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My New Business Plan

In days of old, it is said, herds of buffalo stretched twenty-five miles across the great plains of America; flocks of carrier pigeons darkened the sky for hours as they flew past. That's the way it was, more or less, last Friday at the opening of the 39th Annual Boston International Antiquarian Book Fair. The enormous opening-night line stretched all the way up the spacious Hynes lobby and into the rotunda adjacent to the Prudential shopping mall.

Published on 17 Nov. 2015

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By Greg Gibson


In days of old, it is said, herds of buffalo stretched twenty-five miles across the great plains of America; flocks of carrier pigeons darkened the sky for hours as they flew past. That’s the way it was, more or less, last Friday at the opening of the 39th Annual Boston International Antiquarian Book Fair. The enormous opening-night line stretched all the way up the spacious Hynes lobby and into the rotunda adjacent to the Prudential shopping mall.

Colleagues Lin and Tucker Respess, who were lucky enough to occupy a booth directly opposite the entrance to the fair, reported that it took twelve minutes for the crowd to file through the front door – “And they were hurrying to get in,” Lin Respess added. Obviously, some of them lingered at the Respess booth before moving deeper into the paradise of books that awaited them, because Lin reported excellent sales. And he was not alone. Crowds remained strong throughout the three day event, and most of my colleagues seemed quite pleased with their sales.

While it is tempting to ascribe this uptick to the fickle nature of crowds, there’s a deeper story here. For years Boston book baron Ken Gloss and his bookfair committee have been working with promoter Betty Fulton to extend the reach of the Boston Book Fair. Their efforts include a “Discovery” program whereby dealers offer a specially marked shelf of less expensive books, distribution of vast numbers of free tickets (try getting some other promoters to go along with an idea like that!), cooperation with organizers of other events, a full program of classes, talks, demonstrations before and during the fair, and outreach to college students and young professionals. This weekend it all seemed to come together, with Millenials making up a substantial portion of the crowd. Did they spend gobs of money? No. But Gloss and Fulton were never playing the short game. These young people asked questions. They were interested and attentive. Some small percentage of them will become tomorrow’s collectors and dealers. And they’re starting today.

The crowd was also excellent at Marvin Getman’s so called “Shadow Show” over on Berkeley Street. Of course crowds are always good on the Saturday morning opening, as ABAA and ILAB dealers vie to replenish their stock, but this year there was universal agreement that the buying at the Shadow Show was better than it had been for many years. By which I mean there was more good stuff – not that it was any cheaper. It seems likely that the wealth of good material was due to the fact that there were fewer book fairs and sales opportunities leading up to the Boston show. The Trinity, Concord, and Westchester shows are no more; August Papermania was a flop, with two dozen last minute cancellations by exhibitors, and the Northhampton SNEAB show was, by all accounts, a shadow of its former self. Less pressure on the material over the past few months meant better buying in November. As an added attraction, there was a body building contest going on next door, and bibliophiles were inadvertently treated to a scary abundance of rippling muscles.

Sales at Ten Pound Island were predictably meager, barely bumping $20K. Buying, on the other hand, was strong, amounting to something over $12,000. As a matter of fact, about a third of my sales were of items that I was able to flip – buying and selling the thing on the same day. Now that I think of it, this might be a good way to conduct my business in the future. I’m getting tired of lugging boxes and boxes of books around the country. Next year, I plan to only bring books that sell. When they’re gone, I’ll buy more from my colleagues, and sell them, too.

Of course, it being Friday the 13th, something was bound to go wrong. And so it did, in the middle of setup, just after I’d filled a bookcase with rare travel books. A table leg collapsed, sending the shelf ass over teakettle and destroying the bindings of about $10,000 worth of books. Insurance will probably make me whole, but it was a lousy note on which to begin.

And, speaking of lousy notes… Friday night the fair runs until 9 pm. Being a solitary old grouch, and exhausted from a full day of pretending to be interested in other human beings, I usually end my day alone, at the bar of a nearby Chinese restaurant, and treat myself to a drink or two and a bowl of their excellent spicy Chinese chicken noodle soup. Which I did on this particular Friday. All was going well until I looked up at the TV over the bar and watched the news from Paris spill in, reminding me once again what a poor sad wicked world it is, and how blessed we are when our worst problems are collapsing tables and broken bindings.

Here’s something I probably paid too much for, but if you’re like me you’ll find its charm irresistible. It’s a collection of over one hundred drawings of ships and yachts in New York Harbor, as portrayed by a boy named Walter Frederichs. They range from 1895 to the early 1900s and depict naval vessels, working craft, merchantmen, fishing boats, and some America’s Cup contenders of the period, including Valkyrie III and Shamrock. Also included are several collections of drawings, sewn or clipped together to make booklets with such titles as “Daily Scenes in New York Harbor” or Different Kind’s of Vessels.” Frederichs was born in 1887 and lived to the ripe old age of eighty-eight, so these lovely drawings would date from his early teen years. The collection – $1750.

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Posted on Bookman’s Log, presented here by permission of the author. Pictures: Bookman’s Log.

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