When I arrived at the Concourse Exhibition Center early Friday morning for set-up, I walked into an empty exhibition hall. There were a few other booksellers there, but their booths were largely empty, pale receptacles of the vibrant book stalls they would become as the day progressed. I checked in with the fair organizers and found my booth still empty, as my boothmate Jeanne Jarzombek of The Book Prowler had not yet arrived. In those last few moments of calm and quiet before set-up began, I took a minute to appreciate just being able to exhibit at this fair.
While I shivered in the cold air of the almost empty exhibit hall, I was reminded of the 1993 movie Rudy, which starred the diminutive Sean Astin as Notre Dame football great Daniel “Rudy” Ruettiger. If you’ve never seen the movie, Rudy is a small-statured young man (5’6″ and 165 pounds) whose lifelong ambition is to leave his blue-collar, factory town and play football for the (awesome, totally awesome) Fighting Irish. Because of his poor academic skill, the idea of his gaining admission to Notre Dame is slightly crazy. Because of his size, the idea of playing football for the Irish is completely ludicrous, something which others frequently remind him.
After three rejection letters, Rudy finally does gain admission to Notre Dame. He earns a spot on the team as the guy the real players practice against, getting hit hard every day for three years. He is never allowed to play in a real game. Then, in the final game of the final season, because his teammates demanded it of the coach, Rudy is permitted to play for two downs. Though he is not a marquee player, Rudy’s tenacity and heart during the three years he’d been used as a team punching bag had won him fans among his teammates. At the end of that game (took place in 1975 in reality), Rudy is carried off the field on the shoulders of his teammates. He is, to date, the last Notre Dame football player to receive that honor. It sounds sappy, and it is, except it’s a true story. I dare you to watch the movie without caring and without crying and without being inspired.
Take a look at the Rudy movie poster above — where he’s standing on the empty field in an empty Notre Dame stadium, taking it all in and dreaming of what might be. When I got to the (almost) empty, cold, cavernous exhibition hall on Friday morning, I felt like I had stepped into that poster. I stood in a cold empty hall that would, the next day be transformed, filled not with thousands of cheering football fans, but with thousands of bibliophiles like me. I was just happy and amazed to be there, and, like Rudy standing alone on the big-time field at Notre Dame before he plays, I thought about the potential a big fair offers a small bookseller like me. Would I sell the most books of any seller there? Would I find the unrecognized treasures that every bookseller looks for when shopping at a book fair? Would other booksellers even know who I am or visit my booth? Would anyone buy any of my books? Probably not. As a new, small bookseller, I would likely be overlooked. I was, as usual, filled with anxiety over these issues, but mostly I just wanted to stop and think about what might be and to be grateful to be a small part of it.
The last time this particular fair was held in San Francisco — two years ago — I found a babysitter and spent couple of free hours walking through the fair on its last day. I was not a bookseller, but I knew I wanted to be one. How, I wondered, do you become an antiquarian bookseller? How do you find enough good books? How do you get admitted to be an exhibitor at a fair like this? I probably would never be allowed to do it. I wasn’t known as a book collector. I barely said two words to the dealers I bought books from at the fair. I didn’t know any other book collectors. (That shyness thing again.) I was told by some (non-booksellers) that a stay-at-home mom could never expect to compete on the same level as the marquee sellers who offer rare treasures at every fair. It was too late for me to try to get started in the bookselling game. Many sellers have been involved with books from a very young age, learning at the knees of fathers and grandfathers, and here I was at a not so young age, with my own children at my knee, trying to get a start. I could never expect to become as expert as they are.
What hubris — and it is hubris — allowed me to utterly disregard all of these valid fears and admonishments, I do not know. I just know that I wanted to be an antiquarian bookseller so much that I didn’t care whether I could be a top-tier bookseller. I want to be a part of the antiquarian book world, regardless of how well-known of a bookseller I ultimately become. If you’ve read my blog before, you’ll know that in the months following that fair, I joined email lists, found a bookseller willing to mentor me, went to the Colorado Antiquarian Book Seminar, etc.
Does this make me a marquee bookseller? I certainly think not. Not even close. What it made me was someone who could be a small part of a larger team. I’ve since made friends with dealers of all kinds and and even occasionally sold books to those marquee sellers, those much higher in the bookseller food chain than myself. You know the ones. They are the quarterbacks who call the plays in the antiquarian book world, and everyone knows who they are and speaks their names with reverence, passing on the legends of some of their best book plays. Even though I’m not (yet) one of these sellers, it’s (usually) a real thrill and honor to sell them a book (or two or three or more).
The best thing of all, though, is that in the past two years I’ve met other new booksellers like me. There are actually quite a few of us. My boothmate Jeanne is one of them. If you are intimidated at the prospect of exhibiting at a book fair, find another bookseller and share a booth. It is great fun and great comfort to have someone to be new with. We had a great weekend, and we both realized we were so happy to be a part of the fair.
Will I ever be carried out of a book fair exhibition hall hoisted on the shoulders of my fellow booksellers? I don’t know and I don’t care.
I’m just thrilled to be a player in the game.
Tomorrow: 2008 San Francisco Book Fair, Part 2, or Reality