Report on the San Francisco book fair

It used to be the Walter Larsen book fair.  Now it’s the Nancy Johnson fair.  It used to be at the Concourse Exhibition Center, a gigantic barn.  Now it’s at the pavilion at Fort Mason, an equally gigantic barn.  This event takes place whenever the ABAA (Antiquarian Bookseller’s Association of America) holds its fair in Southern California.  The shadow fair allows East Coasters and foreign dealers coming to California to do a two-fer

Walter Larsen never promoted the fair well, but Nancy Johnson seems to have done much better in this regard.  That’s a change for the better.  However, I don’t think modern literature sells well there and whenever you change venues you lose some of your audience, so I decided not to exhibit.  I did attend, partly as a civilian and partly as a helper for Swan’s Fine Books of Walnut Creek, California.  Laurelle Swan is an up and coming bookseller who won the Northern California chapter of the ABAA’s scholarship to the Colorado Antiquarian Book Seminar.

So how was it?  The parking spots were very narrow.  I had to get out of my car through the rear hatch.  Once inside I found that the lighting was good.  Heating was good, and necessary since the pavilion is right on San Francisco Bay.  No more glorious weather was possible on the Friday set up.  Just beautiful, but there was no food concession during the set up, and there was a decided lack of food options nearby.  The food available on Saturday and Sunday was better than what had been available at the Concourse, but it could still be a lot better.  The aisles were spacious.  The quality of the books exhibited was extremely high.  The spending of the attending public was meager.  Of all the exhibitors with whom I spoke about the course of business there, only Bob Haines from The Argonaut Bookshop and Jay Nicolaisen of Reed’s Rare Books, both from San Francisco, were pleased.  Bob, who recently acquired a huge collection of early printed material, was especially pleased and enthusiastic.  Everyone else seemed to experience commerce in drips and trickles.  There was a decided lack of electricity or buzz in the room.  The attendance, even on Super Bowl Sunday, seemed decent, but the fair seemed to be one of those dreaded events that is more of a show than a sale.  In short, it was an event to attend only, despite the high quality of the material offered.  It was like a banquet wherein the feast laid out was spectacular, but no one came to actually eat.  I purchased three books at the fair and have already sold two of them, so I was pleased in that regard.

There was also some humor attached to the event.  Some bookseller advertised the following on Craig’s List

I am looking to hire a female to help me at a bookfair at Fort Mason Feb 1st & 2nd. I will be in town for business and would like to have some company. I am strickly paying for your time. I will arrive thurs 30th if you want to chat 1st.. Looking for a female to help (hosting the booth ETC). All expenses paid. Please send a current photo or two. Include cell # so we can talk first. College age would be my great, I am open to anyone. I am a business man coming in from out of town looking for someone to walk talk eat have some fun with. Please email a little bit about yourself too. For the 2 day window I am thinking pay would be $250-$500 plus commision I am in my late 40’s tall and very outgoing. Should be non smoker. Blonde is better as I am5’8. Sexy is the key, I define sexy as an attitude not just the body.

Curious, no?  Fess up now, who was it?  By the way, I didn’t know that 5’8″ is tall.  Makes me a giant being six-foot.

And then I had to pass by the booth of Jeff Marks.  I had been meaning to stop and chat, but the opportunity eluded me until late Sunday.  There I spied one of those items that haunts you  —  the one that got away.  Several years ago I purchased five books for $50,000 at an auction, easily the most I had ever spent on books.  I was queasy back then at the risk I was taking, although it worked really well for me in the end.  But I didn’t know that when later at that auction an item came up that I wanted personally, not professionally.  It was an original lithograph of Rose of Sharon, one of several character studies produced by Thomas Hart Benton for the Limited Editions Club version of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath.  I had always loved that image.  Decades before when I had first gone into the rare book business I used to visit one of Steinbeck’s roommates from his Stanford University days, a great guy named Carlton A. (Dook) Sheffield, a man incredibly important to Steinbeck’s writing career.  He had one of these lithographs of Rose of Sharon on a wall in his kitchen.  I fell in love with it then.  That image has always haunted me.  And here was one that I could buy at this auction, if I had the courage to spend even more money.  And, this one was a presentation from the artist to John Steinbeck himself.  It cannot get any better.  And bid on it I did, but I couldn’t talk myself into bidding enough to secure the purchase.  It got away.  I hated myself for my cowardice, in spite of the fact that it was the correct economic decision.  But in San Francisco, in Jeff Marks’s booth, there was that very lithograph.  I could have wept.  It was there for the taking.  All I had to do was summon the courage to buy it.  I had a second bite at the apple.  But once again I was bitterly disappointed.  I didn’t even inquire as to the price.  Jeff wanted to sell it along with the other lithographs that Benton had also presented to Steinbeck.  I think there were three others  —  Ma Joad, Pa Joad, and Casy.  I surely could not afford to buy all of them in order to satisfy my need for Rose of Sharon.  It was like the electric mystery of running into an old girlfriend not seen for many years.  It was a sad and yet sweet parting.  I had to walk away, hoping that Jeff might some day sell them individually, so that maybe, finally, I could acquire Rose of Sharon, the one that got away.

A few days from now, Feb. 7-9, I’ll be exhibiting at the ABAA book fair at the Pasadena Convention Center.  My next blog will be a report on that fair.

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One response to “Report on the San Francisco book fair

  1. Jim: You may or may not have noticed–I can’t imagine that you didn’t–that David Meeker acquired a big collection of Steinbeck material, included in which was a copy of Cannery Row, with a title page inscription by “Doc” Ricketts, to the effect that this was the first time he had been referred to as “Doc” (in the book). David and i agreed that no better copy of the book could be imagined, since the association was of the very model for the book’s fictional hero. We did okay at the fair, but I sold none of my “blockbusters” from the front glass case. Lots of very pleasant browsers, including one former student of Nabokov’s (at Cornell), who almost bought our copy of Laughter in the Dark (1st Bobbs-Merrill edition). Alas, he passed. Still, despite the mausoleum-like quality of the venue, it was a pretty good fair (for us).

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