A First Time Exhibitor at Olympia

by Tom Congalton

Thursday, Apr 27, 2006

Between the Covers Rare Books exhibited for the first time in the U.K. at the 2004 Olympia London Book Fair. The jury is still out as to whether we will return any time soon. I had previously visited the fair in 2002 while serving as president of the ABAA, the American booksellers association, in part to participate in an informal meeting of national presidents convened by then ILAB president Kay Craddock. This served as a perfect excuse to shop the fair, the London dealers, and the several PBFA fairs being held in conjunction with the big fair.

At that time the buying opportunities at these fairs were a bit of a disappointment to me. The books on offer in my chosen field of modern first editions were relatively uninspiring. Most of the U.K. dealers I visited didn't seem to carry very large stocks of modern firsts. Condition, which of course is important in all categories of the trade, is paramount in modern firsts, and many of those in the U.K. trade that were so craven as to handle those sorts of books, often seemed to treat condition as an afterthought. With some exceptions, there weren't a great deal of American first editions of any sort for sale.

This seemed especially so at the fairs, where presumably the dealers' hard experiences had dictated that selling any but the most obvious American high spots was probably a long shot, and such books would take up valuable real estate in their stands (the stands in America, like many of our waistlines, tend to be more capacious). Additionally the conversion rate of dollars to pounds presented another challenge, as it always does, although at that time not nearly an insurmountable one.

Nevertheless, I found a few nice books, my observations of the trade activity at the fairs was not unfavorable, and most importantly, I had several lengthy, pleasant, and bibulous meals with American and English colleagues. The pleasant part of this description does not extend, however to include a lunch at St. John's, a restaurant that specializes in organ meat and offal, and which Peter Stern insisted that I partake of in company of several London dealers perhaps an hour or so after I arrived from a sleepless and unpleasant night flight. In another publication, in his article on the culinary delights of London Mr. Stern waxes eloquently about the splendid and multifarious shades of green this experience induced in me. That lunch aside, I had a lovely time, and eventually determined to do the London Olympia Fair as soon as it became practical.

An American Dealer in London

Stern had warned me that, as my own observations might suggest, London, its dealers, and book collectors might not be the most hospitable venue for my mixture of modern American literature, detective fiction, science fiction, and most especially baseball, and African-American books, but really, how bad could it be? As these books were not much in supply here, perhaps the English collector needed only the opportunity to be exposed to such delights. After all, I frequently sold books, even American books, to customers in the U.K., and certainly some of these customers might make an appearance.

Two months before Olympia, our experience exhibiting at the New York Book Fair had been a rousing success, as apparently it had been for most of the other exhibitors. Perhaps all of the prices for our expensive books had been justified by the whopping prices brought by the sale of lots from the Neville sale at Christie's right before the New York fair.

This vibrancy in the rare book market would certainly translate to London and, as occasionally one or another British colleague would mention the Olympia fair as being of the same order of magnitude as New York, surely something good was bound to come of exhibiting there. And finally, in an admirable display of logical ju-jitsu, it occurred to me that the formerly challenging, but now chillingly muscular pound might actually redound to my advantage, making my own stock, priced as it was in paltry dollars, excessively attractive to dealers and collectors alike. Why not give it a shot?

Peter Stern, despite his misgivings as to my chances of success, along with Paul Rassam, who usually shares a stand with Peter at the fair, generously allowed me to have my name pulled together with theirs in the lottery, and we opened up the two stands to make what Peter referred to as "a mini-mega booth" (here parenthetically let me say, I much prefer the American term "booth" to the U.K. "stand", as the later reminds me too much of "Custer's Last Stand", an event which came increasingly and morbidly to mind as the fair progressed, or rather, did not).

