Fairs | October 2009 | Chris Lowenstein

Report from the Golden Gate Park Book Fair

I am carefully wading out of a sea of boxes full of books and portable book cases strewn across my dining room/office to give you a full report on this past weekend's Golden Gate Park Book Fair, held in the Hall of Flowers in San Francisco's beautiful Golden Gate Park. After that, I'll have to dive back in until all the books are put back on the shelves again.

The Golden Gate Park fair was the first one I have done (and I've done nine fairs in the two and a half years I've been in business) where there was a long line of people waiting to enter when the doors opened. The fair's organizer did a great job getting the word out about the time and location of the fair. In addition to the bibliophilic crowd were the many people who were out and about walking through Golden Gate Park on a beautiful (75 degree) Sunday who were likely drawn in by curiosity and by the free admission. The aisles were filled with people from opening until closing time. Having occasionally done a fair where the aisles are so empty the booksellers could have used them as golf fairways, the sight of so many people at a book fair made me so happy.

That said, I would characterize the customers at this fair as readers and book lovers but not necessarily book collectors (with a few exceptions, of course). What that means is I sold a lot of books, but the books I sold were in the $10-$25 range, books which are usually overlooked at the larger fairs with paid admission. What that also means is that there were many people in attendance who were like me several years ago. That is to say that I heard comments ranging from, "I never knew old books could be so beautiful!" to "Why would anyone pay $100 for an old book?" to (my personal favorite because I said it myself when I "discovered" the world of antiquarian books), "Why didn't I know these type of books existed before today?"

There are a couple of ways booksellers view such potential customers. Some might refer to such book fair attendees as "looky-lou's" because the person looks at the books and perhaps comments that they're lovely but doesn't buy any of them. Another bookseller might call such a customer a "tire-kicker". This usually refers to a book lover who browses the books for sale, takes one off the shelf and then handles the book, often rather, er, exuberantly, perhaps opening it too far or bending pages when turning them. Such a customer usually has little or no experience handling old books. I've seen their book-handling methods make booksellers twitch.

The third way, and the way I think most booksellers assess such book fair visitors, is to see this as an opportunity to expose people to the world of antiquarian books, to book collecting, and to the fun of seeking and finding the perfect book. I was very impressed with the way so many people asked questions about the books -- "How old is this one?" "How do I know if it's a first edition?" "Why is this book considered significant?" "How do I learn to do this?" Before I was a bookseller, I often attended fairs but NEVER asked questions unless I planned to buy a book. I was way too intimidated by either the books' usually high prices or by the sometimes silent manner of the booksellers.

Yep. I was a "looky-lou". I am officially ashamed to say that I did not have the self-confidence to ask questions so I could learn more. Now I still need to learn even more, but I've learned not to be afraid to ask questions. Many booksellers are so happy to have someone to talk to about books that they are thrilled to answer your questions. And if you find a rude seller, might I suggest trying again at another booth? While there are a few who genuinely seem to dislike people, most booksellers love to talk about books and are happy to talk to you at a book fair.

Once I observed that most of the people at this particular fair were not going to be buying rare books, I took the opportunity to explain to them why they might want to do so in the future and why it is so fun to build a collection in any field (not just the "expensive book" field) and how to go about doing so.

By the end of the day, I sold more than half of my book case filled with $10 books and had sales of a few more expensive books. I did make a profit, though smaller than my average for larger fairs, but I also think I may have attracted a few more potential book collectors (maybe even booksellers?) to the trade and that is always a good thing.

I bought a few interesting titles, and I hope to show those to you soon. Buying books and discovering new stock is another of the many benefits of book fairs.

Would you believe that in my rush to leave the house for the fair I forgot my camera? Sorry to say I did. I would have liked to show you pictures of my booth and of the bright, light-filled Hall of Flowers.

I have to run now, but tomorrow I'll tell you about the mysterious customers who asked if they could photograph the books in my booth.

See you in the stacks!

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