Skip to main content
Article |
| Book Fairs

Book Fairs 101: A How-to Handbook for Book Fair Exhibitors

Are you new to antiquarian bookselling? ILAB bookseller Susan Ravdin has put together a very useful set of articles on how to prepare for a book fair sharing her experience: "...I've been exhibiting at book fairs for over 25 years, and I figure I've set-up over 500 booths in that time..."
Published on 21 May 2018
Ravdin booth

Recently I've been thinking about book fairs and what it takes to successfully set up a booth, at least the technical aspects of doing so — what books to bring is up to each individual bookseller. Some dealers prefer to pack afresh for every fair, targeting their stock to the customers they know have come in the past (great if they come back), or to the city in which the fair is held (photography in Rochester, NY, or automobiles in Lansing, MI, but tires in Akron, OH?); others bring basically the same stock to every fair. My husband and I are of the latter type, modified somewhat by the former ideas, but I don't think anyone has ever gotten it entirely right - though I have heard of the rare case where an entire booth was bought out!

Still, once you've decided to do a fair, have chosen your stock, packed the van and gotten to the venue, you have to set up your display. There is so much that goes into an attractive, welcoming and functional booth, but not much advice available - certainly no tutorials on the subject. As one of my college professors used to say: "There's a subject for your dissertation!" So here I am ...

Oh, who am I? My name is Susan Ravdin. With my husband and partner, Wilfrid de Freitas, I've been exhibiting at book fairs for over 25 years, and I figure I've set-up over 500 booths in that time. So, yes, I think I know a little about the subject.

Below are a few extracts from Susan's tutorial on book fairs:

Your Booth, Your Way

This time I propose to tackle one of the hardest book fair related topics I know: How do you set up your booth to its best advantage? The answer to this question, of course, largely depends on the stock you select to bring with you - on this you're on your own! (If I knew which books would sell I'd only bring two boxes, and go home empty handed each and every time.) Their variety, age, size, and visual appeal; the breadth of subjects you carry; and the 'little extras' that go with them, all have an influence on how you arrange your books.

OK, so set-up has started and you're standing in your booth. The infrastructure is in place, and your first box of books stands open in front of you, one book in your hand. What do you do? How do you decide where to put it, or how to display it? Stand back, take a deep breath and think about the following things ...

General Organization

Whether a specialist or general bookseller, we all have our intellectual subject categories, and group our books into them in our heads, our catalogues and our quotes, so why not do so in our booths as well? You'd be surprised at how many dealers don't, under the impression that if everything is mixed together, customers have to look at every shelf. This may work at a small fair where a customer has all day to wander through 35 or 40 booths, but at larger fairs - take, for example, the 200+ booth ABAA fair in San Francisco where the customers have an average of five minutes per booth from the moment the show opens to the moment it closes - s/he will by-pass the disorganized booth and put her/his time into one where there's a chance of finding something of interest. So, trust your instincts and group things logically.

Visual Appeal

Look at your stock, and ponder your potential customer. Different stock takes different treatment and you know yours better than anyone else. What do you find interesting about the books? What will attract the right kind of customer into the booth to look at them? How can you then show them to best take advantage of that?

Now That the Fair is Open ...

Well, the fair's now open. In the past there was usually a good line-up at every fair, but more recently people seem to be more laid back about opening times. That may be a reflection on the economy, or maybe people are just more relaxed these days and no longer fear that their competition will beat them to the best books. Whatever the reason, this seems to have become the new norm at most smaller or regional fairs. Don't worry, though, the real book lovers, the keeners, the true collectors will come; they just don't want to stand in line so they'll time their arrival accordingly.

Ravdin 1The question is, will you have what people want? More than that, if they want what you have, will they be willing to spend the price you're asking? And if they aren't, will you still be smiling as they leave your booth empty handed? I can't tell you how often someone has said to me, "You have the best things here!" (read: "You have the things that most interest me") and then walk away empty handed. I can't take that personally - it isn't a rejection, it's just a reality. So I just smile and say, "Thank you."

I've often been heard to say that I meet some of the most interesting people at book fairs: strange, odd, fascinating, fixated, focussed, engaging, unconventional, talkative, charming, peculiar, likeable, funny, funky, weird, bright or just plain bookish are all terms I've used singly or in combination to describe them - phew. And I always enjoy meeting them. OK, sometimes I need to be gotten out of a conversation that's just plain gone on too long, or reached the bizarre stage, but for the most part I learn so much from my customers, most of it interesting or entertaining, some of it arcane and esoteric, but all of it worth tucking away for future reference. After all, this business is all about knowing something your competition doesn't, so why not take advantage of what's being offered?

So what advice can I give you in dealing with the public, especially since so much of this will be driven by your own persona and style?

Always be interested in your customers

Ravdin 2I know it's really tough to keep your energy up through all the hours of the fair, especially as it gets towards closing or if you've not sold much that day, but remember that each new visitor to your booth is an opportunity. Make eye contact with them and, if given a chance, greet them. If you sit reading a book, playing with your iPhone, or avoiding eye contact, customers may assume you're unapproachable and walk away without asking the question that might have led to a sale. If you look accessible and are willing to chat, they can ask about your stock, and may be persuaded to actually buy a book. 

I've actually walked away from an interesting book when, unable to find the price, I was also unable to get the dealer to look up - when asked directly, he seemed to actually resent being interrupted. His newspaper was more important than my interest in his stock! Not good! No sale ... at any price.

Remember all collectors were newbies once ...

First time attendees are a valuable commodity, as they are the future of collecting and our future customers. Encouraging the interest of someone who's attending his first bookfair, sharing your knowledge with him, and helping him to take home something he'll treasure, will bring him back next year and may be the trigger that turns him into a true collector. Or, perhaps, that should be "her", "she" and "hers" - it doesn't hurt to encourage more women to collect. Although most collectors are men, and they often comment that they need to sneak their latest purchase past their wives, more and more of the younger attendees are enthusiastic women who are still learning about the books that interest them.

I've spoken to young couples who are afraid to touch things, and encouraged them by showing them how to handle my books - and I'm not alone in this, I've watched many colleagues do the same. So, take something off your shelves and assure potential collectors that we, booksellers in general, will happily show them things that catch their eye whether or not they can currently afford them. After all, as I like to say, how can they covet something if they've never seen it, let alone touched it? After all, marketers say that touch is a powerful tool in selling, as it implies possession and encourages desire. And isn't that what we want to do?

To close or not to close ...

Every customer wants to think s/he hasn't missed anything special - that what s/he wants is just waiting there to be found. So what do you do if the book you just sold leaves a gap? or if customers have moved things around? or just generally messed things up? Opinions vary about whether one should straighten up, close up gaps on the shelves or fill empty stands.


To read Susan's full tutorial, please visit the website of De Freitas Books. 
Dear Susan, thank you for sharing this advice with the ILAB community!


Wilfrid M. de Freitas and Susan Ravdin are antiquarian booksellers, based in Westmount (Montreal) in Canada, members of the Antiquarian Booksellers' Association of Canada (ABAC / ALAC) and therefore an affiliate of the International League of Antiquarian Booksellers (ILAB). 

  • share