Another memorable Seattle Book Fair – featuring a solar eclipse and a lucky Friday the 13th. The eclipse was clouded over where we were, but Friday was exceptional (for me, at least) because I bought a couple of breathtaking manuscript items and a slew of only slightly less terrific pamphlets, photos, and books. The crowds were as good as they’ve ever been and the material on offer was of uniformly excellent quality. I even made a retail sale! ($20). Still, I left Seattle feeling a little down, and more than a little annoyed. Here’s why:
Along with the Ephemera Society show in Connecticut, the Florida Antiquarian Book Fair, and a few others – (Johnsons coming on strong, with Eve and Ed right behind them) – the Seattle show is the premiere provincial event on the circuit. The crowds keep showing up and the offerings continue to be worthy of their attention. Bill Wolf, successor to Louis Collins, turns himself inside out each year to deliver the best show possible.
Why, then, are exhibiting dealers staying away? Why is this show dwindling? Why are we one aisle smaller than we have been in years past?
In the history of our trade, book fairs as currently configured are a recent phenomenon. Followers of the ABAA chat line will recall recollections of the early experiments in the 1960s, blossoming into full-fledged events in the 1970s and 80s. I started doing shows in the late 1970s, and soon came to rely on them as a major part of my business. They were where I met and hung out with dealer friends, where I met new customers, where I learned to scout for books. The rhythms of travel, the regularity of shows. You could, and did, plan your year around them. Bookfairs were, and are, my education, my retreat, my way of life.
It is painful to note that the zenith of the Seattle Book Fair – the year it attracted the most dealers (109 of them, to be exact) – was the year before Covid struck. And look where we are now, mired in some kind of nadir, with only 65+ dealers showing enough gumption to get off their couches for a weekend.
Certainly, this is just another example of the way Covid has changed everything. The rise of the virtual bookfair; development of new internet sales venues (I won’t list them because, dinosaur that I am, I have no idea what they are… but lots of people are selling lots of stuff, and it’s not all happening at book fairs.); perhaps even changes in the demographics of the trade (are we finally getting younger?). All these evolutionary changes are bound to have their effect on the hoary traditions of the bookfair.
But come on, guys.
We’ve been complaining for years about our ageing customers. Well, the Seattle Center was full of younger buyers on Saturday afternoon.
We’re always whining that people just don’t read anymore. Well, you could feel the pent-up demand all along the aisles at this show.
People need to touch these objects, to see them in person, to even, yes, smell them. They need the sensual experience of books, manuscripts, and ephemera, and they were delighting in that experience at the Seattle Book Fair.
But I’m telling you this. Despite the heroic efforts of Bill and his crew, if we dealers don’t support the Seattle show, it will die, or it’ll end up in some VFW hall out in the sticks, with a roster of 23 dealers. Then we in the trade will start whining all over again about how no one ever goes to book fairs anymore, about how our customers are ageing out, etc., etc.
If we don’t get out there and meet them, it’s going to come true. All over again.
I can think of a dozen dealers who’ve done this show in the past, and who possibly could have been doing it this year. Sure, everyone’s got an excuse. And yeah, they’re all valid. I’m just saying that if we keep finding excuses, no matter how good they sound, if we keep justifying our laziness, we’re going to lose a gem of a show.
This one’s on us.
Martha’s Vineyard Waterspout… Now there’s an excuse!