I know I said I’d return to all new posts this week, but if you can bear with me for just another day or two, I have two more posts that demonstrate the small victories and frequent mistakes of those of us new to the antiquarian bookselling trade. (Aside: One interesting thing about the antiquarian bookselling trade is that after two years — and probably after 20 years — I am still a newcomer to the trade. Every day I learn that I still have a lot more to learn.) 😉
Book fair season is coming up. I’ll be selling books at two fairs in September (Santa Monica and Sacramento/Central Valley) and one in October (Golden Gate Park). I was sorely tempted to sign up for the excellent Seattle Book Fair, and even had a couple of offers to share a booth, but that would make four weekends out of six where I was away from home, and I just can’t figure out how to fit that in this year. Now that I am exhibiting for the third time at some fairs (Sacramento), and I am selling books at three fairs within about five weeks, I concede that, though I love book fairs, they are a lot of work. I sometimes need to remind myself why book fairs are generally more than worth the amount of preparatory work before a fair — getting supplies, choosing books to bring, making sure all books have a corresponding price and description, figuring out what to do with Tom and Huck when I am away at a fair, etc. There’s even more work catching up after I return home. Despite all those logistical details, I am at my most animated when at a book fair. Book fairs give me an energy and excitement I don’t get anywhere else, and I look forward to each and every one (and to the day when I can finally sell at the aforementioned Seattle fair). I love it because I am able to interact with my customers and potential customers and fellow booksellers in person.
Here’s the article I wrote after my very first book fair, the Central Valley Antiquarian Book Fair, held in September, 2007. Re-reading it, I am already getting excited for this year’s fair season.
The Velveteen Bookseller
Do you know the story of The Velveteen Rabbit, by Margery Williams? To quote Wikipedia (and please, to those new to bookselling, don’t ever rely solely on Wikipedia for important bibliographic research): “A boy receives a Velveteen Rabbit for Christmas. The Velveteen Rabbit is snubbed by other more expensive or mechanical toys, the latter of which fancy themselves real. One day while talking with the Skin Horse, the Rabbit learns that real is not how you are made; rather, a toy becomes real if its owner really and truly loves it.”
I came to think of myself as somewhat like the Velveteen Rabbit at the Fourteenth Annual Central Valley/Sacramento Antiquarian Book Fair this past weekend. For the first time, I sold multiple books to actual “civilian” customers. When you work out of your home, as I do, you’re working in a bit of a vacuum, wondering if the books you’re choosing are good enough or interesting enough for anyone else to spend their hard-earned cash to purchase. Sure, if you have good books and price your books appropriately, other booksellers will buy them, and that is a wonderful and necessary thing, but it does not, in my opinion, make you a “real” bookseller. A real bookseller has, in addititon to many fellow bookseller customers, other, non-bookselling customers to whom she can introduce books she just knows they’d buy if they knew about them. (Yes, I know there are many additional qualities that make a “real” bookseller, but indulge me for purposes of this post.)
Exhibiting at the book fair this weekend allowed me to display many of my books to many potential customers at one time, quite a different venue from the internet, which is not user-friendly for the casual browser and where a customer is usually seeking out one specific title instead of many. One extraordinary benefit of a book fair is that it allows a bookseller to hand-sell a book. This means that when a customer expresses an interest in a particular author, subject, or title, you’ve got the book — plus more material related to it that your customer perhaps didn’t even know about. If you’re lucky, the customer will buy multiple items to which you’ve introduced him. If you’re extremely lucky, you may even be able to open up a whole new area of collecting for the customer. I had such an experience at the fair this weekend, and it was wonderful. I liked the opportunity to hand-sell a book so much that I now wish I could find a space to open a shop in my too-high-rent town.
How is this at all related to The Velveteen Rabbit, you ask?
Though I’ve been studying books and bookselling for some years and have had my own business since January of this year, I felt like a “real” bookseller when I walked in and saw my booth, the first inside the entrance, with this sign:
It was so fulfilling to see my business, made real in print and with shelves of books, alongside the placards of other booksellers whom I respect very much.
I felt like a “real” bookseller when random customers walked by and complimented my books and display (not so much lunacy after all) and then bought actual books they’d not seen before from me, a bookseller they’d never heard of before the fair. And, of course, the other booksellers who bought my books helped make my fair a great one, too. I’m just trying to encourage those new booksellers chained to a computer, virtual booksellers, to become real and to give book fairs a try.
I know I have a long way to go to become a good bookseller, but attending that fair this weekend was not only good for my business and for customer development, it was great to know I could connect people with books they love. And that’s why I love this business.