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Pride and Prejudice and Bookselling: Confessions from the 49th California International Antiquarian Book Fair

This past weekend Team Tavistock (Vic Zoschak & Kate Mitas) braved the 49th Annual California International Antiquarian Book Fair. How was it, you ask? Well, we’ve asked Ms. Mitas and she kindly volunteered her thoughts on the fair. Find out below!

Team Tavistock! The lovely duo in all their book-loving glory. (Disclaimer: I told Vic to make this face right before taking this picture. He is a genial person. We promise.)

Team Tavistock! The lovely duo in all their book-loving glory. (Disclaimer: I told Vic to make this face right before taking this picture. He is a genial person. We promise.)

By Kate Mitas

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a bookseller in possession of a good book must be in want of a buyer. Book buyers being rather fickle creatures, however, and booksellers being notoriously short of cash, the art of uniting a book with its owner-to-be can be a delicate affair, engineered by the bookseller with the same gnawing anxiety and outsized hopefulness as that of a zookeeper trying to persuade members of an endangered species to mate. Spacious, but comfortable, environs are helpful in such instances, as are a plenitude of books, booksellers, and potential book buyers from around the globe, to increase the likelihood of a successful match. And, of course, lovely weather never hurts.

Enter the annual California International Antiquarian Book Fair.

New ABAA member (and our friend) Marc Kuritz of Churchill Book Collector smiles at the opening of the fair!

New ABAA member (and our friend) Marc Kuritz of Churchill Book Collector smiles at the opening of the fair!

Held in the Pasadena Convention Center this year, the largest antiquarian book fair in the country had all of these things going for it, and more. Well-lit and suitably grand, with plush grey carpeting covering the floor and dark, tasteful drapery dividing the booths down eight long aisles, the convention center housed over 200 dealers and some of their most magnificent stock, and did so with nary a hitch. The combined might of White Rain Productions and the dauntless ABAA volunteer committee, headed by Michael Thompson, ensured that everything from the easy load-in, to the well-stocked exhibitor snack room, to the requisite permits for the ABAA charity poker tournament were all taken care of before anyone could raise much of a fuss (okay, some disgruntled muttering was heard from time to time regarding the snack room, but that’s inevitable). Security was tight, snappily dressed, and both professional and friendly with the bookish crowd; the temperature inside, once the fair officially started, was neither too cool nor too hot. Attendance was predictably good, if not the clamoring hordes of collectors everyone would have preferred. In terms of operational efficiency, the general consensus seemed to be that the fair ran with exquisite smoothness.

Even I, still a relative newbie to the fair circuit, and a first-timer on this side of the counter at an ABAA fair, knew enough to be impressed by the well-oiled machinery underlying the event. The same sense of smoothness seemed to carry over into the Tavistock booth, as load-in – really nothing more strenuous than a quick drive down the ramp at the convention center parking garage, and then a stroll around the neighborhood while our books were brought up by the loading crews – turned into a luxuriously long setup, followed by a quick change of clothes before the crowd started spilling in on Friday afternoon. After that, it just came down to selling books — arguably, the most important part, but I’ll get to that in a minute.

None of this is to say that we didn’t have our usual share of book fair mishaps. For starters, our booth was missing a glass case, and we had to track it down before we could do much in the way of unpacking. Then the corner of the table supporting our two folding bookcases cracked and began to buckle overnight, which meant we had to get a new table in on Friday morning and redo everything on the cases (as you may have already guessed, by “we” here I mean “I”). My “fancy day” outfit demanded to be rectified at the last minute, and rightly so, and though I remembered to scrape the blue price stickers off the soles of my black heels before too many fair-goers had wandered in, the shoes I’d thought were a solid thrift store find turned out to be duds: part of the right heel broke off not long into that opening day, giving my already less than graceful heel-wearing gait an added surreptitious limp, and leading to the sad discovery that I’d left our Sharpie marker back at the shop.

Yet, this time around, it all felt, well, par for the course. Simply working the fair, my biggest one so far, my first ABAA fair even, seemed . . . normal. Which, quite frankly, was weird.

And which is why I now have a confession to make: I have been an antiquarian bookselling spy.

