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A Growing Antiquarian Book Market at the Hong Kong Antiquarian Bookfair

"Just think of me as a black hole into which you can throw offers of everything in this area and I will buy all I don't have".
Published on 19 Feb. 2010

Sally Burdon

"Just think of me as a black hole into which you can throw offers of everything in this area and I will buy all I don't have".

This clearly humorous, and lets face it, when said to an antiquarian bookseller, rather exciting invitation was made to Elisabeth Burdon of by a Taiwanese visitor at the recent Hong Kong Antiquarian Bookfair. It certainly caught our attention, as it was meant to! The gentleman continuing his good natured badinage followed this comment with "Now you won't forget me, will you?" Although there is no doubt this was one of the more memorable moments, at what was for us a very busy and fun fair, it certainly sums up the good sales and feeling of future possibilities that the Hong Kong Antiquarian Bookfair generated in myself and my sister Elisabeth when we shared a stand at the Fair held the first week of December in 2009.

This was the third Hong Kong International Book Fair organised by Messrs Paul Feain of Cornstalk Bookshop, Mitsuo Nitta of Yushodo in Tokyo, Chris Li of Swindon Books Co. Ltd in Hong Kong and their excellent staff. Each fair has been well attended with few periods when there wasn't a good number of browsers and buyers in attendance. We have sold well and made good contacts at each fair and among the other dealers I spoke with there was a general consensus that at this fair the elements had really come together. Each of the three fairs held so far have faced a number of challenges. Some of these of course are common to antiquarian book fairs across the world, the prime being getting the message out to interested people at the optimal time. But other issues were related specifically to Hong Kong or the recent global financial crisis. At this latest fair there was more media coverage. The organising committee and their staff had done their homework and the publicity company they had selected managed to get several prominent articles in the mainstream print media as well as some radio and TV coverage. This media support certainly contributed to a swell in visitor numbers. I spoke with several people who have never attended an antiquarian bookfair before and had come as a result of the media coverage.

Elisabeth and I have found exhibiting at each of the Hong Kong Antiquarian Bookfairs to be a very heartening experience indeed. There is much discussion in the trade these days about the lack of young collectors and dealers coming up and some mention of the cynicism of both collectors and dealers alike but this is not the experience we have had in Hong Kong. Humbling was the word that frequently came to mind. We met young collectors as well as older local collectors who had never experienced an antiquarian bookfair before. Book buyers in attendance are not just from Hong Kong but a number come from China and other parts of East or Southeast Asia just for the fair.

Of course, as is the case with every fair, not every dealer does well every time. There is clearly much interest in books relating to the region but other material is selling as well. The Hong Kong book fair visitors are a sophisticated group with a wide range of interests and of course there are also institutional buyers among their numbers. As I deal exclusively in books on Asia this fair is particularly good fit for us as it was for some others but not for everyone. So since returning from the fair, I contacted some of the other exhibitors to find out what their thoughts about the fair were now they are back to the 'real life' of bookselling.

Véronique and Jean-Philippe Geley from Libraire Oriens in Paris have exhibited all three fairs. Véronique reported that they had "found the fair to be more lively this time and more positive with many more dealers coming from China as well as private customers who attended for the first time. This is maybe a result of efficient advertising, or because the customers now have formed the habit of coming to each fair." On a personal level Véronique commented that "We were very happy to share the booth with a Hong Kong dealer who was really very friendly and introduced us to many of his friends and customers, with whom we enjoyed discussing books about many different parts of Asia. The fair has become a really good opportunity to meet and talk with customers and dealers with the same interest in Asia as we have."

US dealer Rob Rulon-Miller of Rulon-Miller Books in St Paul, Minnesota described the fair as "a small, intimate fair, with a core group of intrepid dealers who are willing to travel the long distances not so much for lucre as for being in one of the most exotic and most international cities on earth. The food's not bad either. The customer base seems small, but there is a modicum of potential. Western books are generally not in demand, but of course there are exceptions. Visual material seems better suited to the locals than texts. What seems most promising is the number of younger people attending, even though they're going away with digital photos more than they are books. I do not think HK is a gateway into China - at least not yet, even though the Chinese dealers were evident. Right now, I see it as a market specifically unto itself, with its own set of needs which really has yet to be defined."

