Despite the rise of the Internet as an alternative channel for buying and selling antiquarian books, old-fashioned book fairs continue to represent an important means of distribution. In fact, there are more than 90 antiquarian book fairs held each year in the U.S., according to Susan Siegel, publisher of Book Hunter Press, which compiles regional guides to used and antiquarian booksellers and maintains a database of shows. These run the gamut from high-end events sponsored by the Antiquarian Booksellers Association of America (ABAA) to small, regional shows.

A bookseller's sales at a single fair vary depending on the show's length and location and the bookseller's inventory, average price and objectives. At the Florida Antiquarian Book Fair, dealer surveys showed exhibitors averaged $4,600 last year and $3,400 the year before, with individuals reporting sales as low as $800 and as high as $40,000, according to Larry Kellogg, show manager. Of course, one high-priced book can skew the average; a dealer at a recent show sold a $20,000 book five minutes after the fair opened.

Book fair exhibitors can be divided into two groups: those who make a living mainly from antiquarian bookselling and those for whom bookselling is a second career. According to Barbara Tungate, owner of Barbara Tungate's Texas Book & Paper Shows, which operates fairs in Austin, Dallas and Houston, members of the first group would need to sell $3,500—$5,000 at a regional show such as hers (where fees range from $150—$500) to consider the event a success, while members of the second group would be happy making $750—$1,000 over a two-day show.

Many dealers trace 10%—20% of their annual sales to book fairs, but the percentage varies widely. Barbara Smith, owner of Barbara E. Smith Books, Northampton, Mass., has done as many as 30 book fairs a year and currently exhibits at about one per month; she also co-owns a 45-dealer book center, sells via the Internet and does appraisals. Book fairs account for about 30%—40% of her annual revenues.

Meanwhile, Bill Ewald, owner of Argus Books in Sacramento, Calif., and manager of the Central Valley Antiquarian Book Fair, attributes 80% of his income to fairs, of which he does about 12 per year. The Internet brings in the remainder.

Unlike in the world of new books, where margins are fairly constant, the cost of rare and secondhand titles varies. A book of Audubon prints that sold for $70,000, for example, might have cost the dealer $60,000; a whole collection of books selling for $3,000 might have cost $1,000. In addition, a single rare volume can cost in the tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars, skewing averages. "Gross sales can be deceptive," said Ken Gloss, chairman of the Boston Antiquarian Book Fair committee and proprietor of Boston's Brattle Book Shop. A contact made at a fair can also lead to a later, off-site sale.

Non-Sales Objectives

Antiquarian book dealers have other objectives, aside from sales, for exhibiting at fairs, including increasing visibility, making personal contacts with buyers, cultivating new and repeat customers and educating the general public about collecting. Part-time dealers often use fairs to help them decide if they want to make a full-time career of antiquarian bookselling. "It's a nice way of getting started and getting their feet wet," Siegel said.

A significant objective for most dealers at antiquarian book fairs is buying inventory; for some, buying is more important than selling. "Since we're a smaller fair, maybe [dealers] don't sell as much as at other fairs," said Andrea Klein, head of publicity for the Akron Antiquarian Book Fair and a manager/partner at The Bookseller, an antiquarian book store in Akron, Ohio. "But if they buy a lot, it's a good show for them."

Rob Rulon-Miller, a high-end dealer in St. Paul, said he both buys and sells when exhibiting at the ABAA fairs, but he exhibits at smaller fairs more to look for buying opportunities. "You hope you cover your expenses, but you often don't," he said. Many dealers noted that the more they spend at a show, the more successful they consider it.

Much of the buying and selling that occurs at a book fair happens during the dealer set-up period rather than during the public hours. "One of the primary reasons for dealers doing these shows is for the privilege of buying on set-up day," said Tungate.

Dealers and promoters estimate that between 30% and 70% of the total trade at a show consists of dealer-to-dealer sales, with individual exhibitors reporting even higher levels at some fairs. While these sales typically command a 20% discount off retail, total volume is high.

The awareness generated through book fairs provides a boost to exhibitors outside the fair. "My store volume almost doubled within three years of my first fair," said Giles Hollingsworth, manager of the Georgia Antiquarian Book Fair and an Atlanta area bookseller.

"The fair, with its advertising and its foreign dealers and the press it might get, brings book collecting to the attention of the local buying population," added Louis Collins, owner of Louis Collins Books, Seattle, and co-manager of the Seattle Antiquarian Book Fair.