Not a spy for anyone, mind you — don’t sic ABAA security on me just yet. No, instead I have been a spy, of sorts, from the used and rare book world from whence I came, and where I spent the preceding eight years of my life in the book trade before moving to Tavistock. 

The used and rare market isn’t, of course, actually separate from the antiquarian trade. In fact, for some dealers, the two are very nearly one and the same: within the many permutations of the book business, there are plenty of antiquarian booksellers with open shops and a large quantity of general stock, just as there are plenty of used and rare booksellers with significant antiquarian stock. The distinction is in large measure a matter of how a bookseller defines herself, I suspect, and in which community she chooses to invest the majority of her energies, funds, and knowledge. (I also suspect that many of you have other, or better, definitions for these terms. Bear with me.)

In my case, the two bookstores I worked for had a far greater preponderance of used than rare material, a significant investment in and reliance on their local communities, and the kind of more limited dealings with collectors and institutions that makes me feel comfortable distinguishing them from the purely antiquarian trade. The demands and joys of running an open shop took precedence; material valued at more than a few thousand dollars was unlikely to pass through the doors. Yet, while I may not have learned the ins and outs of collating or the rigors of bibliographic description, I did learn what I still take to be the one of the most basic tenets of the trade: that the job of a bookseller is, simply, to put the right book in the right hands. 

That’s a tenet that’s easier to follow, however, when one is dealing primarily with the public, and can point to sales of $1.50 and $1500 on the same day as proof that a book’s value exists irrespective of the price tag on it. It strains credulity to make the same claim when the books you sell exclude all but the wealthiest pairs of hands.

Or so it has seemed sometimes, as, over the course of the past seven months, I have on the one hand been utterly delighted with some of the material that has crossed my desk and grown frankly callous about the prices attached to it, and yet, on the other hand, have found myself stalled at book fair booths or dinners with colleagues, making knee-jerk comparisons of the prices of things to my average annual income or the cost of the house it took my parents 30 years to pay off, and wondering what the hell I was doing there. Such comparisons do a rank disservice to everyone and everything involved, of course, and it seems likely that the authors of at least a few of the books in question, who surely knew some bookseller’s assistants in their time, would have been mortally offended at having their life’s lasting work held up to my meager income. But knowing that didn’t keep me from wondering. Was the antiquarian trade just about selling expensive books to rich people? Had I sold my bookselling soul for a living wage and the chance to actually research the material I cataloged?

If this sounds a bit like a form of snobbery, well, it is. Because the truth is, I was wrong. But being, as usual, a stubborn idiot, it took the largest antiquarian book fair in the country to convince me of that.

Some of the deceptive looking booksellers we know and love!

Some of the deceptive looking booksellers we know and love!

Antiquarian booksellers are a deceptive-looking lot, what with their general friendliness, bookish ways, frequently somewhat rumpled appearance, and ability to drink like fish at a moment’s notice. You might not appreciate at first glance the depths of trade knowledge and specialization honeycombing their businesses, which are, more often than not, simply themselves. And the same holds true of their booths at these book fairs: loving displays of beautiful and, yes, expensive books that reveal nothing of the boxes of dreck, smelly basements, second mortgages, years of self-education, and successful gambles that enabled those books to appear in all their bright glory on a glass shelf at a book fair somewhere. Until, one day, at, say, the 49th California International Antiquarian Book Fair, you do.

Whether it was the fact that I recognized more of the items on display at this book fair for the truly amazing things they are, or the internationality of the affair, or the number of eager collectors, librarians, and other dealers poring over the stock, or the humbling amount of dealers who stopped by to offer their thoughts about their success or lack thereof at this fair and were, without fail, kind as ever to this newbie, it slowly dawned on me that the “right book, right hands” theory of bookselling could still apply in the antiquarian world. Each booth was a kind of sounding, showing the depths of a dealer’s knowledge, beckoning like-minded folk. It’s unlikely that I’ll ever have a collection myself, I gradually realized, but . . . if the opportunity arose to sell something as cool as some of the things I saw, expensive or not? Well, I’d be okay with that.

But what, you’re surely wondering, does any of this have to do how the good ship Tavistock fared? 

