A Visit to the St. Petersburg, Florida Book Fair

by Tom Congalton

Thursday, Mar 30, 2006

If one were forced to provide a list of the best book fairs in the U.S., predicated on the quality of commerce, ambience, and the merchandise exhibited, it is pretty much axiomatic that the three annual fairs sponsored by the ABAA: New York, Boston, and California (which alternates bi-annually between Los Angeles and San Francisco) would easily top the list.

However, while the U.S. does not have a PBFA-type organization to sponsor regional book fairs, various state and regional bookseller-run organizations, and independent promoters provide more than ample opportunity for the peripatetic bookseller to peddle his wares. This article is, I hope, the first of an occasional series of visits to what I feel are the better (and maybe later a few of the not-so-better) American regional book fairs.

We exhibit at about twenty regional book fairs each year. At some of these fairs we deploy a streamlined stock - just enough books to justify our status as exhibitors, in order that we may be able to buy from the other exhibiting dealers before the book fair opens. At others we trot out the whole dog-and-pony show, trusting that enough reasonably warm bodies will be assembled to merit the effort required to mount a full display.

The St. Petersburg, Florida Book Fair, is the longest running, and probably the most successful book fair in the American South. Sponsored and organized by the Florida Antiquarian Booksellers Association (or FABA as we usually refer to it, and never to be confused, under the pain of death dictated by the chivalric laws of the Old South, with its nearby bookselling neighbors in Georgia, known collectively as GABA) the fair attracts approximately 120 dealers for its early March date.

The St. Pete fair is one of the few regional fairs in the country that still consistently maintains a waiting list for exhibitors. Before the advent of the Internet as a venue for rare and collectible book sales, virtually all of the better fairs had long waiting lists, and in at least a few cases, as many as 100 dealers might be on such a list. Aside from the ABAA fairs and one or two regional fairs such as St. Pete, that seems to be no longer the case, and even at these fairs, a little persistence will predictably, or at least eventually get one a booth.

Usually held about three weeks after the ABAA's California show, it provides many New England, Mid-West, and Mid-Atlantic dealers another welcome opportunity to escape their icy climes for a couple or few more weeks. The Washington, D.C. Book Fair, held in Arlington, Virginia, within expectorating distance of the bridge into the prestigious Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, is usually held the week before St. Pete, and provides another logical stop along the way for dealers as they acclimatize and travel South to Florida.

Indeed groups of dealers, all leaving Washington about the same time, often join up, and travel in a procession or caravan down through the South for the usually two- or three-day drive to Florida.

This also provides dealers at Washington something to do during the long hours of the Washington fair - thinking up colorful nicknames for each other for the ride.

For those unfamiliar with the conventions of American long-haul truckers, it is (or at least was) the custom of truck drivers to communicate on "c.b. radio," speaking in idiosyncratic jargon, and identifying themselves by raffish nicknames (which they term "handles"), in order to thwart the law officers who might be monitoring their frequencies.

For one such dealer in precious leather tomes who was constantly polishing and primping his inventory, and who made the unfortunate decision to travel with us, Peter Stern and I, after long deliberation, chose the handle of "The Buffer."

However, when that dealer was later unexpectedly re-acquainted with his home-style barbecue meal from a restaurant in Southern Virginia, some hours after he was first introduced to it (resulting in a rapid and hair-raising exit from the interstate in order to divest of same), he is now and forevermore known as "Splash."

This puts me in mind of the time Stern and I took the London dealer Nigel Williams to the Atlanta, Georgia book fair, repaying his hospitality for hosting sumptuous dinners by making him continually stop and eat pork barbecue at every strip mall, storefront, and shack in the South over the course of many days - but that's a story for another day.

When we first started to exhibit at the fair, nearly twenty years ago, St. Pete was a sleepy and shabbily genteel retirement community, but of late the peninsular city has begun to gentrify, fueled in part by wild speculation in Florida waterfront property. Despite this development, the apparently regular turnover in population has provided merchandise for dozens of thrift and junk shops, antique stores, and (sometimes putative) bookstores, and if found with extra time on one's hands, and reasonably low expectations, one might undertake a laborious, if mildly satisfying scouting trip.