Growth of Book Fairs

The oldest event is the New York Antiquarian Book Fair, which debuted 42 years ago. The California Antiquarian Book Fair launched 36 years ago and Boston joined 10 years later, when only a couple of fairs were in place. The number continued to rise over the next two decades, with fairs such as Akron, Seattle, Austin, Greenwich Village (New York), Portland (Maine) and Florida launching 20 or more years ago. Fairs in Dallas and Michigan followed over the next five years and several more joined between 1987 and 1997. In the late 1990s, market saturation and competition from the Internet curbed further growth.

On the high end of these events are the ABAA fairs in New York, San Francisco/Los Angeles and Boston, at which only ABAA members can exhibit. With 260 exhibitors, the Northern California edition of the California Antiquarian Book Fair has been the biggest in the world over the last few years, according to Michael Hackenberg, owner of Hackenberg Booksellers, El Cerrito, Calif., and chairman of that fair's organizing committee. (The New York fair ranks second, with 190 dealers.) The California show rotates between San Francisco (sponsored by the ABAA's Northern California chapter) and Los Angeles (Southern California) each year; the two fairs operate independently.

Regional shows without ABAA sponsorship vary in size, attendance and geographic scope. They range from 30 to more than 100 dealers, with most in the 50- to 80-exhibitor range. Typical are those shows sponsored by Midwest Bookhunters, an organization of 149 antiquarian book dealers, which sponsors three fairs a year, two in the Chicago area and one in St. Paul. The Chicago fairs feature 55 to 85 dealers, according to Charles Kroon, owner of Chicago's Ginkgo Leaf Books and chairman of the committee organizing the two Chicago shows, while the Twin Cities Book Fair boasts about 115 dealers.

Dealers at book fairs include those that have physical stores as well as those with closed shops (i.e., those who sell through mail order, the Internet and/or by appointment). "It's everything from retired grandparents who work from their kitchen table to fancy shops in Manhattan," according to Ed Brodzinsky, owner of Atelier Books in Schenevus, N.Y., and co-manager of the Cooperstown Antiquarian Book Fair.

Typically, the bulk of exhibitors are from the region surrounding the fair—most promoters reported that 60%—70% of exhibitors are from nearby states—supplemented by a handful of national and sometimes international dealers. The ABAA fairs tend to be more geographically diverse. In San Francisco, the largest contingent comes from Northern California, but close to a third are from outside the U.S. At the Boston show, 5%—10% of the 140—150 dealers are from Boston, 20%—25% are from the northeastern U.S. and 5%—10% come from other countries.

Some fairs benefit schools or other organizations. The Greenwich Village Antiquarian Book Fair was designed as a benefit for New York City's P.S. 3, according to Bob McLoughlin, one of the volunteers who coordinate the fair. Similarly, the Washington Antiquarian Book Fair in Roslyn, Va., supports the Concord Hill School in Chevy Chase, Md. Both fairs are managed by parents of students at the schools.

Another type of book show combines antiquarian with new booksellers. Examples include Manhattan's New York Is Book Country and Chicago's Printer's Row Book Fair. These are events for the general public, featuring author appearances and readings. Of the 170 exhibitors at Printer's Row, about 70% fall into the used and antiquarian category, according to Brad Jonas, co-owner of Powell's Chicago, who is on the fair's PR committee. Just 10% of exhibitors can be considered antiquarian.

"It's everything from junk to fine rare books," said Kroon, adding that many antiquarian dealers use Printer's Row as an opportunity to cull lower-priced items not appropriate for antiquarian shows.

Some towns support two or more antiquarian events. The Georgia Book Fair began four years ago as a supplement to the long-running Atlanta Book Fair, while San Francisco has a show managed by Walter Larsen & Associates that alternates with the San Francisco edition of the California ABAA fair. The Los Angeles area, Sacramento, Boston, New York and Chicago all host multiple fairs.

Over the last five years, several shows have closed their doors, some due to competition from other fairs, some to the Internet, and others to inadequate marketing. Fairs in North Carolina, Baltimore, Scottsdale, Ariz., Las Vegas; Stillwater, Minn., and Berkeley are among those that have disappeared, while others are reportedly on the verge of fizzling.

At the same time, new fairs have debuted. The Sidney (British Columbia) Antiquarian Book Fair was held for the first time in May 2002, succeeding a defunct fair in nearby Victoria that ran for three years ending in 2000. The show will help promote the eight-bookshop village of Sidney as the first Book Town in Canada, according to Clive Tanner, co-owner of Beacon Books and manager of the show.

Next week, we'll look at how marketing and the Internet have affected antiquarian book fairs.