Much as I wish I could report my first successful book fair, I cannot. The official word here, in fact, is “soft,” and I’ll leave you to interpret that as you will. Groups of customers drifted up to the display cases like schools of minnows into the shade of a rock, and the gentlest greeting, even to someone else entirely, would send them skittering away. No big fish came by, and those medium fish that did bought lightly. Lots of things sold from the Discovery shelves of under $100 items; whether that translates to increased collecting or is simply an indication of economic stratification, remains to be seen. The aisles, which had been like pneumatic tubes propelling assistants from booth to booth with packages at the start of the fair, slowly turned to clogged thoroughfares of laden dealers grimly trying to ignore their aching feet as they lugged final piles of invoiced items to their colleagues up the way, and a few of those piles came to us, so the buying wasn’t too bad. But, again, the expenses of attending the fair weighed heavily, too heavily, against our anemic sales.

The plush carpeting was getting ripped up during load-out, exposing swathes of pale concrete beneath the luxurious facade. The draperies have surely been taken down and folded, the metal poles stacked in a supply closet somewhere; the security guards have taken off their suits and sunglasses, had beers, and moved on to other gigs. The transitory bibliomecca has moved on to other oases. And as we drove away from Pasadena early Monday morning in a disappointed funk, dreading the final tally, it occurred to me that at any given time, some bookseller, somewhere, was digging through a box, lugging a sign out to the sidewalk, putting a book in someone’s hand, and trying, always, to outsmart, out buy, and — invariably, incredibly — help out their colleague competitors. It’s an absurd profession in its way, and a noble one. And, in the end, we’re all just hustling, hustling, hustling to stay in the game.

Godspeed, friends.

And then... there's this and it makes us giggle.

       And then… there’s this and it makes us giggle.

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Come to Pasadena, for There You’ll See…

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We are exhibiting at the Pasadena ABAA Fair! If you have a chance to come check out Booth 418 while you’re there (February 12th-14th at the Pasadena Convention Center), here are some of the goodies you can hope to find. See anything else on our site you’d be interested in perusing? Shoot us an email! We’d be happy to bring it down just for you.

Check out this 1st edition, inscribed copy of Clara Barton’s “Story of My Childhood” – published in 1907. Now housed in a custom red quarter-leather slipcase with marbled paper boards… As Barton is perhaps the most well-known nurse in American nursing history (organizing the American Red Cross and all), this is a must-have for any nursing collection! See it here>

 

 

Screen Shot 2016-01-19 at 10.00.15 AMAn attractive, Near Fine set of Forster’s “The Life of Charles Dickens” – all first editions! Published between 1872 and 1874 by Chapman & Hall, these volumes are beautifully set in early 20th century three-quarter green morocco bindings and green cloth boards. Love Dickens? Look no further than here>

 

 

 

 

 

Screen Shot 2016-01-19 at 10.00.50 AMFor the celebrity groupie in the Southern California crowd… we have a scarce cookery book published in 1936. “Favorite Recipes of Famous People” contains favorite recipes of, according to its compiler Felix Mendelsohn, “famous chefs and maitres, by stage folk and screen stars, by newspaper men, columnists, opera stars, musicians and leading household economists, in fact by glamorous personalities in every walk of life.” This cookery book only shows 4 holdings on OCLC! Get it while it’s hot>

 

 

 

Screen Shot 2016-01-19 at 6.46.50 PMA book fair wouldn’t be complete without a little bit of library history! Have you seen our Catalogue of the Milford Library yet? This is a rare 19th C. catalogue from this small-town free library, formed in 1868. OCLC records no holdings of this edition (can you say “Score”?), noting only a sole holding of the library’s 1870 catalogue. The 3 page introduction provides a succinct history of earlier attempts at establishing local lending-library societies, etc. Interested? It is available to see here>

 

 

 

Screen Shot 2016-01-19 at 10.04.45 AMThis Hardy Boys title, “The Short-Wave Mystery”, number 24 in the series, is in, according to Carpentieri’s reference, it’s “most collectible” format. This 3rd printing of the title has a frontis by Russell H. Tandy and is bound in maroon cloth with black topstain and pictorial endpapers. Colorful pictorial Dust Jacket is included! Are you a collector of children’s series books? Contact us – we can bring many! See “The Short-Wave Mystery” here>

 

 

 