Douglas Stewart of Douglas Stewart Fine Books in Melbourne is, like Rob, not an Asia specialist dealer but his views of the fair were also pretty positive. "Hong Kong was my first international rare book fair, and as interesting and diverse as the city itself. The various rare book dealers' exhibition stands all pay tribute to the importance and influence of Chinese culture in Hong Kong, but at the same time include fascinating gems which reflect their global origins. Similarly I reflected this international mixture in choosing my own stock to exhibit, with the resultant miscellany enjoyable and interesting for myself to handle, and hopefully the customers as well. The result I felt was a success, with sales of works as different as German books on Peter the Great, American photographs of Java, and English charts of Vietnam going to the gathered dealers, visitors in town, and local Hong Kong collectors, both Chinese and foreign. I haven't been to other international fairs yet, and am sure they are also great experiences, but Hong Kong must rank as one of the most important new locations for growth of the industry. Standing at the gateway to China obviously draws attention to the potential Chinese market, but it's location also draws all the other international business people, diplomats, consultants and tourists who also see Hong Kong as one of the world's great new cities. The investments that rare book dealers are making to travel to Hong Kong will surely pay off as a culture of rare book collecting in a variety of subjects takes hold and expands into the future."

Charlotte Du Rietz of Charlotte Du Rietz Rare Books in Stockholm is an experienced international fair exhibitor. She also has attended each of the three Hong Kong Antiquarian Fairs. Overall she thought it "was a very nice exhibition even though I think there were too few exhibitors for a venue like that. The premises are fine, a little bit difficult to find, but it's good and important that we stay in the same premises from year to year. I also believe the timing of the fair is good." Charlotte went on to say that she wished for more visitors as "For me the first year was the best. I sold books to both locals, institutions and expats. Many of the buyers the first year I haven't seen since, unfortunately. Maybe many expats left Hong Kong due to the financial situation. I think marketing towards this group should continue. It seems that many of the Chinese visitors are mainly looking for Chinese books. I guess we should bring more Chinese material but for myself I'm hesitant to deal with in books in Chinese since I cannot read them."

For Barbara Hince of Kenneth Hince Old and Fine Books this was the first Hong Kong Antiquarian Bookfair she had exhibited at, although she had attended as a visitor at the first fair.

"It was Einstein who said “Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance you must keep moving.” It’s an appealing metaphor, and rings true in our trade where the challenge is to keep moving in pursuit of new customers and new markets. This is what took me to Hong Kong in December for the Hong Kong Antiquarian Book Fair, which enjoyed good Australian organisation, a leading Hong Kong location, and a modest level of sales. Cornstalk’s Ellie Aroney handles the bookings, the catalogue, and the general running, in an attentive and good-humoured way.
The China Resources Building of the Hong Kong Exhibition Centre is a few minutes walk from the Star ferry and the Hong Kong Convention Centre. It is a large room with a spacious layout between the booths, making it comfortable for visitors, and avoiding the sort of crowding which discourages browsing. There’s enough available space to mean that the floor plan could be designed so that each booth has two open sides, and this is a feature which would suit most dealers.

At $3500 for a full booth the cost is higher than the annual ANZAAB fair and lower than the major international fairs. Hong Kong is the nearest of our overseas fairs, but international travel and freight are still significant expenses, so it was a benefit that the continuing strength of the Australian dollar helped to ease the cost.

Included in that booth cost is a double-page page colour advertisement in the very professional catalogue, and access to an active and effective publicity machine. Friday’s official opening was an old-world ribbon-cutting ceremony, but with banks of cameras flashing. During the night the television news crew was busy filming on a number of booths, and the daily paper on Saturday gave us an eye-catching photograph (of an early atlas) accompanied by details of the event.

The audience was a good size, fairly well distributed during the hours of the Fair. I was impressed by the number of young people, as well as with a sense that everyone was keen to see what was on offer. My major sales however were to the trade not the public."

Of course there is no single answer to the question that dealers ask each other about every fair "How did you go? Was it a good fair?" But as the old saying goes "actions speak louder than words" - my flights are booked for the next fair which will be held at the Exhibition Centre again over the first weekend of December 2010 - join us!

The article is published on and is presented here by permission of the author, Sally Burdon of Asia Bookroom. Thank you very much.

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