Chapter 258 A Message to Booksellers Exhibiting at Book Fairs — From a Customer

For what it’s worth:

In addition to selling books, fraternizing with customers and other booksellers, and having a good time, I learned an important lesson from a customer at the recent Santa Monica Book Fair.

A gentleman and his wife entered my booth and browsed through a few books. “Let me know if I can help you with anything or answer any questions,” I said. I usually say this to anyone entering my booth at a fair and then hang back and let them browse unless they ask a question. I think people often like to browse undisturbed, but I always try to make eye contact and greet them first.

The gentleman in my booth pulled out a few books, looked through them, and then asked me about them. We had a short conversation, and at the end of it he remarked, “You’re very friendly and approachable.”

I wasn’t quite sure how to take this. Why wouldn’t I be friendly and approachable? This is a potential book fair customer, and a potential repeat client. “Thanks,” I responded. “I’m happy to answer any questions about the books and it’s always a pleasure to meet someone who finds the same enjoyment in books that I do.”

Here’s where it gets interesting:

“Well,” he said. “Your fellow booksellers sure are a dour bunch. When you walk into their booths they hardly look at you and if you stay in a booth long enough you can hear one dealer say to another that their sales are slow or the customers aren’t buying. I have one piece of advice for them: If you want better sales, at least acknowledge and smile at your customer when he enters your booth.”

Point taken.

I have on occasion heard other booksellers talk about the etiquette of a book fair, one of the rules of which is not to pack up one’s booth early. In general, because I need to make any sales I can, I never pack up early. (In fact, Thoughtful Husband and I were almost the last booksellers packed out on Sunday.) Some sales happen at the last minute. I did see a few dealers packing up a little early, but most did not.

I understand what the gentleman in my booth was saying. I am still overcoming my rather-unreasonable-but-not-without-some-basis-in-truth fear of the archetypal curmudgeonly antiquarian bookseller. To a potential customer, a bookseller can seem intimidating and ready to show off his (or her) superior intellectual knowledge. Customers are sometimes afraid to ask what terms like “t.e.g.” (top edge gilt) or “large 4to” (size of the book) mean because they think the bookseller assumes they have that knowledge. Book fairs are good places for customers to ask for clarification. That’s one of the reasons why the seller is there.

And now that I am an antiquarian bookseller, I can relate to booksellers whose fair sales are slow and who find fair attendance low. I have been through at least one such fair in the past year. It’s frustrating. You travel and lug books and bookcases and give up a weekend and get no financial reward from it if the fair does not produce some sales. Sometimes, the only consolation appears to be commiserating with your peers. But wouldn’t a better consolation be to make the effort to get a new customer or make a sale because you seemed “approachable” and made a customer feel welcome and at ease?

I, too have heard booksellers complain at book fairs, and I have been known to complain about slow book fairs (when my booth is devoid of customers). I don’t think we’re going to bring the multitudes we hope for out to the fair if they feel unwelcome.

For what it’s worth.


Filed under Book Fairs

10 responses to “Chapter 258 A Message to Booksellers Exhibiting at Book Fairs — From a Customer

  1. Jill

    Hi Chris,

    This is a very important point for booksellers (and future booksellers). I have been going to book fairs for years, and have had experiences where the seller was quite rude or just completely ignored me. On one memorable occasion, I actually had a seller grab a book out of my hand when she thought I was going to “crack the binding” which I would NEVER do – I have a reverence for books, as you know. I’ve heard at least one dealer at every fair complaining about low sales in a loud voice, and a few even leave their booths unattended. In this tight economic market and with independents closing their brick and mortar stores, there is no place for haughtiness or negativity. We need more friendly and accessible book sellers like you!

  2. Jill,

    I think all of us, including booksellers interacting with colleagues, have at times experienced the curmudgeonly bookseller. The sad thing is that, if the booksellers to whom my customer referred had been as willing to share their knowledge and their passion for books with their customers as they were with each other, they could have generated more excitement around the fair and possibly more sales. Also, I think that if one can engage a bookseller in a discussion about his books, friendliness and accessibility abound. However, the responsibility for engaging should be on the seller and not on the buyer. Too often, the buyer entering a booth feels unacknowledged and ignored.


  3. I hate pushy sales people. i like what you said, “Let me know if I can help you with anything or answer any questions,” and then backing off.

    I love those kinds of sales people. Telling me that I can approach them, but also allowing me to find what I want on my own.

    There have been several times when I have left a shop after a salesperson approached me twice asking me if I needed any help. The first time is ok. The second time is just too pushy.

  4. Martha Ford

    What I know of the “good, old” books I learned at fairs or now defunct (unfortunately) “used” book stores. Though some vendors were more interested in whether I left with one of their books secreted under my coat, most were happy to teach me if I acted interested. You, on the other hand,could never be a curmudgeon: your personality wouldn’t allow it. Thanks so much for taking the place of all those who used to “teach” me about books.

    Hope your tea is as good as mine this morning!