Screen Shot 2016-01-19 at 6.39.30 PMWho doesn’t love a good restaurant menu? Especially one where a big-mouth bass tells you to eat him! Check out this menu from New York’s McGinnis of Sheepshead Bay – “The Roast Beef King” (but also “Famous for Sea Food”). In 1943, a Roast Beef, Spinach and Mashed Potato dinner cost $1.45. Oh, the good old days… Drool & giggle here>

 

Screen Shot 2016-01-19 at 10.05.13 AMAnd last but not least – our Fine Printing item! This broadside is a 1934 printing from San Francisco’s Grabhorn Press – one of only 100 copies. “To Albert Bender – Saint Patrick’s Night 1934″ was written by Ella Young to Albert Maurice Bender, and has a woodcut headpiece by Valenti Angelo at the top. See it here! 

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The Antiquarian Book World in 2016

Woohoo! It is almost 2016 and have you got a whirlwind year ahead of you! Interested in Book Fairs? Book events? Bibliophiles in general? The Antiquarian Book World has got you covered. Check out the most pressing book events (mainly CA or ABAA related) in early 2016 below!

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January:

Now until January 10th: If you haven’t caught it already, you have a few days left! The California Historical Society has hosted their current exhibition “City Rising: San Francisco and the 1915 World’s Fair” since January of 2015, and the closing day is January 10th of 2016! Get a viewing in while you still can… take it from someone who has seen the exhibition – it’s worth it!   http://www.californiahistoricalsociety.org/exhibitions/current_exhibitions/

January 9th & 10th: Greater Los Angeles Postcard & Paper Show - Glendale California. http://www.postcardshows.com/Glendale.php

January 25th (to April 25th): New exhibition at the Book Club of California in San Francisco! If you have never attended an exhibition at this prestigious club or thought of joining the ranks, you are missing out! The BCC hosts lovely and interesting functions and surely their new exhibition “Calligraphy and Poetry” is sure to impress!  http://www.bccbooks.org/

February:

February 5th & 6th: San Francisco Book, Print & Paper Fair at the San Mateo County Event Center – San Mateo, California! This fair is close to our lovely shop… Just a ferry ride (or a long swim… just kidding you can also drive here) away! Please feel free to make an appointment and come see us when you’re around for the fair!   http://www.sfbookandpaperfair.com/

February 12th, 13th & 14th: The California International Antiquarian Book Fair (ABAA) - Pasadena, California. For those who don’t know, each year the ABAA oscillates between hosting the California ABAA Fair in Pasadena or the Bay Area. This year is Pasadena’s turn! Come down and show your support for the packed show of local, North American & International Booksellers! We’ll be there – even more a reason to come! http://cabookfair.com/index.php

March:

March 11th, 12th & 13th: Florida Antiquarian Book Fair - St. Petersburg, FL. I have to plug this one because not only has Vic exhibited at the Florida Antiquarian Book Fair before, but it is my home state! Don’t worry, alligators are more scared of you than you are of them…  http://floridabooksellers.com/

The Sacramento Antiquarian Book Fair

The Sacramento Antiquarian Book Fair

March 19th: Sacramento Antiquarian Book Fair. This one is a must! For those of you who have never been to a book fair, this is a great starting fair to attend. Lots of local booksellers, fun-loving bibliophiles and sunshine… what more could you ask for? Read our past blogs on this fair to hear what it’s all about, then come and visit us!  http://www.sacbookfair.com/

 

April (We like to call it… Bookselling in a New York Minute):

April 7th, 8th, 9th & 10th: The ABAA New York Antiquarian Book Fair – Park Avenue, NY. Always a beautiful venue to behold, this fair boasts booksellers and book-lovers from all over the world, and never fails to deliver a spectacular event! Don’t believe us? We wouldn’t lie to you! http://www.nyantiquarianbookfair.com/

April 9th: The Manhattan Vintage Book & Ephemera Fair / The Fine Press Book Fair – Lexington Ave, NY. One of the greatest things about the NY book fair are the numerous “shadow” fairs that go along with the ABAA’s shindig… check them out! You won’t be disappointed.  http://www.flamingoeventz.com/    http://www.fpba.com/fairs/newyork.html

April 9th: The New York City Book & Ephemera Fair. Again… how many fairs do you need to have happening before you agree to go to New York and have your fill of antiquarian books?! I believe “Shop till you Drop” is the phrase needed here!  http://www.antiqueandbookshows.com/

 

To find out more throughout the year, visit:

www.bookfairs.com or the ABAA list of events at www.abaa.org/events/  to find more to explore!