Wednesday morning's set-up began promisingly, and I could have no quarrel with the organization of the fair, which seemed to be smoothly and efficiently organized. To the credit of the book fair committee members, ABA officers, and director were all obviously engaged and solicitous of our comfort and welfare. The stands were as neatly and correctly in order as could be expected, and the workman designated to deliver trunks, fiddle with the electricity, and arrange the glass cases, generally pleasant and helpful. Having been on the New York Book Fair Committee for the past dozen years I was more than aware of the amount of labor and the difficulty required before the event to make everything look easy to the arriving exhibitors.

However, my first impression of the set-up day on Wednesday, and one that was never contradicted during the course of the fair was its curious lack of adrenaline. According to Tom's Second Rule of Book Fairs: "the success or failure of a book fair (and particularly a pre-fair), as in any other environment, is directly predicated on the proper mix of prey to predator", thus dealers eager to buy books for customers or for stock quickly seek out those eager to sell, deals are consummated, and often the success or failure of a fair is determined long before the first visitors scuttle into the queue on opening day.

Obviously, at this level of the book trade we all encompass elements of both prey and predator to one degree or another. Unlike at New York, where dozens of dealers circled the room nervously, scurrying into booths in a feeding frenzy, sometimes reselling their purchases a few moments later, and then resuming the prowl, the observed pace of commerce at the Olympia set-up seemed nearly somnambulant. A few dealers were the subjects of modest scrums, but these were relatively few and far between, with the results of these tussles seemingly preordained. For the first time in my book fair experience there didn't seem to be either prey or predators in evidence. Some of these observations could be attributed to my inexperience of the venue, and the machinations that evolved at a level beyond my bewildered gaze, but in general I think they are accurate.

In fields related to mine, Maggs Brothers displayed books from the collection of Alan Clodd which stimulated some interest, were apparently new to the market, and which were thus subject to a no discount policy. Few however could refuse a discount as charmingly as Ed Maggs, and what little sting remained was negated a few days later when a Maggs' assistant passed along the name of an American institution that had tried to purchase the more expensive of the two books that I had bought from them.

While I bought other books on the floor, they were mostly relatively inexpensive titles, and rightly so, and few if any could be described as "thrilling". This by way of a digression is a bookselling term too seldom used, with the possible exception of the Beverly Hill bookseller Biblioctopus, whose catalogue terms of sale include the line, "All books are guaranteed to be thrilling, any book may be returned for insufficient thrill".

My own pre-fair sales, or more accurately "sale", consisted of a single volume of essays by the literary English travel writer Robert Byron, thus sizably depleting my available stock of English books on display. While not stunningly expensive, I was happy enough with the sale, having lugged the book around since I was in short pants. The English dealers that purchased it were certainly more likely to find a ready audience for that book than I.

After Wednesday's set-up concluded, the ABA sponsored a reception for dealers at Bloomsbury Auctions on Maddox Street hosted by Bernard J. Shapero and his charming wife, Emma Lewis, the editor of Rare Book Review. The reception was very well attended, and carefully positioning myself beneath an air conditioning duct, ingested as much sparkling wine, and as many quail eggs as seemed in keeping with propriety, all the time gossiping shamelessly about our colleagues with other American dealers. Here let me introduce Tom's Third Rule of Book Fairs: "Anyone you gossip about at a book fair is invariably standing right behind you", but mercifully that rule did not seem to apply to book fair receptions that evening.

I spent much of the reception chatting with Natalie Bauman and Corinne Weeks, of Bauman Rare Books, my near neighbors from Philadelphia, who were especially handy, applying their highly developed book scouting skills to ferreting out the generous but inevitably, when a large gathering of booksellers is offered anything comestible for free, dwindling supplies of wine.

One ABA officer informed us that the American contingent at the fair had dwindled over the past several years from about a third of the exhibitors (or roughly fifty) to about fifteen at this years fair. I cannot vouch for the accuracy of those figures, but it seemed like a striking comment on American participation in the fair.

After a lovely dinner with my wife Heidi, and Kevin Johnson of Royal Books, across the street from the auction house at the amusingly named Noble Rot, and an earlier than usual retirement, we were rested and ready to greet the hordes queued up for opening day of the book fair.

