Bookfairs 101: What to Expect

Posted on Jun 28, 2017 by Alexandria Reyes

Bookfairs 101: What to Expect

Never been to a book fair? Feeling a little bit daunted? We're here to help!

by guest editor Cynthia Gibson of BookFairs.Com

Antiquarian book fairs are, as you might expect, filled with fascinating books, many of them the sorts of things you normally see only in museums or private libraries, and some of them sporting price tags that look like they belong on a fine piece of jewelry, or even a small house.

In fact, if you've never been to an antiquarian fair before, you might find yourself feeling a little bit daunted, the first time you go. The dimly lit room with the hushed music, the aisles lined with glowing glass cases, the serious-looking booksellers in suits or high heels, the scent of money hanging heavy in the air — well, if you're there simply to look, learn, and drool, it makes sense that you might feel a little bit intimidated in the beginning.

Which is unfortunate, because book fairs are filled not just with fascinating books. They're also filled with fascinating people, people who love books just as much as you do, and are always happy to talk about them, given half a chance.

The New York Antiquarian Book Fair

And, you'll find a lot more than just books at a book fair. The modern book fair sports all kinds of related material, from ephemera including posters and post cards, menus, broadsides, pamphlets, handbills, sheet music, and the like, to manuscript material such as letters, diaries, journals, and logs.

These types of items are difficult if not impossible to find via an Internet search. You've got to go to where the material is to even know what the possibilities are!

So here's a primer on book fairs, a kind of "how-to" for your first foray into the realm of observing rare books in the wild...

Dealers in their Booths

The first thing to know is, there are all kinds and levels of book fairs. In the United States, the ABAA (Antiquarian Booksellers' Association of America) hosts the three largest events each year, in California in February, New York in April, and Boston in either October or November; these are glitzy affairs indeed, with opening night champagne galas and dealers from around the globe touting tomes that gleam with gilt and cost more than your car.

Outside the United States, ILAB (the International League of Antiquarian Booksellers) throws some pretty snazzy parties of their own.

It is well worth attending these larger fairs, if you are in the neighborhood. I guarantee you'll see things you never even imagined existed.

Aisles at the DC Book Fair

But there are smaller, more accessible fairs that take place year-round. In fact, there are so many that it's virtually possible to attend a book fair — or even two! — every weekend of the year. These regional fairs can last from a single day to an entire weekend to (in the case of the annual Baltimore fair) as many as 5 days. Some smaller fair promoters piggy-back their book fair with an antiques fair, so you get more bang for your admission buck.

That's another big difference between the large fairs and the smaller ones — the price of entry. The large fairs can cost you up to $20 to get through the door, while the smaller ones will generally be from $3-$12, or may even be free.

In both cases, however, if you're friendly with an exhibiting bookseller, it may be possible to get a free pass. It never hurts to ask. Also, some fair promoters give away free passes if you'll let them put you on their mailing lists — check the book fair's web site to find out.

Handle with Care!

Regardless of the size, cost, and glamour quotient of the fair you're attending, there are some basic guidelines you can follow to ensure you get the most out of your visit...

  • Yes, you're allowed to step into the booths! You're there to look at books, up close and personal, not to admire them from afar. In fact, you'll find that dealers often park themselves outside their booths, in an effort to leave more space for their visitors.
  • That being said, before you go, make sure you know How To Handle a Book, including the correct way to pull one off the shelf. Nothing makes a dealer cringe more than watching one of their precious books being manhandled; nothing is more depressing than having to downgrade the condition of a book from "Fine" to merely "Good" after bringing it home, damaged and unsold, from a fair.
  • Even if a book is behind glass, chances are it still might be okay for you to handle it. But definitely ask first before simply reaching into the case!
  • By and large, book dealers aren't into the hard sell — they're not in the used-car business, and they don't have quotas to fill. Generally they prefer to wait for a customer to approach them, rather than hovering. This can sometimes make them seem stand-offish. I assure you, that is rarely the case.
  • So: Do ask questions! Dealers love to talk about their stock. But be mindful of other potential customers hanging around waiting for attention. Remember, the dealer has only so many hours in which to wheel and deal, so make sure not to monopolize, especially if you know you aren't actually planning to buy. On the other hand...
  • Corollary: If there are other customers in the booth asking questions, go ahead and listen in. Eavesdropping on other people's questions is one of the best ways I know to learn new things about old books!
  • Help yourself to free catalogues, if they're available, but within reason. Remember, those glossy color jobs cost quite a lot to print, and while a dealer is happy for you to have one, take them only if you intend to read them. (And, I recommend that you do — a well-written dealer catalogue is a terrific education unto itself.)

So: Why are you still sitting there?
Go Find Yourself a Book Fair!

Dealers in Aisles

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