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43d California Book Fair and the State of the Trade

Last weekend's 43d California International Antiquarian Book Fair in Los Angeles, the first major book fair of the year, provided an excellent overview of where the rare book trade now stands and where it may be headed.
Published on 19 Feb. 2010

Stephen J. Gertz

Last weekend’s 43d California International Antiquarian Book Fair in Los Angeles, the first major book fair of the year, provided an excellent overview of where the rare book trade now stands and where it may be headed.

As reported here at the Fair’s beginning, the market has stabilized; the panic of ‘09 is over. Dealers have lowered posted prices and there is movement, albeit limited. Cash remains tight for collectors as well as dealers but seems to be loosening; collectors are returning to the market but only for fresh material, in certain areas, at certain price points.

Trade sales, sluggish at the Fair’s onset due, in part, to the short lead-time between set-up and opening, picked up on Saturday through Sunday with enough books and/or invoices moving around to notice but not directly collide with.

Many, if not most, of the British dealers exhibiting were disappointed with trade and retail sales; a few of them reported that it was their worst Fair ever. One with a long memory for trade history declared the current rare book market as being the worst in eighty years, since the Depression.

It should be pointed out that they made money, just not as much as they’ve been used to. This is a common refrain.

I did talk to a couple of dealers who busted out, not earning enough to cover expenses. They were the exception. Every Fair has a few who go underwater for the duration; it is not uncommon.

Most of the movement of goods fell into the $2500 and below range. That was the result at last year’s New York Antiquarian Book Fair, last September’s Santa Monica Book Fair, and the San Francisco Book Fair two weeks ago. It is safe, I think, to conclude a trend.

Antiquarian material remains somewhat sluggish, though fresh material at whatever price continues to lure buyers. It appears that the market for such may be contracting with the high-culture, financially-secure collecting base that supports it. To what degree it contracts remains to be seen, though if that collecting base continues to shrink leaving fewer and fewer individuals in the buying pool along with institutions then we may see a turn lasting quite some time until tastes - and the economy - change.

A few dealers reported that they were so disappointed with results that they are reconsidering showing in New York in April, their rationale being that the market will not be changing that dramatically, particularly with fresh material, in two months to warrant the expense.

Yet other dealers were quite pleased with how they did. One hailing from a Western state was kissed by serendipity followed by a lightning strike: Someone walked into his shop three weeks ago with a few boxes of books containing full runs, signed first editions, first printings of post-1950 American novelists, including William Vollman. He scurried to get them cataloged in time to show at the Fair. On Saturday, he found himself in conversation with a librarian. She had a problem: She’s trying to build a collection of books by latter-20th century American novelists. He had the solution. She bought it all.

Jesus Saves! could have been the headline to this post. On Saturday, a buyer representing a well-funded private Christian evangelical library in Texas visited each exhibitor’s booth and snapped up Bibles and related Christian volumes at all price points as if building an ark in anticipation of a latter-day Deluge. Given the current cultural-political climate, that might actually be the plan, for all I know.

The Pied Piper of Bibles drew editions of Scripture out from the Fair’s every nook and cranny. From his flute, a seductively lilting song of Mammon at play in the fields of the Lord wafted throughout the showrooms.

“Bible Guy, have you seen the Bible Guy?”

“Where’s the guy looking for Bibles?”

“I’ve got a Bible! Where is he?”

“Is he looking for a signed first edition?”

“Does the Marijuana Bible count?

The money-changing in the temple of rare books was most welcome, if irreverent by Biblical standards. It was certainly a blessing. The man reportedly spent over one million dollars on acquisitions.

The younger dealers are coming into their own. Each I spoke with reported that they did good to great business. Some were writing more invoices to reach prior dollar volume but no one complained. They are adapting to a changing marketplace.

The book collecting base's tastes are changing. Fresh material of any sort will always attract buyers. But fresh material and new and, up until now, soft collecting genres that appeal to the under-40 demographic seems to be the direction the collecting base is heading toward. The trade will, hopefully, follow.

Those who feel that collecting the Western canon of literature is at dire risk should remember that collecting tastes and interest in authors and subjects ebbs and flows. At some point, everything old-old will become new-old again. The standard collectible war-horses may be headed out to pasture for awhile but they’ll return ready for another run for the money.

In sum, there was crying and there was smiling at the Fair. Things are, indeed, returning to normal.

The article was posted by Stephen J. Gertz on Book Patrol (Thursday, February 18, 2010) and is presented here by permission of the author. Thank you very much.

Picture Gallery (by permission of Pia Glaser of Randall House and Antonella Manganelli of Marninart)

43d California Book Fair Coda: Happy Trails - Stephen J. Gertz about a mysterious stranger and rare book selling in hard times

More about ILAB (and other) Book Fairs

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