A Book Fair That’s Controversial?

There’s battle lines being drawn….

You wouldn’t normally think that the staid, old-fashioned world of book collecting and book selling would be controversial, but a convergence of events has rocked the book world.  Will it all turn out as planned, or will the largest antiquarian book fair on the planet be a complete dud?  Stay tuned.

The event in question is the 48th California International Antiquarian Book Fair sponsored by the Antiquarian Booksellers of American (ABAA).  This fair alternates between Northern and Southern California.  The North conducts this massive event in odd years and the South in even years. For years and years the event in Northern California took place at the Concourse Exhibition Center at 8th and Brannan in San Francisco, as it did in 2013.  Everyone knew where it was, how to get there, what the parking was like, where the shuttles ran, etc., but the Concourse closed. So, where to go?

The book fair committee of the Northern California Chapter of the ABAA, which is responsible for putting on the event, narrowed its choices to two locations.  One was Fort Mason.  It’s still in San Francisco, but it lacks taxis, hotels, restaurants, and easy access.  Instead, the Oakland Marriott City Center was chosen, meaning that for the first time in its long history, according to the ABAA national, the fair would take place outside of San Francisco. That’s the beginning of the controversy, but it ain’t over yet.

The fair itself is always fantastic.  The best booksellers in the world bring their best books, manuscripts, letters, maps, and other printed material including incunabula.  There will be fine bindings, children’s and illustrated books.  The fair is scheduled for Feb. 6 (3 to 8 p.m.), 7 (11 a.m. to 7 p.m.), and 8 (11 a.m. to 5 p.m.).  The featured exhibition, in addition to the materials for sale, will focus on books and manuscripts at Mills College in Oakland.  The featured seminar will be Feb. 8 at 11:30 a.m. on Jack London, photographer presented by Sue Hodson of the Huntington Library.  There will be three other seminars, plus Discovery Day Feb. 8th where attendees can have up to three books informally appraised.

Oakland Fair

All good, but there are problems.  Whenever there is a change of venue, attendance goes down.  That’s not good news for the exhibitors who will plunk down in excess of $3,000 to exhibit, some of whom depend on this fair for a sizable chunk of their annual income.  Lower attendance usually means lower bottom lines.  Not good.  But this fair is not only changing venues, it’s changing cities.  Will that also translate to lower bottom-lines for exhibitors?  Probably.  And while there are bright spots in Oakland, it’s not San Francisco, and, for some, the idea of Oakland and the baggage it carries, true or not, triggers a gag response.

White Rain Productions, the fair’s promotion company, counters that the venue is across the street from the 12th Street BART station, with easy access to diverse cuisine, historic Old Oakland sites, museums, Lake Merritt, and the waterfront at Jack London Square. White Rain also points out that Oakland was recently listed by the New York Times as the No. 5 destination to visit in the world, that Thrillist lists it as America’s fifth most “hipster” city, and that ArtPlace America lists it as one of the top art destinations in the world.

But let’s look closer.  The NYTimes article ran in its Travel Section —  three years ago.  Is that “recent?” The Thrillist article was two years ago. So, what has been the response from the dealers?  In 2007, there were 243 exhibitors.  In 2009 there were 237.  In 2011 there were 222.  In 2013 there were 217.  This lowering of the number of exhibitors could be pegged to the Great Recession, but as of this writing the Dow is at more than 17,000 and the unemployment rate has dropped to 5.6%.  Most economic indicators point up for the first time in a long spell.  So why has the population of dealers from 2013 (217) dropped to only 184 for 2015?  There will be a total of 174 booths (some are shared), but the Marriott can accommodate 225 booths, according to White Rain. More troubling is that in 2013 there were 26 dealers from the Bay Area, but only 22 signed up for 2015  —  for a major book fair that’s essentially in their back yard?

I contacted those four dealers.  Two didn’t respond.  One said that the internet has killed book fairs.  The same dealer can’t or won’t acquire enough new stock on a regular basis so that his wares are new, fresh, but he also blamed the locale of the fair.  “Oakland is a new, untested venue so I will let others test the waters.”  Another dealer who has eschewed Oakland also blames the locale.

At first the book fair committee reported that there would be a $63,000 savings in the rental of the Oakland site vs. the Concourse, indicating that at least some of that money would be used to promote the new venue in hopes of offsetting a decline in attendance.  That seemed to calm tensions.  It was hoped by some that this savings would have resulted in a lower booth fee for exhibitors, too.  This would have made sense.  A lower booth fee might retain the level of dealer participation.  And the more dealers that exhibit means a better bottom-line for the ABAA as a national entity as the ABAA gets a flat $150 fee per booth.  It needs that income to fund itself.  Besides, the booth fee for a fair in Oakland couldn’t possibly cost the same as a booth in San Francisco.  Or could it?

