sort of investment of time and energy necessary for successfully exhibiting at such an event is necessary for success in patronizing one. Serious collectors should introduce themselves to dealers and make it known what they collect. The more sellers who are aware of your interests, the likelier you are to be the one who is contacted when a particularly interesting piece comes to market.
Fairs are a great place to establish these sorts of relationships and, aside from visiting individual storefronts, probably the best way to solidify these relationships. Smart dealers will learn to cater to your collecting interests, and can sometimes be the difference between you having ‘dibs’ on an item and missing out on it entirely. Here is a fact that some collectors may not know: traditionally, fairs that are open to the public for a single day are actually two-day events. The first day is referred to as ‘setup day’, but may more properly be called ‘dealer-to-dealer sale day’. As vendors arrange their booth displays, other dealers peruse, and a great deal of business happens before the sale opens to the public. If these dealers know your collecting interests, and expect you to attend the fair, they will (if they are smart) act as your personal scout during setup day. At some fairs, the majority of my sales have been material purchased during setup and sold to regular customers the next day.
For those who object, “Aren’t I paying a markup on these? Wouldn’t it be better if I found them myself on the day of the fair?” First of all, some items brought to fairs sell to other dealers on setup day, and are not seen ‘on the floor’ during the fair. Second, the best deals are always to be had directly on the heels of a dealer’s purchase — in other words, it’s easiest and most advantageous to dealers to flip inventory quickly. It saves the trouble of cataloging and storing the item, so chances are you are getting a good deal. Dealers traditionally offer one another trade discounts, so in many cases you will not pay a markup at all — many times I have purchased items at fairs and sold them to customers the next day for the same price the original dealer was asking.
At a certain point in collecting, it also becomes less about getting the best deal, and more about acquiring items when they become available. By their very nature, collectibles are in limited supply. In other words, when it’s gone it’s gone. Laying the groundwork to make sure dealers are acquiring inventory with you in mind pays dividends in the long-run, in the form of obtaining things that would have otherwise slipped through your fingers (or, more likely, been offered for sale and purchased before you even knew they were available). The more ears you have to the ground on your behalf, the better your collection will be.
Events such as the Rochester Antiquarian Book Fair, then, provide a benefit not just to dealers, not just to collectors, but to the world of collectibles as a whole. Truly unique and collectible items (e.g., manuscripts, original artwork, signed material) are most properly viewed in person, and it is always beneficial (both to buyer and seller) to do business directly. There is no better method of building relationships, and the opportunity for serendipitous discovery offered by these events has no parallel.
I feel compelled to offer a bit of background about the Rochester fair which, given the penchant readers of this blog have for tradition and history, I think will be appreciated. First organized in 1972 by bookseller James Brunner, it is one of the longest continuously running annual fairs in the country, set to celebrate its 46th year next month. Brunner still exhibits at the fair, as do several other ‘charter members’ (e.g., Yankee Peddler, Roy Clare). Originally held in the library of the University of Rochester, it has changed venues a number of times over the years, supervised by numerous organizers. It is currently sponsored by the Rochester Area Booksellers Association (RABA), of which I and a handful of other local dealers are members. My first experience with the fair came when it was held at the Dome Arena in Henrietta, but for the last four years it has taken place at the Main Street Armory.
Exhibiting dealers are largely from New York State, though some dealers come from out of state, or even from Canada. This year’s fair will see dealers from Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, and Vermont, and in the past dealers from North Carolina, Maine, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts have attended. While it originally began as a book fair, it now boasts a wide variety of material including: photographs, postcards, posters, manuscripts, journals, diaries, letters, art, antiques related to printing, book-related clothing and jewelry, etc. The concentration is on antiquarian and vintage items, but you can also find modern material in desirable editions. There is a little something for everyone. This year’s fair takes place on September 8th at the Main Street Armory, which is located at 900 East Main Street in Rochester, New York. More information is available on RABA’s website at www.rochesterbooksellers.com. Presale tickets can be purchased through EventBrite here, and you can follow the event on Facebook here. If you decide to attend, make sure to come say hello – I will be at Booth 20.
If you are considering attending a local fair, do a little research about who will be exhibiting. You can even reach out to exhibitors beforehand to inquire about what sort of material they will be bringing. For larger shows, dealers will often release fair catalogs digitally, so it makes sense to sign up for their e-mail newsletters or follow them on social media to make sure you can preview these items.
If you are considering exhibiting at a fair, I have a bit too much advice to offer here. There are a lot of do’s and don’ts (some are even codified in trade organization codes of ethics). My next post will be dedicated to discussing the ins and outs of these events from both an exhibitor’s and a customer’s standpoint. I’ve touched on a few points here, though most of those have been more why to attend or exhibit at fairs. There are a lot more to cover when it comes to the how.
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For those who have not had the pleasure of attending a book or paper fair yet, here are a few resources to get you started:
Other fairs I would personally recommend visiting would be:
‘Shadow’ Fairs (these share weekends with higher-end national fairs)
Until next time, happy hunting!
Jonathan Smalter owns Yesterday’s Muse Books, located at 32 West Main Street in Webster, and online at www.yesterdaysmuse.com. His bookstore has been in operation for ten years, and he has nearly twenty years of experience in the book trade. He is a member of the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association of America and the Independent Online Booksellers Association, and currently serves as the head organizer of the annual Rochester Antiquarian Book Fair, which will be celebrating its 46th year next month.