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London in June (or the way things were in 2002, lately not so much - ed. note)

January, 2020
By Wilfrid de Freitas

London in June! To some folk this would conjure up, among other things, images of tulips and daffodils, changing the guard at Buckingham Palace, good theatre... and high prices (well by Canadian standards, anyway!). However, for a bookseller only one of these readily stands out: you guessed it, the high prices. The others are almost incidental because one is really there for Book Fair Week, which this year [2002] started on Friday, May 31. The format is now firmly established and known well in advance, so that people can make their travel plans in a timely manner, especially if they intend to exhibit at one of the book fairs (this year there were nine!) which take place in the first week of June in London. 

Friday, May 31.

There’s always a certain sense of anticipation in the days right before the now traditional first fair, “Russell One” as it’s often called, at which we’ve chosen to exhibit. It’s organized by the Provincial Booksellers Fairs Association (the PBFA), the largest bookseller association on the planet with some six hundred members. Being a two-day event with set up from 9 a.m. there isn’t a lot of time to check out the other exhibitors’ stock before the public enters at noon. There’s the usual feverish snatching of books from stands, and the enviable crowding around two or three exhibitors who seem to have the reputation for keen (i.e. realistic) pricing.  This year, some people were concerned about the effect of last September’s disaster in New York on the usually heavy US dealer presence, which traditionally contributes so greatly to the success of the book fair week. Their concerns are not misplaced, as it turns out, with attendance of both visiting and exhibiting American booksellers decidedly down. Notwithstanding, there’s the usual queue outside the Russell Hotel in Bloomsbury’s Russell Square, and they burst in when the doors open, with some habitués actually running to their favoured booksellers. The initial orgy lasts a couple of hours, after which things settle down to more sedate inspection of what’s on offer by the eighty-five or so exhibitors, and by 7 p.m. we’re all ready to relax over supper, girding our loins for the next morning’s HD fray.

Saturday, June 1

Just up the road from the Russell, the HD Fair with its hundred or so exhibitors opens at the Royal National Hotel at 10 a.m. on Saturday. By 9 there’s a solid queue, with glares towards any interloper who tries to insinuate him - or her self at the last moment: queuing in Britain is taken very seriously! The perceived ‘wisdom’ is that if you’re at the front of the queue you’re likely to get the best book(s), but it seems more likely that you’ll have only a one or two minute advantage over those at the back of the line. Besides, pre-opening shopping by exhibitors will have cut deeply into what little edge there is in being first into the room. Indeed, some booksellers give the impression of exhibiting at every fair possible – often simultaneously – just to have the advantage of pre-fair shopping. The token display of stock and the absence of the dealer in favour of an employee, or, worse still, the complete absence of anyone at the booth, are the tell-tale signs of such an exhibitor. (Recently, there has been an increasing number of thefts, usually of more expensive items, at book fairs – something I don’t recall hearing about except rarely in the past – so I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised.)  Some exhibitors will even take their display, lock, stock and barrel, to more than one fair, so that déjà vu is a not uncommon experience during book fair week! During the feeding frenzy of the first couple of hours of the HD, the Russell fair is relatively quiet, then both fairs settle down to a steady stream of visitors. Remember, we’re now at day 2 of the Russell fair, and day 1 of the HD. This evening, we pack up at the Russell to make way for “Russell Two” which opens in exactly the same space, with around eighty-five completely different exhibitors on Sunday and Monday.

Sunday, June 2

By noon, the HD fair is pretty dead as all eyes are now on Russell Two which opens at noon. There seem to be more people about, as there’s marginally less traffic and parking’s free on Sunday in London. (Otherwise it’s around C$35 for the day in a garage. Woe betide anyone who overstays the four-hour meter limit, and feeding the meter is against the rules. The city clampers are ruthlessly efficient, demanding the C$150 release fee, which I paid when clamped in 1997, but which by now has probably risen to C$200.)  Now it’s our turn to burst in on Russell Two, and some of us Russell One exhibitors do so with relish having, as it were, paid our dues. It must be said that, despite my opening comment about high prices, all the books one could ever reasonably want are to be found at the plethora of book fairs this week. But which would you rather have: no books or expensive books? It’s a difficult choice to be sure, but it seems to me that in the US, at any rate, collectors are willing to pay for books which they don’t often see at American fairs but which can be found, albeit at high prices, in the UK. We’re now at day 1 of the Russell Two fair, and day 2 of the HD which closes this evening.

Monday, June 3

Things are much quieter this morning: this year is unusual with a two-day Monday/Tuesday bank holiday in honour of the Queen’s Golden Jubilee. The London Book Fair (with about twenty exhibitors) and The Naval, Aviation and Military Book Fair both open at 9:30 a.m. at the Bonnington Hotel, just down the road from the Russell.  Susan and I decide to give them a miss and sleep in. We’d hit the ground running the previous Monday (after a pleasant British Airways flight from Montreal, on which we were upgraded), and gone straight into central London to an auction viewing for a two-day sale on Tuesday and Wednesday, May 28/29. Then we needed to prepare for our Russell One fair on Friday, incorporating into our inventory some of the auction purchases from Tuesday and Wednesday... so you’ll understand that by now we were pretty worn out, but still with lots to keep us busy at home for the next couple of days. 