The fair is held during the spring training season for Major League Baseball teams, who take advantage of the mild weather to prepare for the regular season in the vicinity, and a trip to the area isn't complete without a visit to one of the area's tiny stadiums where one can quaff beer, eat hot dogs, and watch a nearly meaningless training game, but at least watch it much closer to the action and the players than one might during the regular season.

This past year, the day before the fair set-up, Stern, Atlanta dealer Greg Davis, and I went to a game, and sat about four rows behind home plate amongst a group of athletic-looking, leathery-skinned, and taciturn baseball scouts - paid employees of teams who are often former players themselves, and who observe and report on opposition teams and players.

Before every pitch, each of these scouts would hold up a roughly hair-dryer shaped metal-clad electrical device that would measure the speed of every pitch. Around about the sixth inning Stern and I caught Davis pointing his aluminum-foil wrapped hot dog at the pitcher, in an apparent attempt to blend in with his surroundings.

After the game ended, my colleagues, tenderly solicitous of my recently broken, and then only partially healed ankle, insisted we make frequent stops at convenient cocktail bars in order for me to recuperate, managing to cover the six blocks to our hotel in a brisk seven or eight hours.

While blathering on about baseball in a British-published magazine might be seen as being of questionable utility, you will have to endure (or not, as the case may be, as I understand that there might be a particularly soul-stirring article on collating only a few pages away) one more anecdote in order that I might embarrass yet another of my colleagues.

The Hilton in St. Pete, one of the larger hotels, and for many years the home of the fair itself, is often the resting place of visiting baseball teams, and through the years one would frequently encounter famous ballplayers in the restaurant, bar, or elevator, and on a few memorable occasions, even at the book fair itself.

One evening I was sitting amongst the stuffed chairs and settees of the hotel's lobby bar with a number of colleagues including John Wronoski of Lame Duck Books, then an ornament of the fair, but alas no longer among the active exhibitors, when another colleague noted the nearby perambulation of baseball star Cal Ripken, Jr., then in the prime of his career, as he passed through the lobby.

The Europhile Duck, with his generally dismissive attitude towards most popular American culture, expressed less than no interest in the sport and its participants.

However, as the evening waned, and the Duck and I were the sole remaining booksellers in the bar, what object should fortuitously come to his hand from amongst the seat cushions but a pearly white baseball? John allowed that while he cared nothing for the sport, his then wife-of-record did, and she might appreciate his efforts in getting her the autograph of Mr. Ripken on the opportunistically appearing ball. Thus, fueled by an evening's libations, he sauntered across the lobby to where another Hall of Fame baseball player, Frank Robinson, at that time a coach for the Orioles, was sitting with several other players and politely enquired of him:

"Excuse me Mr. Ripkin, but might I have your autograph?"

This might not be so bad, simply being, as indeed it was a case of mistaken identity, but John's disinterest for the game was perhaps best revealed by the fact that while Ripkin was then a thirty-something white man, Robinson, was then a sixty-something black man.

The legendarily gruff Mr. Robinson was less than amused.

Presumably as John is ruled by the Ethics Codes of several prestigious bookselling organizations, not least among them the ABAA and ILAB, I can only assume that he did not forge the signature of Mr. Ripkin (or Mr. Robinson, for that matter) on the baseball intended for his wife.

It is perhaps too much to hope for that such a pleasant vacation trip would also coincide with a successful book fair, but that is usually the case in St. Pete. The fair itself is held at The Coliseum, a beautifully maintained Florida Art Deco-style dance hall, festooned with long strings of light from the dramatic wooden arched ceiling, it is among the most elegant and pleasant venues for a book fair in the U.S. Directly across the street from The Coliseum is an old-fashioned lawn bowling and chess club where on the usually and predictably beautiful days, one can view codgers dressed in all-white pottering about the tables and greensward.

The booths are set up with pipe and drape dividers on the wooden dance floor, glass cases and electricity and available, and lining the walls, two steps up from the main floor are large alcoves, used for tables and chairs on dance night, that can be rented for a modest additional premium. Too big for most dealer's easily transportable inventory, the alcoves are usually shared by two dealers.

The fair is promoted by the diminutive Larry Kellogg, a former jockey, who is now a publicist for the Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus, which winters in the area. Larry's familiarity with the local media ensures that this may be the most effectively promoted fair for the money in the country. Indeed visiting dealers, who are wont to show up on the Thursday before the fair at Lighthouse Books, the St. Petersburg book store owned by ABAA member Mike Slicker, are as likely as not to be the unsuspecting subject of an interview for the evening television news, or the story line for a roving newspaper reporter.

