Kate Mitas, Tavistock Books’ New Right-Hand (Wo)Man, has returned from the Sacramento Antiquarian Book Fair… her first fair (as a worker-bee, that is), and reports back. Beware, readers, as what follows may be a sweetly written, if perhaps slightly disheartening tale!
By Kate Mitas
The Sacramento Antiquarian Book Fair was a great place for a beginner to become acquainted with the book fair circuit, because it’s one of the smaller, low-key venues, as book fairs go (or so I’m told). A blog post by a certain predecessor of mine had actually alerted me to the casual atmosphere ahead of time, but I was still wired going into it: I hardly slept the night before, and so was more than a bit punchy by the time we started setting up our booth on Friday. And by “we” I mean “I,” since Vic mostly left me to my own devices on that score while he browsed other dealers’ booths – much to the amused commiseration of Bill Bastick from Asian Steppes, situated across the aisle from us, who jokingly referred to me as “slave” for the remainder of the weekend. Nevertheless, I eventually managed to get things set up well enough for a first-timer, I think, and did so just in time for free pizza, courtesy of the show’s tireless coordinator, Jim Kay.
As for the fair itself on Saturday? Well . . . it was a little slow for us. Okay, more than a little: if you must know, it was woefully slow. In short, Tavistock Books had a bad fair.
The day started off promising enough: right out of the gate, a nice woman and her granddaughter purchased a hefty five-volume set of California history. Not only did these two ladies seem intent on reading their books from cover to cover together, but, equally delightful, the set’s departure created a spacious gap on the shelves, which I promptly scurried to fill. Then: nothing, sales-wise. Despite heading the next blank invoice “Sacto Fair” in accordance with Vic’s belief that it would lure the fickle gods of consumerism, despite endlessly cleaning the glass display cases and straightening description labels, Booth #37 remained lamentably quiet. Customers squinted at our shelves and even picked up a book from time to time, but almost always put it back, in some cases repeating this procedure with the same book multiple times throughout the course of the day. Passerby lingered over the rarities in the display cases just long enough to raise our hopes, then moseyed on with nary a backward glance while nonchalantly swinging their regulation white shopping bags, each of which was ostentatiously marked “Sold.” The boxes of Americana we’d hauled out for California ephemera enthusiasts were apparently too daunting, or perhaps too tall, for most. Some of the coolest items, the ones I’d imagined would draw hordes of admirers – like our archive of Gold Rush letters and photographs, or a Steamship Yankee Blade ticket – weren’t graced with so much as an appreciative sigh, much less a truly interested customer.
It was hard, I’ll admit, not to feel like the lone museum guard on duty in an empty exhibition hall, especially as many fellow dealers in the surrounding area seemed to be doing just fine. One dealer, in fact, who is a dear and deserving colleague and shall remain nameless, was even doing “just fine” with stock bought, not long ago, from us! We were, and are, sincerely glad for this colleague’s success, of course, but . . . oh, the agony, and the irony. Every now and then, a sale lifted us out of the doldrums and turned us into booksellers again, grateful for the chance to put good material into the hands of people who’d take pleasure in it; one regular at our shop stopped by, and was kind enough to give me props within earshot of Vic (thanks, Jim – don’t spend it all in one place!). But then, inexorably, we’d drift back to our becalmed waters, cursing our luck.
The one perk of all the deathly quietude was that Vic let me roam the fair, too. For a so-called small fair, there were enough vendors for the main area of the venue to feel almost too packed, and a decent-sized crowd milling about, as well. The best part, for me, was the sheer range of books on display: from Ken Karmiole’s (Kenneth Karmiole, Bookseller, Inc.) impeccable “old books” – his term, by the way, for the lovely array of pre-1800 material at his booth – to pulp fiction and modern firsts at Magus Books and several others, to Andrew Langer’s (Andrew Langer, Bookseller) collection of quirky ephemera and Elizabeth Svendsen’s (Walkabout Books) assortment of uncommon travel-related books, and so much more. Two of my fellow CABS grads this year, Morgan Brynnan (Uncommon Works) and Bill Wickoff (Ephemeriana), had booths, and I was glad to see them again; C-SPAN even showed up and interviewed (at least) Ken Sanders (Ken Sanders Rare Books) and Nick Aretakis (Nick Aretakis, Bookseller).
I wish I could say I scored something amazing, as some of the other dealers reportedly did, and as Vic discovered once back in the shop on Monday, in that he bought an apparently unrecorded Margaret Armstrong binding. But, I didn’t, at least not in that sense. Instead, I rediscovered something I’d already known: the incredible generosity of booksellers. Zhenya Dzhavgova (ZH Books) and Kim Herrick (The Book Lair), sharing the booth beside ours (and doing an enviously far brisker business), popped over from time to time to make sure my first fair was going okay and to provide extremely helpful tips (i.e., “Vic hates it when you stand in front of the display cases too long”). Stephanie Howlett-West (S. Howlett-West Books) explained the miraculous business card system of purchasing; David Smith (D.J. Smith Books) told me about other Sacramento fairs I might want to check out, and gave me a cookie, to boot. Andrew Langer even passed along buying tips – as I was in the process of buying from him. And there were more friendly gestures and kindnesses, too many, from too many people, to list them all. Simply listening to the abundance of trade talk – from Ken Karmiole and Vic discussing the possibility of partnering on a particular item, to Laurelle Swan (Swan’s Fine Books) musing about whether she should have brought more things – was an education in itself.
Some booksellers, smarter and savvier than I, can perhaps make it in this business on their own. For this bookseller, however, who needs all the help she can get, it’ll take a village. Or, maybe, a book fair (or a hundred book fairs).
And as for the persnickety little problem of having had a bad book fair? Vic is teaching me well: we’re acknowledging the hit, reassessing, and getting ready to come out swinging next time.
Seattle, here we come.