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54th London International Antiquarian Book Fair - Interview with Robert Frew, ABA Chair of the Olympia Committee

From June 9 to 11, 2011, over 160 rare book dealers showcase a huge array of magnificent books, prints and manuscripts from the early beginnings of printing in the 15th century to today during the London International Antiquarian Book Fair. In its 54 years of existence the famous fair, organized by the Antiquarian Booksellers' Association (ABA) has become the leading destination for bibliophiles and collectors. An interview with Robert Frew, ABA Chair of the Olympia Committee.
Published on 02 May 2011

By Angelika Elstner

How long have you been involved in the Olympia Book Fair – whether as a dealer and now as Chairman?

Ages: I have been exhibiting for about 20 years at the ABA June Fairs and worked as a Committee member for a few years under Adrian Harrington who was Chairman for ten years or more and responsible for the slightly controversial but overall immensely successful move from Mayfair Hotels to Olympia.

Does the trade still need fairs – now that nearly all stock is available online?

Of course! Many dealers have given up on retail premises and need a chance to get out into the real world. Sorry, what I mean is they need to see and be seen in the actual market place. For the few of us remaining die-hards with shops fairs provide a different market and of course the chance to indulge in all bookdealers' favourite pastime, trading with each other. It is quite remarkable that 99.9% of all the books on display at Olympia, and indeed virtually all the other fairs round the world (I am told that globally there is at least one book fair somewhere on absolutely every day of the year), are also available on-line. But seeing, touching, smelling, even sometimes hearing and yes just occasionally tasting, these wonderful objects is what they are about. Sat out in cyber space just isn't the real thing. Of course you can buy or read Jane Austen on the internet, but only in the flesh can you choose that perfect copy of a first edition - at the right price. There is only so far you can get with internet dating.

Where does Olympia present itself in the international fair calendar?

Top! OK maybe not always top, but certainly Top Four along with California (February) New York (April), Paris (May, usually): genuine Champions League players. We have enjoyed our place in the annual schedule for decades: in June the antiquarian trade descends on London, falling into place with all the other great summer events, the Chelsea Flower Show, Wimbledon, the Derby, Henley Regatta, the Lords Test, open air concerts at Kenwood, the great antiques fairs at Olympia, Grosvenor House (as was, now Masterpiece ) etc.etc.

Looking back, how would you summarize last year’s fair and trading?

Much better than feared. I personally found 2009 an extremely tough trading year, the markets were spooked and the banks, well let's not talk about the banks. We introduced a number of innovations to the fair, trying gently to push it in the direction of a complete rounded event, beyond the perception of it as merely a trade show: Downstairs we had lectures, a roadshow, affiliated businesses such as bookbinders and private presses, lots of activities aimed at making the Fair an enjoyable experience for collector and companion alike - all hopefully without dumming down the main attraction.

How would you describe the atmosphere in the antiquarian book trade at the moment?

Personally I am nervously optimistic. I wouldn't like to speak for all my colleagues. It’s certainly not easy. The top end, as in all areas of the Art Market seems to be holding up well.

What are the greatest challenges for the antiquarian book trade in the future?

In a word: the internet. Ever since I have been in the trade the perpetual groan has been that the supply of good books is drying up and there are no new collectors. Fears which are partly true, but far from fulfilled. The internet though has really changed things: no longer can you go on the road here or on the continent or from Vancouver to San Diego, in search of stock, stopping off at half a dozen shops before lunch, and half a dozen more afterwards before a well earned supper, and then on and on for days. Bliss! The spread of fairs partly fills that gap, but there are other downsides to the internet: prices are flat; the old supply chains have gone. New rules. This is a huge subject worthy of far more than a quick glib response here, but I'm sure most dealers would agree: the internet - and then of course the banks!

What makes London so attractive for international dealers and book collectors?

London has so much to offer, it is arguably the greatest Metropolis in the world and understands international culture like almost nowhere else. We have the infrastructure, we have the tradition, and we have the ABA! And here I really have to give a plug to our office: we have a Rolls Royce of an engine.

The interview was published on the official website of the 54th London International Antiquarian Book Fair.

>>> More about Olympia 2011

>>> 54th London International Antiquarian Book Fair

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