This provides a dilemma for the Northern bookseller. One cringes to see oneself on television or on the front page of the local newspaper in festive tropical attire - Hawaiian shirt and Bermuda shorts, with pasty little white booksellers legs. Such are the trials of fame that we booksellers must endure.

Mr. Kellogg, aside from his Promethean efforts at promotion is also tireless in other elements of the fair, not least of which is security. When for a couple years in a row, expensive material was found missing during set-up, Mr. Kellogg hired additional guards, both uniformed and plainclothes, and installed manned security camera. Although the perpetrator was never caught, the thefts abruptly stopped.

Set-up for the fair is easy, with ample parking, and abundant porters, but after set-up the vehicles of dealers are generally shooed-off to an unpaved parking area by an elderly and surly Cuban gentleman, who has apparently been there since the dawn of time.

Set-up begins in the reasonably early hours of Friday morning, proceeding at a leisurely pace until the 5 P.M. opening. The South is a geographically large region that supports very few book fairs (unlike New England, where there may be two or three competing fairs on any given weekend. One of the delights of the fair for me, and presumably for the other visiting dealers and collectors, is the opportunity to view the inventories of several dealers that exhibit nowhere else, some of whom hoard material especially for the fair.

Of particular note is the concession stand at The Coliseum. Despite a very limited selection, the food is excellent. On Saturday the concessionaire features a delicious Cuban sandwich - to those unfamiliar with this delicacy, this is a pork and pickle sandwich grilled in a sandwich press, and preferably garnished with mustard. Many of the dealers look forward to this the entire year, which makes it all then more confounding that the concessionaire, no matter the size of the crowd (in this case several hundred), brings only sixty sandwiches. Upon questioning, one of the employees revealed that many years ago the owner of the catering firm was once stuck with a couple of dozen leftover sandwiches, and vowed never to be left in that position again. Apparently the caterer was unmoved by our guarantee to buy any leftovers if he brought a reasonable amount more.

The fair opens at 5 P.M. usually with a long line of collectors, dealers and curiosity seekers stretched around the building, and continues through relatively humane hours on Saturday and Sunday. The crowds are usually ample, browsing to the efforts of a reasonably professional string trio, enjoyable to all but a few dealers whose booths closely abuts their area. Like all fairs, sales can be unpredictable, but trade business is usually strong, and indeed this year it seemed as though there were almost as many Northern dealers visiting the fair as exhibiting. A visit to the St. Pete Book Fair is a reasonable excuse for a Florida vacation, and indeed the fair used to predictably host several exhibiting English dealers, although of late that has been infrequent, with only the occasional Harrington making an appearance,

Florida, a retirement destination with a large, and shall we say "mature" population has a surprisingly good number of collectors among them, and as the only book fair with a reasonable pulse in Florida, they mostly seem willing to travel, some from considerable distances, to attend. Thus we have usually been able to cover our expenses from sales, and in good years have done very well indeed. This year was something of an exception and though sales seemed reasonably brisk around the fair, they were only mediocre for us.

The buying for us was decent but unremarkable, except for one book that I bought on a whim, the first work of original fiction published in Florida (in Tallahassee in 1831), the subsequent sale of which not only paid for my fair expenses, but for the whole of the three week trip to Florida. Lest the chorus of harrumphing begins about dealers snapping up all the bargains before the fair opens, it should be noted that I bought this book on the last hour of the second day that the fair was open to the public.

My windfall purchase did not however pay for the matching Belgium Art Noveau-style cabinets that my wife found at an antiques warehouse, which looked so quaint and perfect in the warehouse in which she found them, but once installed in our modest-sized home, looked as if they could of themselves safely house a family of four.

The organizers of the fair host the traditional "discovery day", with the usual result that the exhibiting dealers often have the opportunity to buy books from the public at large, and indeed two years ago, with very limited expectations of that sort, Stern and I managed to spend about $40,000 in the parking lot from a collector who was divesting.

At the conclusion of the fair, the organizers hold a raffle, and two lucky dealers win either $50 or $100 off of their booth rent for the following year, the cars and vans are packed up, and we all amble off for pleasant, beachside dinners.

This article
originally appeared in the ABAA Newsletter.