 

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Sleepless in Seattle: Kate’s Second Book Fair

By Kate Mitas

Our smiling blog author and Aide-de-Camp, Kate Mitas!

Oh, Seattle. Coffee wellspring of the Pacific Northwest, home to too many musicians and artists for a mere blog post to recount, and, it almost goes without saying, annual host to a much-loved regional book fair. Which, of course, is why I found myself in the Emerald City last Thursday for my first visit to Seattle (not counting layovers or bleary-eyed glimpses from I-5) and the Seattle Antiquarian Book Fair.

Between the abundance of flannel and the Space Needle dominating the horizon, Seattle is just waiting to be cast as the setting for a hipster version of the Jetsons: its city center glass, its art postmodern, and its denizens often bearded, bookish, and/or bespectacled, thereby rendering the game of “spot the bookseller in the bar” next to impossible to play. Did they see us coming, I wondered, these intellectual-looking, future-minded Seattleites, and would they care that a book fair was in their midst?

Trunks of books arrived and piled up in the FedEx store, belonging not just to Tavistock Books but also to our booth-mates, Books Tell You Why (and I think I can safely say that Joachim’s mammoth double-wide trunks plagued the erstwhile FedEx folks even more than ours did). Assorted vehicles packed high with boxes commandeered the hotel parking lots, including the white behemoth driven by the incredibly generous and possibly a bit cracked Brad Johnson (The Book Shop, LLC) and Jesse Rossa (Triolet Rare Books), who hauled the combined stock of eleven booksellers up the coast in one mad fell swoop (and then, astonishingly, brought it down again). Overloaded dollies trundled down the ramps of Seattle’s Exhibition Hall and returned empty. Slowly but surely, booksellers descended on the city from every part of the country and even from overseas, like a horde of collegial, misinformed locusts, who, rather than decimating the surrounding crops, amiably offer themselves up to be devoured instead.

But would it work, that was the question. Would a plain white banner tied to the Exhibition Hall’s railing alert people to our presence? Would the rain forecast for the weekend keep potential customers away? Most importantly, for this newbie to the fair circuit, who woke up at four in the morning most days of the fair with these questions in mind, would Seattle be a repeat of Sacramento for the good ship Tavistock?

The trip didn’t start off very promising, frankly. Two days before we left, Vic’s van got totaled in a car accident as he was on his way to the shop (everyone unhurt, humans and pets alike, thank goodness). I somehow forgot until the last minute that I would need something nicer than usual to wear, and spent a frantic few hours the night before our flight at my trusty local thrift stores, manically amusing myself with thoughts of showing up in various ridiculous prom dresses for the first day of the fair (a.k.a., “fancy day,” when Vic planned to wear a suit and informed me that I should have on something complementary), before scrounging up a couple of things that I hoped would suffice. The airline misrouted Vic’s suitcase and then informed us that they wouldn’t be able deliver it to the hotel until midnight; the rental car service didn’t have the car we’d ordered. By the time we got a different car, picked up our trunks of books, and grabbed a bite to eat, we were grumpy and beleaguered. The fair, it seemed, was already taking a turn for the doomed. 

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The Tavistock Book In all its glory!

Nevertheless, we rallied and for a time not all was sad in Mudville. Vic’s suitcase arrived at the hotel sooner than expected, and this time around at setup, on Friday, when Vic left me to ready the booth while he scoured the wares of fellow dealers, I managed to get things situated with a little less agonizing than last time. The wonderful crew from Books Tell You Why — Joachim Koch, Andrea Koczela, and Brian Hoey — were, well, wonderful, and I was grateful to have them around for suggestions and shared laughs (not to mention book recommendations). We even sold a few things that day, and bought a few things, which I’m learning is the way book fairs should go. So, hurrah for us . . . right?

