Fairs | February 2010 | Chris Lowenstein

2010 San Francisco Antiquarian Book Fair, Part 2, Or, Runnin' Down a Dream

You can read Part 1 of this post here.

Eleven-year-old Tom, my assistant for set-up day at the book fair, and I clambered over bookcases and boxes and into the Bookmobile. I sped down the highway toward the City, watching the sun poking through the grey rain clouds. The Bay Bridge and the Transamerica Pyramid rose in the distance against a backdrop of choppy Bay waters, and we blasted Tom Petty's song "Runnin' Down a Dream" on the radio, singing along as loud as we could. As we got closer to the City, I left behind the exhaustion of mailing out 300 + catalogues and the stress of what was going to be a heavy schedule for the next ten days. I'm always excited to go to book fairs. There's just something about the moments before a fair when all is possibility -- the possibility of many books sold and of a few good book finds -- that makes me extremely happy.

Often, I hear booksellers say that book fairs aren't worth it. In order to sell at a book fair, booksellers take time away from the business (in some cases an open shop), lug a bunch of heavy books and bookcases a long distance, and spend money to travel and stay in a hotel. And sometimes no one buys any of your books, or at least not enough of them for you to make back your costs. These are valid complaints and they can affect decisions whether or not to do future fairs.

For example, The Santa Monica Book Fair was a break-even event for me this past September. I had fun at the fair but really had to question at the end whether it was worth it to be away from my family for five days if I was only going to break even. The Central Valley Antiquarian Book Fair, held the weekend after the Santa Monica Fair, was also slow fair for me. It's usually my highest grossing book fair each year.

Not this year.

Needless to say I was nervous about the San Francisco Book Fair. Would it be a good fair for me? I had invested every bit of cash flow into printing and mailing the Dante catalogue. What if I lost money on the fair, too?

I tried to remember a couple of years ago, how I felt when I did this fair for the first time, when I compared myself to the title character in the movie Rudy:

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-time 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.

What has changed since then?

I have more experience. I have done many more book fairs since I wrote that I felt like Rudy. I am now aware of all that might go wrong at a book fair and the myriad ways to lose money at a book fair. But driving to the fair, the old feeling of excitement came back to me, as sure as if it was the first time I ever sold an antiquarian book to a live human being.

Wait a minute. What has changed since then?

I have more experience. I have done many more book fairs since I wrote that I felt like Rudy. I was now aware that most of the fairs I do are profitable for me. I've also developed a good eye to hunt for and find good books at fairs, books on which I can make a profit at a future date. And as an added bonus, I've developed a great network of bookseller friends to visit with and to buy books from and to sell books to. I had dinner with several of them on FridaySaturday nights.

As I said in that 2008 post when I did the San Francisco Antiquarian Book Fair for the first time:

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.

I took stock for a moment.

Yes. I could say the same thing today, and even more vehemently than I said it two years ago.

We parked the car and checked in to our booth, Booth #205. Adjacent to us in Booth #305 was my bookselling friend and mentor, Mr. Z. We'd requested that the fair organizer remove the partition between our booths to make one very large space with Mr. Z's books on one side and mine on another. Here's a photo of how it looked after Tom unloaded my boxes and Mr. Z's assistants Kara and Jill unloaded his boxes:

Some of my books and ephemera are in the left-hand trophy case. Mr. Z's are on the right.

Tom, my able assistant, got right to work unloading 22 boxes of books and 8 bookcases for me. If you will permit a moment of motherly pride, I marvel at the fact that my "baby" (don't tell him I used that word) is growing up and that he is now big enough to lug heavy boxes and furniture. When he had finished a couple of hours later, Thoughtful Husband and Huck came up to the City to check out my booth and to pick Tom up.

Here are a few photos of my side of the extra large booth:

Some books from the Dante catalogue.

A small collection of Kate Greenaway ephemera.

Interesting books on all subjects.

Western Americana.

Books by or about American women.

I had four other book cases on the outside perimeter of the booth for a total of seven bookcases, one trophy case, and half of a glass counter case.

With the words to Tom Petty's song echoing in my ears, I was ready to run down my dream.

Tom Petty - Running Down A Dream
It was a beautiful day, the sun beat down
I had the radio on, I was driving
Trees flew by, me and Del were singing
Little Runaway. I was flying

Yeah running down a dream
That never would come to me
Working on a mystery
Going wherever it leads
Running down a dream

I felt so good like anything was possible
I hit cruise control and rubbed my eyes
The last three days the rain was unstoppable
It was always cold, no sunshine

Yeah running down a dream
That never would come to me
Working on a mystery
Going wherever it leads
Running down a dream

I rolled on as the sky grew dark
I put the pedal down to make some time
There's something good waiting down this road
I'm picking up whatever is mine

Yeah running down a dream
That never would come to me
Working on a mystery
Going wherever it leads
Running down a dream

TOMORROW: The third (and final) post about the fair: Was It a Success? Rare, Fine, and Sold.

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