Wednesday, June 5

Now the action moves from central to west London, with The London International Book Fair at the Hilton on Kensington High Street. It’s strategically located between Olympia, venue for the ABA fair, and The Commonwealth Institute this week’s venue for HD’s second fair and the PBFA’s third.  The thinking here is that with all the major players likely to be in London for the ABA fair which opens on Thursday, there’s a captive audience hungry for good books and many dealers opt for the west London scene, rather than traditional Bloomsbury. Of course, many of the ABA exhibitors, who are in the midst of their set-up, take an hour or two off to come to the Hilton so there’s a goodly queue by opening time and the room is soon crowded. 

Thursday, June 6

Today’s the reason many people are really in London: the first day of the ABA fair. HD has a small thirty dealer fair starting at 10 a.m. at the Commonwealth Institute, a sort of precursor to the ABA which opens at noon. For the past few years the ABA fair has been ‘opened’ by a celebrity: last year it was the Poet Laureate, Andrew Motion; this year it’s Joanna Lumley, for those like me not in the loop, the co-star of “Absolutely Fabulous”. I’d no idea she was into books, so to speak, but there you are, one never knows, and her presence draws some useful publicity. The ABA fair is tied to the major Olympia Antiques Fair, with cross-fertilisation through mutual complimentary entry as one of the aims: if they like antiques, they might well like old books. American participation is down but we’re well represented by Bjarne Tokerud, Helen Kahn and Eric Waschke of Wayfarer Books in Vancouver. The displays are ‘Absolutely Fabulous’: perhaps that’s why Joanna Lumley was invited! Despite the high prices we inevitably make a few purchases (no one can know everything about every book!), but it’s a hard slog. Flavours of the month are definitely Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings, with prices that make you sit up and pay attention. I sometimes get the uneasy feeling that there’s some sort of ‘topping’ contest going on:  B to A “OK; you’ve got your Lord of the Rings trilogy fine in dust jackets priced at £10,000, then mine’s £15,000”, then C comes along and says “Right, then mine’s £20,000”. Mind you, it’s not as though it’s a scarce item; there are probably half a dozen sets at the fair. But I digress... 

Friday, June 7.

The PBFA’s third Fair opens at 2 p.m. at The Commonwealth Institute, but Susan and I elect to attend a small provincial auction in the hope that most dealers will be too engrossed in the London fair scene to pay attention to it. But we’re wrong and prices are as heady as ever, with lots of left bids. Still we come away with a few scraps and almost £1000 lighter, and drive directly to The Commonwealth Institute for the PBFA fair. It’s an enormous space which could easily accomodate 250 or 300 dealers, so the eighty or so exhibitors don’t make much of a dent in it. The traffic is bad (it’s always bad in England) and we’re late, so there’s a frantic rush around to make sure we catch those who are exhibiting for the first time. The PBFA two-fair exhibition rule is, one may exhibit at Russell One and The Commonwealth Institute, or Russell Two and the C. I. but not at both Russells, so we’ve seen some of these books before and don’t need to spend time on them again. Despite our late arrival, we find some nice items (not only books) and are glad we have the car in town and don’t have to lug them home on the bus and train (we stay with family, about twelve miles outside central London).

Saturday/Sunday, June 8 & 9.

The PBFA Commonwealth Institute fair ends on Saturday and the ABA on Sunday, and here almost endeth the lesson, but not before a couple of general observations: the usual trade discount in the UK is 10%, a good idea in my view, thereby avoiding the unbusinesslike practice of marking up prices so one can the ‘allow’ a 20%, or more, discount. All this does is turn off potential buyers who see a sticker price apparently so high that they just walk away, without even enquiring as to the ‘real’ price. The other disconcerting practice is the use (surprisingly by some top end dealers) of colour photocopy dust jackets on modern first editions: sure there’s a pencilled note to this effect inside the book, but who knows what some unscrupulous person might try on, say, a neophyte bibliophile, after purchasing such a book??? If it were up to me, I’d ban their use at all ILAB fairs. OK, I’m done whingeing! 

If you haven’t been to London for Book Fair Week, then I heartily recommend that you do so sometime. The internet is quickly revolutionising the way our little world of bookselling operates, and it’ll be nice to look back on the good old days, as we’ll then know them, when they’re  gone - as they might well be!

Ed. Note: Raquel and I were in London for the 2002 Fairs, attended most of the events, watched the Queen's Golden Jubilee celebrations on the "jumbotron" screens set up outside Buckingham Palace, while not realizing we were experiencing one of the last of the great London Book Fair weeks.  Now that the ABA has moved its fair south of the Thames, events have become scattered and not as well attended.  I vaguely recall running into Wilfrid at a PBFA fair, probably the Russell.