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On the Road, or Books, Badgers and Cavaliers

January, 2005
By John Huckans

For more years than I have fingers and toes, we’ve traveled to London to visit book fairs, family, friends and business associates. Originally by design and later by habit these trips were made in early June to take advantage of eight or nine antiquarian book fairs all concentrated within a two-week stretch. Lately, however, November has become an attractive alternative – three good fairs clustered within a week, cheaper airline flights, less crowded hotels and weather that’s not all that bad (if you’re from upstate New York).

And as a bonus there are spectacular fire-works on the Thames and in various neighborhoods around town to celebrate Guy Fawke’s foiled terrorist plot to take out the entire government in one fell swoop. Also, the Lord Mayor’s Show, a free annual parade and extravaganza, often with international participation, takes place in the heart of the old City.

This year we almost didn’t make it because Caroline, our enthusiastic rabbit and squirrel chasing Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, was supposed to have her first litter. Shortly before Halloween our veterinarian told us that it was a no go and that we could put away the whelping box for now – so at the last minute we decided there was still time to make Chelsea.

American Airlines frequently offers attractive air/land packages with hotel accommodations costing next to nothing when compared to buying the two portions separately. Unfortunately the American Airlines deals had been sold out at that late date, so I went into my cache of British Air frequent flyer miles, found there was enough for one ticket, got a good price on another one, and took advantage of British Air’s low hotel rates.

The hotel bargain-hunters most often end up with is the Royal National, just off Russell Square, and the venue for one of the more popular monthly antiquarian book fairs – the other sponsored by the PBFA and held at the Russell, an Edwardian landmark currently undergoing extensive renovations. Incidentally, you should or probably do know that buying “paperless” e-tickets on-line is anything but a paperless undertaking. Airline website promoters call it “paperless” because it’s not their paper that’s being used. My inkjet printer churned out seven pages per ticket, used up a fair amount of toner, which isn’t cheap, and this didn’t even include the hotel vouchers. Next time I want to go “paperless” I’ll call my travel agent – if only to help save some trees.

We arrived two days after the recent national election and for the rest of the week it seemed all anyone wanted to talk about was our reaction to the outcome – and although no one would come right out and say it, it was palpably obvious people were dying to know who we voted for. When I said we voted for “none of the above” – meaning one of the minor party candidates – some folks seemed surprised to learn that our third parties are playing an increasingly important role, if only to ease guilty consciences.

Iraq was on many people’s minds, mostly expressed as opposition to the war, and there is a tendency to view visiting Americans as probable supporters of a decades-long foreign policy that has been largely responsible for creating and nurturing an unfortunate series of completely predictable events. Diversity of opinion is alive and well on this side of the pond, as became fairly obvious.

And in one case (two actually) near strangers all but wanted to hold us morally accountable for the United States’ unwillingness to sign the Kyoto Treaty. How does one put it gently that the air quality where we live in New York State, as well as in most places we’ve visited along the east coast, is light years ahead of the industrially polluted and diesel exhaust laden air we’ve been forced to breathe in many European cities, both large and small? On this issue I can only say that while some people and nations talk the talk, others walk the walk.

*

I don’t know what this portends for the antiquarian book trade generally, but results for Chelsea (sponsored by the ABA) were up this year. According to Roger Treglown, chairman of the book fair committee, sales for the two days totaled £351,043 (with 76 booksellers participating) up from £295,385 for the previous year when 77 booksellers exhibited. At the same time 1204 visitors passed through the doors – 100 more than last year. With a 19% increase in sales, despite one less exhibitor, perhaps this means book buyers are tired of staring at computer monitors and want to see real books for a change.

At the Royal National, the following weekend, there was a constant buzz from the moment the doors opened until the end of the Sunday afternoon when fair managers had to all but chase people out the door. I think the excitement at the National is a result of the availability of books at every price level – from as little as one pound to several thousands. Anyone who loves books – students, collectors with deep pockets, and everyone in between – can afford to buy something.

The PBFA held its fair the same day in the more stately surroundings of the Russell, just over the road from the National, and immediately facing Russell Square in the heart of Bloomsbury. PBFA fairs, like those of the ABA, are more up-market and generally tend to attract book buyers with more money to spend. The pace of activity seemed a little sedate, yet I’ve received no information to suggest that the results were any less than satisfactory.

Since returning I’ve heard from several booksellers who were quite pleased with their sales at the Boston Antiquarian Book Fair. With the present weakness in the American dollar I suspect that bargain hunting by visiting Europeans might have accounted for some of the upturn – the recent Southwest Book & Paper Show in Austin also reported heartening results although I don’t think currency exchange rates had much to with it.

I do know that there were precious few Americans at the London fairs, especially when compared to years past – the combination of a weak dollar and reluctance to fly and endure the extended pre-boarding procedures may all have been contributing factors. (By far the largest contingent of European tourists in the West End was from Spain, with travelers from Germany, France, the Scandinavian countries, and elsewhere filling in).

*

Between book fair filled weekends, we traveled by coach (long distance bus) to Wales in pursuit of books and antiques while visiting my cousin Daphne who raises Arabian horses and Cavalier King Charles Spaniels on a small farm west of Swansea – not too far from Laugharne where Dylan Thomas spent some of the most productive years of his short life.

Caroline’s mother, grandmother, and half-sisters continue to run free with the horses while taking care to steer clear of badgers. Badgers, I learned, are mostly revered by city-dwellers who may never have seen one outside of a zoo. Country folks in Wales, and I suppose in other parts of Britain, revere and protect badger colonies in somewhat the same way that people in large cities revere and protect robust rat infestations – or we, in the northeast, the exploding deer population. In any event, Daphne’s Cavaliers are happy and healthy, with one approaching either 17 or 18 years of age – nearly double the life expectancy of American-bred Cavaliers, but that’s another story.

I also visited a bookshop in Carmarthen where the owner was so busy cataloguing books on line that he had no time to exchange more than a few words – with so many rural bookshops apparently being run as storage areas for the internet, I suspect the main reason the proprietors continue to take on the high overheads of a retail location is to make themselves more visible to people wanting to dispose of their collections.

London has its Portobello Road, and we always spend a Saturday there, but most of the best buys turn up at local boot sales and antiques markets near the larger towns. For many years, in Wales and elsewhere, these were the sources for some of the finer books and antiques that traditionally worked their way through the food chain until they ended up in London’s West End. Of course book fairs and now the internet has changed all that and in the resulting free-for-all the trade is constantly having to reinvent itself.

Nuts and Bolts:

We have been told by our printer that we are now being charged more for printing this magazine because of a sharp rise in the cost of paper. As a result we must increase slightly our rather low advertising rates – this has nothing to do with the use of color, the cost of which has actually declined in recent months to the point where it is now affordable.

The first installment of the annual Directory of Private Collectors appears elsewhere in this issue – depending on the availability of space it may take several issues or even most of the year to fit it all in.

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