Report on the Oakland book fair

There was a lot on the line at the 48th California International Antiquarian Book Fair sponsored by the Antiquarian Bookseller’s Association of America (ABAA). Not only had the fair moved from the Concourse Exhibition Center in San Francisco where the fair took place for what seemed like forever, but it moved out of San Francisco altogether — to Oakland, a city that has a certain amount of stigma.

No one was familiar with the new venue, the Oakland Marriott City Center. No one knew the logistics of load-in and load-out. No one knew what kind of crowds would be generated. No one knew what their sales would be like. Many dealers decided to wait for the results of this fair before giving it a try the next time around, including at least four local ABAA members who exhibited the last time the fair took place in Northern California two years ago, but who opted out of the fair that is essentially in their back yard this time. For them, there were just too many question marks that couldn’t be answered in advance. They didn’t want to take a chance, fearing failure. Oh, and it rained and was supposed to rain for the entire weekend. One more nail in the coffin?

There was a lot of consternation within the Northern California chapter of the ABAA. All politics are local, as Tip O’Neill once said. What would happen if this fair fell flat? Would it be mortally wounded, or just crippled for a few years? I was among the many who asked a lot of questions, but who were unable to find answers. My daughter asked me before the fair what my expectations were. Normally I would respond with something like, “I have low expectations and hope to be surprised,” but in this case all I could say is, “I don’t have the slightest idea.” I had no answers, only questions, but there were enough clues so as to enable one to lean toward negativity, despite my having a very good booth location.

My results may not be typical, but I had the best dollar results of any fair in the 35 years I’ve been buying and selling rare and collectible books and related items. No one was more surprised than I. An objective analysis indicates that I achieved my rarified numbers for four reasons. One big ticket item sold because of its extraordinary condition. Another sold because of its incredible rarity. Another sold because of its uniqueness. And one sold because of my salesmanship. But even if all this was true going in, it didn’t mean that the correct buyers would be there.

But they were. I don’t have final attendance figures but at no time did I ever think the crowds were too thin. The venue itself is damned near perfect. All exhibitors were in one room, all on the same level. The room is large. The aisles were spacious. The lighting was excellent. It reminded me of the venue in Southern California (Pasadena) where this fair takes place in even-numbered years.

Load in was dicey only because I wasn’t familiar with the territory. I was lucky to have seen Bob Haines standing on the sidewalk arranging his load in on Thursday before the fair when the exhibitors set up for the three-day weekend event. So, I pulled over, made my own arrangements, which included having my car off-loaded within a very few minutes. By the time I parked my car, traveling up that treacherous, long, narrow ramp, registered at the front desk and walked to my booth, my books were there ready for me to rock and roll.

On Friday the fair opened at 3 p.m. Within the first hour I had made a five-figure sale that far exceeded my entire sales at the last California ABAA fair a year ago in Pasadena. Jimmie was becoming a very happy boy. I also met a man that many told me was the foremost collector of Rudyard Kipling in the world. He wanted the unique Kipling item I brought, but he hesitated. I sold it the next day to someone else, also an extremely advanced collector. I was transitioning from being not sure about the fair to being perky.

I had many good conversations with interested, intelligent collectors. Many of the attendees were young. I even sold a few items to young collectors. This is speculation on my part, but I believe that by being more centrally located to the nine county Bay Area we attracted more people, younger people, people who might not have wanted to go to venerable San Francisco. Oakland stigma? What stigma?

And all this was achieved without the Baumans or the Harringtons making stacks of purchases which then usually enables the dealers from whom they are buying to spread some of their wealth. I saw no stack-making by either and certainly didn’t experience it myself with either. That would have been the cherry on the top, but it wasn’t necessary. And going in, if I had suggested that neither the Baumans or the Harringtons weren’t going to make stacks, many would have groaned even louder about the impending doom and failure of this fair.

Michael Hackenburg, chairman of our local chapter’s book fair committee, risked a lot on the change of city, change of venue. His anus must have puckered more than once or twice, despite repeating his message of positivity like a mantra. He is now letting it be known that he prefers expensive single malt scotch. I don’t know if he’ll be getting a bottle from me, but I am happy to report that now I can afford it.

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “Report on the Oakland book fair

  1. Gail Klemm

    So happy to hear all these positive remarks, Jim! We couldn’t make the trip, but were thinking of everyone over the weekend, remembering other SF fairs in torrential rain, and wondering if it would have more or less impact on the new venue. As you said, many variables at play…kudos to Michael and all who worked so hard to make this historic transition to the new site.
    Gail Klemm, Apple Valley

  2. Thanks, Jim, for your pithy and informative comments on the Oakland Fair. Good to hear that it was a success for you. Now, colleagues, go and do likewise. Bob Petrilla

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