Booksellers and Book Fairs

by Chris Lowenstein

19 January 2015

A BookThink Classic

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Like hundreds, perhaps thousands, of other booksellers, I work out of my home, toiling in relative obscurity. While it's nice to work from home - I can work around my kids' schedules and other family demands - it can sometimes feel as if I'm working in a vacuum. I don't get to meet my customers and find out more about their book interests. I don't often get the opportunity to develop relationships with other booksellers, something that is crucial for success in the antiquarian book trade. Rent is too high where I live and my bookselling hours too erratic to consider opening a viable antiquarian bookshop where I could deal with customers directly. I often think about how to make my internet store-front and my name stand out among the many others out there.

To differentiate my business from other online sellers and to maximize the potential for sales, I decided early on in my business to issue print catalogues and to exhibit at book fairs. See the following articles on this topic:

Bookseller Catalogues: Why They are Important: Part I

Bookseller Catalogues: Why They are Important: Part II

I've exhibited at five California fairs in the past twelve months, and in addition to selling more books I've also developed some repeat customers and some contacts in the antiquarian book trade. It's the next best thing to having an open shop.

The first book fair at which I ever exhibited, the Central Valley Antiquarian Book Fair held in Sacramento, CA, is a small, regional book fair. I was a brand new bookseller and had little funding for luxuries like book fairs, so I shared a booth with another bookseller to minimize costs. Here's what I learned from that first fair:

  1. I had to become organized - pricing most of my books, writing thorough descriptions for books over $100, and purchasing bookshelves and book stands. Whether or not I ever sold books at a book fair, I needed to do these things. The book fair was the catalyst for my actually getting them done.

  2. I learned whether or not I had been selecting books that might actually sell. (Fortunately, sales were good for me.)

  3. I met dozens of booksellers I hadn't known before, who were also selling at the fair. They bought books from me and I bought books from them. I have since corresponded with a couple of booksellers who had books in my specialty. I wouldn't have met these people if I sold books only on the internet. Developing relationships with other booksellers means that sometimes they offer you right of first refusal on a book you love when they could sell it elsewhere.

  4. I bought lots of new stock. A book fair is like having 20-50 antiquarian bookshops in one location. It's one-stop shopping, mostly with dealer discounts and no shipping charges.

  5. I gained new customers, including repeat customers who contacted me after the fair to purchase more books.

  6. I gained confidence in my ability to sell books and felt validated as a bookseller.

Whether or not you are able to do a book fair, I encourage you to expand your horizons and sell in multiple venues. The benefits of doing so will affect more than your bottom line.

At that first book fair, I was lucky enough to be able to hand-sell several items to one customer in particular. A week after the fair, I received an order in the mail from the same customer for two more books. I would not have had this customer at all if I limited my selling only to the internet. Now, in less than a month, I have sold him four books, each priced between $50 and $100. His purchases alone just about covered the cost of my half-booth at the fair. Exhibiting at a book fair allowed the customer to see the quality of my stock, something that is difficult to do when shopping on internet venues like ABE. It also allowed him to get to know me a little bit. Something about that in-person fair experience enticed him to return and shop my website (where I do have images of some of my books - and I plan to have images of all of them soon).

I want to encourage those of you booksellers who haven't done a book fair to try to exhibit at one as soon as possible. I realize you may not live anywhere near a book fair, but if you live within a four hour drive of a book fair, I think it worth the trip to pack up your car and go. It will increase your contacts with other booksellers, it will give you a chance to shop for stock from many sellers at one time, and, most importantly, it will give you a chance to hand-sell books and to secure some repeat customers - all for setting up shop for one or two days. If, like me, your finances are limited, start small. Get a half-booth or share booth space with another bookseller.

I've been saddened to hear from older booksellers that book fairs in general are in decline. When I think back to the time when I was just beginning to collect books, I remember learning a lot just by attending a book fair and looking at the books offered. Book fairs are great places to introduce book collecting to newcomers. It gives rookies a chance to look at the range of dealers and books without the intimidation factor of walking into a silent antiquarian bookshop where no one but the owner is present. Something about that quiet shop environment suggests that only connoisseurs are welcome. It is not conducive to newbie questions like, "So, how do you know these are first editions?" and "Could you explain the range of condition grades to me?" and "How do I start a real collection of books?" Some book fairs even offer informational lectures for new collectors. Book fairs are relaxed, filled with every level of collector, and offer newcomers the chance to ask silly questions without the fear of embarrassment - something they need to do in order to learn.

If you sell books only on the internet, you need to reach customers in other venues. I've often heard booksellers lament that the customer base for antiquarian books seems to be shrinking. If people don't see antiquarian books and become familiar with them, how will they know enough about them to find them for sale on the internet? If we booksellers don't reach the newbies, we will indeed eventually lose our customer base. So, for nothing else other than PR for the antiquarian book trade, you ought to do the occasional book fair, assuming there is one within a few hours drive of you. If not, then add something else to your repertoire, like an occasional print catalogue.

The internet is a great place for those in the know to find their books, but it is not yet a good tool for introducing book collecting to someone who may not have known about it before. I say this because, despite a college degree in English, working for a book publisher, working as an English teacher, and living a bookish life, I was oblivious to the world of antiquarian books until I was 32 years old. Once I read about and learned about book collecting, I went to book fairs. I got a chance to see great books and to ask questions in a welcoming environment. Then I was hooked, and then I began to spend all my money on books, often from booksellers I had seen at book fairs. Wouldn't you love the chance to gain a customer like that? I would.

Sign up for the book fair nearest to you now. You won't regret it. You'll develop new contacts, purchase new stock, and gain new customers.

Additional Resources Are you planning your first book fair? Here's a handy list of supplies for book fairs that I've found helpful:

Here's my report on the first regional book fair at which I ever sold books.

And here's my report on my first "big" fair, in San Francisco.

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Questions or comments?
Contact the editor, Craig Stark


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