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.”
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.