According to White Rain, “The Marriott has a lower rental fee, but it’s not an apple-to-apples comparison as there are various requirements such as a guest room and catering commitment, service taxes and miscellaneous labor/City/electrical fees.”  In short, the cost of the Marriott as a venue is about the same as the Concourse.  Thus, any funds thought to be used to promote the fair more than in the past because of the venue/city change have disappeared.

“We do need to stick with the same budget although we had hoped to spend more.  The exhibitor registration just isn’t there this year to support more on advertising.  We are increasing our viral marketing, local partnerships for promotion, on-line marketing, and other lower-cost marketing.”

What does it all mean?  For the attendees, in the short run, not much.  The dealers who will exhibit will still be among the best on the planet, bringing their best items, although there will be fewer of them.  In the long run, what will happen if this fair is a bust for too many of the dealers?  Exhibitors the next time around will be even fewer.  The amount of money available to promote will be less.  One can envision this fair circling the drain.  It might not die suddenly, but it could suffer a long, lingering illness from which it might not recover.  Local politics within the Northern California chapter of the ABAA might result in regime change, although apathy would probably dampen that.  The ABAA national would probably have to tighten its budgetary belt a couple of notches because it wouldn’t be making the income upon which it has always counted the California fairs to deliver.

But the internet will save us, right? Obviously not.  What will save dealers and buyers alike is good, solid sales, taking advantage of incredibly low interest rates, an ever-increasing stock market, and our growing economy.  There has never been a better time to buy books and related collectibles, but there has never been a more dangerous time for those supplying those paper treasures we all love so much.

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “A Book Fair That’s Controversial?

  1. Jim,
    Thank you for your thoughtful examination of the coming 48th California International Fair. Although we have limited our book fairs to the Pasadena aspect for health and other reasons, we hope that the attendees will seriously look at the fine antiquarian and unusual ephemera that will be ideal for both the serious collector and the beginner. If I were in a little better shape, I would at least fly for a few days with my checkbook in hand.

    My hope is that I will regret not having at least having sent Linda to share a half a booth but as I said there are other issues right now.

    Richard of Alcuin

  2. As usual, you are very kind. I see my blog as simply reporting about the fair, covering both sides. My only worry about what you said comes from reading between the lines. I hope any health issues you are facing are minor and easily countered. That guy that said when you have you health you have everything said a giant mouthful. My best, always, Jim

  3. As always, I think there’s a larger context to consider.

    Rare book selling has been in a decline for at least two decades. The internet is the main reason, of course. The secondary effect of the turnover of generations, from one in which young people habitually read material texts in school and for recreation, to one in which they read computer screens, is happening right on schedule, which accounts for the steadily aging demographic of our customer base.

    The attendance at the fairs I’ve done in the last five years has been disappointing, to say the least. Not only are there fewer people browsing, fewer of them are looking to purchase. Many of them don’t understand why collectible books are valuable, and aren’t interested in finding out. 95% of all my sales are one-off–they’re customers who’ve never bought from us before, and never will again. We used to send out catalogues, but I don’t think most of my customers would read them now. Institutional buying, which drove much of the market in the post-War period, has plummeted, because of shrinking endowments and budgets.

    Since fairs have been so slow, dealers become cynical. What’s the point of traveling across the country, paying $3500 in booth fees, and probably as much in lodging and food and transportation bills, just to sell $15,000 worth of stock? Many dealers I hear from tell me they can’t even break even.

    This isn’t a problem confined to California, or Northern California. It’s a fact across the nation. The other footnote to this is that you have two major fairs a week apart on the California Coast. Rather than a synergy of effect, I would surmise that there’s some overlap and redundancy–which is also what I’m hearing from other dealers.

    It’s all about cost and return. If it’s no longer feasible to participate in a booth at current prices, prices either will have to fall, or the value of what we sell, and the volume of what we sell, will have to rise. Are rare book prices rising? No, they aren’t. Except for the very high end material, my experience is that prices are declining.

    If the observations I’m making are true, the outlook for fairs appears grim. How small would a fair have to be to be considered irrelevant?

  4. You are correct on many fronts, but the point of my blog was to show the difference of opinion not only within the ABAA about this specific fair, but within our own chapter. Even if I were to accept all of what you wrote as true, my blog needed to be written. The points I made needed to be made. The decisions of some needed to be scrutinized. I was a newspaper reporter in my youth, and I see this blog post as a news analysis of the specific controversies with this fair, not an analysis of book fairs in general. Thanks for reading the blog and making a comment. It’s always nice to know that you aren’t writing to an imaginary audience. Jim

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