Well, let me back up a minute to say that for anyone who has been to the Sacramento but not the Seattle Antiquarian Book Fair, or vice versa, there is a world of difference between the two. Sacramento is smaller, hotter, more tightly packed, and far, far more relaxed. Seattle, admirably well-organized by Louis Collins, while still not the creme de la creme of book fairs (or so I’m told), is certainly more imposing. Glass cases predominate and even have their own special crews, roving bands of handymen who do everything from adjust shelves to clean the doors with a bottle of zealously-guarded Windex. More importantly, dealers come from farther away, with better books and higher expectations. It costs more, so you have to sell more. Plain and simple. 

And that, dear readers, is where the crux of the problem lies. 

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Like a pro – not showing any uncomfortable-ness! The Tavistock Team on Saturday morning, excited for a day of bookselling!

Saturday dawned cool and rainy, but I should have known that a little rain wouldn’t keep Seattleites away. It poured, and they still came flocking to the book fair. (I loved them for this, and still do, from afar.) Yet, all that morning and into the early afternoon, the Tavistock booth remained eerily untouched. Gradually, it dawned on me: we’d brought the wrong books. All of the right books were back at the store! As for those that weren’t wrong, well, they were priced too high. No amount of rearranging, no amount of petty thievery of the precious bottle of display-case Windex from its rightful place behind the back curtains, would change things. Then there was the matter of my dress — also uncomfortably wrong (what had I been thinking?) — and my shoes, which gave me blisters after the first fifteen minutes. I’d also bashed my elbow on one of the trunks during setup, and was burning through band-aids like no tomorrow. It was Sacramento all over again, except this time I was actually bleeding.

As you’re probably guessing, though, we did, in fact, finally sell something, a little Seattle-related booklet that made one nice man very happy. And soon enough, we were passing the invoice book back and forth and politely trying to outmaneuver each other for the calculator while sales piled up at last, much to our relief. Did it matter then that the band-aid on my heel somehow slid over to the top of my foot and clung there, unnoticed by me, for most of the day, completely putting the kibosh on my “fancy day” outfit? I assure you, it did not (once I finally noticed it). I was having too much fun.

However, much as I would love to be able to report that our Sunday sales flew along at the same clip as Saturday’s, alas, they did not. In fact, we didn’t sell a thing, and our rampant success Saturday turned out to be the only reason the weekend wasn’t a total ruin. Well, that and the finds Vic came across, which we’ll be adding to our inventory soon (stay tuned). Expenses piled up, and the fair that I’d been sure had at least outshone Sacramento turned out to be, when we sat down and crunched the numbers this afternoon, roughly equivalent. 

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Dinner at Crow, Sunday after pack-out. Having been on their feet all day two days in a row and spending hours packing their books to go back home… well, you’d never know it! Just look at those smiles.

So what’s a young bookseller with two not-so-good fairs under her belt to do? Well, after long and careful consideration, I have to admit that I’m in something of a bind: no matter how much I stare at our tally sheet and its glaring red total, and no matter how many choice expletives I thoughtfully lob in its direction, the 2015 Seattle Antiquarian Book Fair still feels . . . good. We sold some nice books, and if we could’ve made a little more profit on them we would’ve done very well, indeed. The venue was lovely, if hot, and we met some great customers who may yet turn out to be future customers; even some past customers stopped by to say hi and introduce themselves. The booksellers I met were invariably kind and welcoming, and I finally had the chance to see some of my brilliant fellow assistants. Even a few of my fellow 2015 CABS grads (Jon Munster (The Book Bin, Corvalis), Rebekah Medford, and Ken Mallory (Kenneth Mallory, Bookseller)), were there. And finally, of the many, many things I learned this weekend, one may even be life-saving: never, ever have a rubber band fight with Ken Karmiole. He’s deadly with those things. In fact, I highly suspect this bookseller business is just a front for target practice (no wonder he like fairs so much — we’re like fish in a barrel).

Sure, I wish we’d blown our Sacramento showing out of the water. I also wish that my shoes had fit better, and that my band-aids hadn’t been so errant. Mostly, I wish I’d been less daunted (and less sleep-deprived). But damn if it wasn’t fun, in the end.

And as for the good ship Tavistock? What else? We’re patching the leaks, of course, and bringing new ideas to the table. It’s time to get a little creative.

See you in Pasadena, everyone.

 

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