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Four Book Fairs and Changes Ahead

January, 2010
By John Huckans

In late October we exhibited at the Salt City Autumn Antiques Show & Antiquarian Book Fair in Syracuse, NY—the last time we participated in a book fair, I believe, was in 1994. It was different in that the book fair part of the antiques show was held in a separate hall immediately visible from the main gate, with a prominent banner overhanging the entrance. There were only 10 booksellers taking part, including a book & paper conservator from Skaneateles, NY.

The event was managed according to high professional standards, with pipe and drape decorated booths, a large advertising budget that included a lot of advertising on central New York radio and television stations, as well as print ads in trade publications and local newspapers. Withal, the attendance of around 3800 or so was down a few hundred from previous years—but not too bad considering the state of the economy in this part of New York State. I think I'm being accurate in saying that sales were generally slow throughout the entire show, not just the book fair portion. Even antiques dealers who didn't do well had nothing but high praise for the promoters who did everything they could to make the event a success.

In my own case, I experimented by avoiding the middle range and exhibiting books priced toward both ends of the pricing spectrum—“show-and-tell” items in the three and four figure range and a lot of books uniformly priced at $3.00. As expected, we sold almost none of the former and many of the latter—but since this event is in my backyard, so to speak, I think I'd do it again.

A few days later we flew Virgin Atlantic for the first time in our lives—incidentally, I'd strongly recommend Branson's airline over British Air, my recent experiences with B/A having been less than pleasant. Our flight left on election day, Tuesday the 3rd of November, but we had taken care to vote previously by absentee ballot. As it turned out, according to the BBC the following day, officials were still counting absentee and military ballots to determine the outcome of the special election in our own congressional district, New York's 23rd. Our local representative, a Republican, had been appointed Secretary of the Army, and what started out as a three-way became a two-way contest when the Republican middle-of-the-road candidate dropped out after polling information indicated she might end up a distant third, thus ensuring a win for the Democrat. When we returned to Cazenovia nearly three weeks later our telephone answering machine was overloaded with nearly 100 messages, most of them robot calls from campaign or other political organizations interested in the outcome in the 23rd. I know it's popular to deplore negative political attack ads, but because they seem to work, you can be sure they'll only get worse in the years to come. The dozens of robo-messages I deleted really plumbed the depths of shameless slander and political bad taste—it was suggested that one candidate might be a born-again Christian, while the other one was accused of being a lawyer.

The Chelsea Book Fair in early November was the busiest I've ever attended. We arrived just before the opening on Friday, the line extended out the front door and part way down the block, people had to wait up to 45 minutes to check their coats and bags, the cloak room was filled to overflowing within the first hour, and what followed was the closest thing to a feeding frenzy I've seen at a book fair for a very long time. Whether this is an indication of a trend remains to be seen.

On Sunday we visited the HD Book Fair, now known as the Bloomsbury Book Fair, at the Royal National hotel, just north of Russell Square. This event in recent years has gradually overshadowed the somewhat smaller PBFA fair now held at a nearby Holiday Inn located on a side street near a giant smokestack that overlooks the neighborhood. I miss the PBFA's former location at the Hotel Russell, the grand old Edwardian pile immediately facing Russell Square. Books at the HD tend to be priced for people at every income level—attracting serious collectors, casual readers, and everybody in between. We did manage to cover every stand, even after allowing time to slip away for an hour to attend a Quaker meeting at Friends House on Euston Road, just off Gordon Square. There are always good buying opportunities at the HD and this time was no exception.

At all the fairs we noticed that cash was more in evidence as banks and larger merchants are discouraging the use of paper checks, unless guaranteed by a bank card connected to a line of credit. Without a hard-wired or wireless terminal, this means more use of cash, accompanied by more careful spending habits—as a general trend this would probably be a good thing for most people, but not so good for investment banks.

We couldn't bring ourselves to visit Biblion which, by the time you read this, should be completely closed down with the premises absorbed by the parent Gray's Antiques Market, a long-time Mayfair landmark. The remaining antiquarian bookshops along Charing Cross Road—Any Amount of Books, Quinto, and Henry Pordes—seem to be holding their own, along with Greening-Burland and the other booksellers on Cecil Court. We wish them well.

*

In about two months this magazine will have completed 25 years of non-stop publication and I'm starting to think people should either re-invent themselves every 25 years or take on another line of work. In the rush to get the November/December issue out before leaving for Chelsea we made a number of errors—the most damaging being the conflation of two venues in an advertisement for the Boston Book & Ephemera Show and our failure to spot the mistake. Also, there were a few minor typos, including the careless misuse of the word “I” instead of “me” (pointed out to us almost gleefully) as the personal pronoun standing for the object of the subordinate clause within one of the sentences describing the cover. What was really sad, though, is that there was no mention of Mohandas Gandhi.

We've been giving this whole business a lot of thought and have consulted with several people including our youngest daughter Margaret who is very active in the hospitality software business. The easiest option would be to pull the plug on paper and continue publishing on the Internet—and since you read the third paragraph of my column last time this possibility shouldn't take you at all by surprise. Abandoning paper altogether would be difficult for us, mainly because we'd hate to disappoint our loyal base of paid subscribers (about 19% of our total readership) who often take the time to send us kind notes of support. Unfortunately it is too expensive to maintain a paid subscription list—renewal letters, follow-ups, inducements in the form of free directory listings that amount to unpaid advertising, etc. The vast majority of our readers have always been content to rely on free copies picked up at book fairs and other venues. So our decision, at least for all or part of 2010, is to continue publishing on paper but in an entirely different way.

First of all we will offer a free subscription to nearly everyone who asks (see the “Patrons of Words on Paper” ad elsewhere in this issue), however the magazine will no longer be mailed first class, but by “standard mail”, the lowest rate charged by the postal service. This means that in most cases it will take longer to arrive at the destination—instead of just two or three days in transit, it could take anywhere from two days to two weeks (unfortunately, the only guarantee the post office makes is that it will raise rates at least once a year). We'll give this a whirl for the next six months or so—if it works out, we expect to be around for a while, if not we're the Saturday Evening Post.

Of course pro-rated refunds will be sent to our subscribers who are unhappy with these changes, otherwise our mailing list should continue to grow and in future no renewal notices will be sent—due to the high cost of airmail, however, this offer only extends to people living within the U.S. We only ask that you notify us when you move because the post office does not forward “standard mail” but will either destroy the piece or leave it with the then current resident at your old address.

Other changes will include discontinuance of the “Specialists' Directories” and possibly the “Open Shop Guides”. Depending on demand, the Open Shop Guide might be retained as a form of advertising, subject to ad rates which have yet to be determined.

You may also depend on more wide-ranging or sometimes controversial editorial content (see Michael Pixley's article elsewhere in this issue), and complaints that something we printed has “no place in a magazine about books” (whatever that means) will be accepted as a compliment rather than an affront. In other words we think we should define ourselves rather than allow others to do it—if it ever came to the latter, we'd gladly move to Sussex and tend to our bees.

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