We are still waiting.

Send in the Collectors

The crowds were not ample, nor did they seem particularly engaged. On opening day I recorded my second sale, of an inexpensive A.A. Milne book, to a non-exhibiting London dealer, thus further depleting my meager stock of English books. Most strikingly perhaps was the seeming lack of interest or even curiosity from the browsers, and although the interest and sales seemed more pronounced for the books of my stand mates, whose books were more in keeping with what I was lead to believe would be saleable, it could only be described as marginally so.

The next day, Friday, brought the Commonwealth Fair, where I was standing in line awaiting the opening when Heidi recorded our best, last, and only sale to a retail customer, a collector, previously unknown to us, who bought an American (!) detective novel for just shy of 2000 pounds.

Even wildly successful book fairs have their fair share of long stretches of inactivity and boredom, but there is nothing quite as tedious as wiling away the hours on a Saturday and Sunday when absolutely nothing sells. Luckily, our mini-mega booth allowed us the luxury of setting up one of our tables so four could sit reasonably comfortably, if no one came into the booth, which mercifully they mostly did not. The cheerful demeanors, and arid humors of Misters Stern and Rassam helped to keep us all reasonably lively, and perambulating booksellers or the occasional (or alleged) lone collector would periodically occupy the spare seat, and hold court, so the experience was perhaps more pleasant than it might otherwise have been. Most of these dealers reported flat sales, but Rick Gekoski, who compared the appearance of our happy gathering to a painting on velvet of card-playing canines, apparently sold one very expensive book, several lesser volumes, and seemed reasonably happy.

Having a full complement of dealers, we could alternate stints at the stand, and allow the others to further scout the fair, go out for leisurely lunches, or take a turn around the adjoining antique fair.

The antique fair seemed to exhibit an equally leisurely pace and a couple of the antique dealers of my acquaintance reported slow sales, and almost a total lack of American collectors who apparently usually made up an important component in their overall sales. In the book fair I could identify only three Americans that I knew to be serious collectors; two there on purpose, the third had arrived in London coincidentally, and had been dispatched by his wife to the show so that he wouldn't hamper her own shopping efforts on Bond Street. Apparently the exchange rate wasn't bothering her.

As the fair limped to a close, we packed up quickly and trotted off for a nice curry on the High Street. Twenty-four hours later we would return to the gentle landscapes of New Jersey, officially nicknamed (and often derisively referred to as) the "Garden State".

Was the fair a failure? I can really only answer for myself. Looking on the bright side, my carefully accumulated stock was still largely intact, and unlike at many American fairs it hadn't undergone the wear and tear that comes from the handling of the stock. I hadn't incurred any onerous tax obligations resulting from excessive sales. I had done a brisk trade in the free catalogues that I brought along, to the point that all but a few that I had hidden away were gone by Friday. When I finally gave up these last few that I had been hoarding in anticipation of the great new customers I was going to meet, and put those out as well, they were quickly snapped up. And unlike American book fairs, where like the last cookie on a plate, no one ever, ever takes the very last catalogue, not a single catalogue had to be abandoned or shipped back home.

I've exhibited at hundreds of fairs, both great and small (here I should note that all but a few of them were in the U.S.) and I've concluded that the success or failure of one's fair experience isn't always so simple as a quick tally of the sales might indicate. And thus finally we come to Tom's First (and most important, as the order of primacy should indicate) Rule of Book Fairs: "If you can't sell your way out of a fair, buy your way out of a fair, if you can't buy your way out of a fair, drink your way out of a fair."

By at least one of those standards, the fair was at least a modest success. Added to that, upon returning home I managed to quickly sell a few of the books that I had bought at the fair, and I even received an after-fair order from one of the catalogue collectors!

Will I be back in 2005? As an unrelenting optimist, and a cheerful visitor to the land of the stiff upper lip, I wouldn't be a bit surprised if you'll see me set up again next year ever expectant, hopeful, and ready to do pursue commerce.