  5. Martha,

    My cup of the Earl (Grey) and I have just sat down at the computer to read your lovely comment. I’m sure I can be as curmudgeonly as the next seller, and I can relate to the booksellers who have traveled and hauled books a long way to attend a fair where no one buys anything. I do think booksellers could edit their comments and behave professionally, however.

    I agree that if you show a genuine interest, the majority of booksellers are happy to talk to you about books. Since many shops are closing, book fairs are really the only places for newcomers to learn about books and book collecting directly from a seller. We sellers ought to maximize that opportunity to reach new customers by being polite and professional.

    Thanks for reading! Enjoy your tea.


  6. Ink-Stained Wretch

    Another suggestion? As a customer, it’s hugely annoying to me when prices aren’t marked or posted. Please, at least volunteer the information when I’m looking at an unmarked book. Of course, I could ask… but that gets tiresome, aand I’ve had situations where I felt like a seller was “sizing me up” to see how much he could charge me, or where the seller was visibly annoyed when I set the book back down. (In one case, I asked about an item and had to wait for several minutes because the person watching the booth had no idea how much the owner was charging.)

    Part of the reasons customers go to these shows is to compare prices on editions they’ve been looking for. Repeatedly at that show, my money went to the sellers that didn’t make me work to find out how much I was going to spend.

  7. Dear Ink-Stained (that is such a great nom-de-plume),

    Thanks for your comment. This is a valuable suggestion and reminder to us booksellers to be vigilant in making sure our books are marked with prices before exhibiting at a fair.

    As a rule, most book fairs require booksellers to have all items marked with a price or a price posted somewhere. They do this precisely because it’s bad for the trade as a whole for any one of us booksellers to make you feel as if you are being “sized up”. The price of a book should be the same for any buyer, regardless of the thickness of his wallet. In my opinion, a bookseller should never show visible disappointment when a customer sets the book down unless the customer throws the book down. 🙂

    That said, when a seller is pulling, say 20 boxes of books from a stock of 15,000 in preparation for a book fair, he isn’t always able to personally check each individual book for a price. Most sellers price their books as they purchase them, but occasionally, with back-to-back book fairs (like Santa Monica and the upcoming Central Valley Antiquarian Book Fair), things fall through the cracks. Visible, clear pricing is the seller’s responsibility, but occasionally we all miss a book. Out of the 500 books that we might bring to a fair, the one book that inevitably gets picked up will be the one without a price. Mistakes happen, and sellers should be gracious when they do.

    In fact, I had at least one un-marked book with me at the Santa Monica fair. A customer was kind enough to call it to my attention. Because I did not want to just make up a price and seem to be sizing the customer up, a phone call to check records solved the problem. This was an unfortunate mistake on my part, but it is the exception and not the rule (at least in my booth and with most of the dealers I’ve met at all the fairs I’ve done this year). As a result of such mistakes, booksellers risk losing sales, so it is in our own best interest to make sure our books are correctly priced.

    If you are in a booth where every book you pick up is un-priced, then that is a problem. I wouldn’t think that such a seller could survive at fairs for very long. As I mentioned earlier, you should not have to work to determine a book’s price or to get acknowledgment of your existence from a bookseller in whose booth you are standing. You are the customer.

    Thanks again for your suggestion and for reading my blog. Also, I’m sorry if it was you in my booth who found the one unmarked book and had to wait for my phone call.

  8. Pingback: Chapter 488 Report from the Golden Gate Park Book Fair « Book Hunter’s Holiday

  9. sean

    Booksellers in my experience as a collector have had a far greater level of silence and curmudgeon style behavior than one would expect from someone trying to sell something to someone with money to buy their items. Perhaps it’s the need to preserve proprietary information,(issue points,where to find the books, why they are priced a certain way), that makes dealers behave the way they often do. Still it’s inexcusable. I’m in California and here are some shops that are good and bad:
    Good: Pegasus Books in San Luis Obispo, Recycle Books in San Jose, Feldman,s Books in Menlo Park, Yesterday’s Books in Modesto. All these dealers have good stocks and they are helpful friendly and they give good trade credit.Moe’s in Berkeley, Brand Bookshop in Glendale
    Bad: Caravan Bookstore in Downtown L.A. ( A truly despicable man runs the store who looked at me like I was a fool for asking a question), Bell’s Books in Palo Alto (The woman couldn’t have cared less if I was in the store or not), Serendipity Books in Berkeley, (It has amazing books in a complete state of disorder with an owner who looks at you with contempt if you ask where something is. I know Larry McMurtry loves this place but then again he is not the fuzziest character either!)

  10. Thanks for your recent comments on my blog. As both a collector and a bookseller, I heartily agree that some sellers sales would improve if they had a more genuinely helpful attitude. That said, there are also plenty of sellers who are more than willing to assist you in building a collection and in understanding antiquarian books. Don’t be deterred by those who do not seem helpful to you.

    Thanks for reading the blog and for sharing your thoughts here.

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