The 33rd Annual Florida

Antiquarian Book Fair

by Adam Schachter

24 March 2014

A Bookseller's Perspective

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The reports of the demise of the collectible book and paper business are greatly exaggerated if the recent 33rd annual Florida Antiquarian book fair is used as a touchstone.

I attended the Friday and Saturday sessions. I arrived in St. Petersburg approximately two hours before the start of the fair. As I walked the block from my hotel to the St. Petersburg Coliseum, my heart was racing, my hands were tingling, and I was a bit short of breath. I practice mindfulness meditation. It teaches you to notice physical changes in the body that relate to emotion. You learn that there is not much of a physical difference between fear and excitement. When I arrived, I couldn't tell if I was afraid or excited.

An argument for excitement: I love, love, love books and paper and am working insane hours trying to transition from being a lawyer to being a full time professional bookseller. Kurt Santfleben of Read'em Again Books, a new ABAA member, invited me to help man his booth with him and his wife. I was going to get to spend a couple of days absorbing book stuff from someone who got to do this for a living.

An argument for fear: I committed to taking the trade seriously in January of 2012 and the only other fair I'd been to was the ABAA fair in San Francisco in February of 2013. Most dealers at that fair had single items priced more than the total value of my meager inventory. I left that fair awed by their items but terribly insecure about my future in the business: filled with thoughts that I would not be successful unless and until I had countless four-figure items. Also, even though I had started a pleasant email correspondence with Kurt, we'd never met, let alone spoke on the phone. What if the flow of conversation ended within a few minutes of meeting? It could end up being a long and painful weekend.

Now that I'm back, there was no need for fear, so I'm going to call those emotions excitement.

Kurt had already made some pre-show sales, so the start of the show appeared to be good for him. I learned that most dealers really don't want to share sales figures, and that's ok, although I don't quite understand the reasoning.

The show was so very different from the San Francisco show. I did not feel like I was walking around a museum, scared to touch the wares. I felt welcome despite the fact that I didn't have an eight-figure bank account or an entourage in tow. Dealers were much chattier than in San Francisco, and there were plenty of items in a beginner collector's price range.

Kurt told me that one way to measure how a show is going is to observe how many people have plastic bags, showing they made purchases. The plastic-bag-to-attendee ratio seemed a bit bad on Friday, but appeared much, much better on Saturday. Also, attendance must have been fantastic Saturday based on my anecdotal evidence: I overheard at least four attendees say to a friend or dealer that they could not remember the show being that packed. I had countless experiences of not being able to walk into a booth because there were too many people in it. I left Kurt's booth at least ten times on Saturday because there was no room for me (though it now occurs to me that those are the precise moments when I would have been needed, my thought at the time being that I was taking up space and people can't buy if they can't look). Whether attendance equated to buying, I don't know, but again there were quite a few purchase bags on Saturday.

The wares ranged the gamut from $1 post cards to $20,000 first editions, but unlike the San Francisco fair, the insanely priced items were not all over the place. I saw people buying daguerreotypes, civil war sheet music, World Series programs, illuminated manuscript leaves, Shakespeare sets, children's items of all kinds, and on and on. Oh - and I also saw people buying books. All these transactions occurred in a beautiful building that was very well lit, with a reasonably priced snack bar.

The demographics of the fair also seemed different than what I had imagined from lurking on various bookseller boards and listservs. Before going to the San Francisco fair I thought a pre-requisite for book and paper collecting was gray hair and/or some sort of walking assistance. San Francisco dispelled that idea for me and Florida built on it as I saw plenty of twenty- and thirtysomethings walking around, many with their children. I did not take note of whether they had plastic purchase bags, but even if they didn't, isn't attendance at something like this step one towards the addiction joy of collecting?

In terms of propelling my professional bookselling future, I would rate the fair an 11 on a 10 scale. The Santflebens could not have been better mentors. They are sweet, smart, funny and very patient with my endless questions. I said hello to Ken Mallory, as he had answered questions for me on the eBay bookseller board. For some reason I imagined him as quite old, and he's probably younger than me (I'm 43). I also got to meet Kara Accettola, another new ABAA member, who several years ago had the dreams I presently have, and she's now living that reality. She, too, offered her assistance as I make this transition.

Prior to attendance I assumed I would never do a fair, even if I reach my goals. Now I'm certain I'm going to give one a shot. I've already emailed Houston's Museum of Printing History regarding their annual fair. So much fun stuff to sell, so little time ...

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Contact the editor, Craig Stark


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