Rare Book Monthly

Articles - March - 2010 Issue

Observations on Bookselling from the San Francisco Fair

Sfbookfair2010

Booksellers offer their views on the San Francisco Fair.


By Michael Stillman

This month, two booksellers have been kind enough to share their written observations from the recent San Francisco Antiquarian Book Fair. One, Susan Halas, of Prints Pacific, Maui, Hawaii, attended as a visitor, the other, Chris Lowenstein, of Book Hunter's Holiday, San Mateo, California, was a vendor. Interestingly, their observations were somewhat the reverse of what I expected.

It's hardly news that book fairs are not performing as well as they once did. With the current recession now tacked onto what had been a general decline, many see fairs as an endangered species. However, participant Chris was, for the most part, pleased with the results. Visitor Susan, on the other hand, was disappointed.

That a seller would be pleased with a fair's performance today is good news and somewhat surprising. What we weren't expecting to hear was that a visitor was disappointed. Maybe that isn't bad news. If visitors are disappointed, there is room for improvement, and if there is room for improvement, there is room for increased sales. So, if you are a bookseller, you should listen carefully, especially to criticism, as a pat on the back will do you no good. Here we have thoughts from both booksellers, starting with those of Susan, the observer.

"I tried to visit every booth. I saw much to admire and covet," comments Susan. "I saw little or nothing to buy. There were however many wonderful people who I finally got to meet in the flesh."

To intersperse a little editorial commentary here, there was much to admire and covet, but almost nothing to buy. How is this possible? I'll go out on a limb and say price is a major issue. Booksellers should take notice. Some are adjusting prices to the times, others are waiting for time to readjust prices. That is the individual seller's call, but it's a mistake to send a willing buyer away empty handed.

If books are too expensive to collect, there will be no collectors. So, if you don't choose to lower prices on your best material, then bring something along the not-so-wealthy dealer or collector can afford. Few new collectors start at the top end of the price spectrum. Every young, potential new collector who walks out the door thinking that books are too expensive represents a failure for the trade.

Now, we return to Susan's own words for some excellent marketing advice from someone who has spent forty years in sales, "from a blanket on the ground at the swap meet to selling commercial properties for millions of dollars."

"I hated the lighting. Almost all of the booths with rare exceptions were dark and gloomy. It had the ambience of an aquarium. Most of it had the pizzazz of the very back of your darkest closet."


A century ago, the great collectors had their dimly lit libraries, filled with dark colored furniture, bookcases, and bindings. It evoked class. People don't think that way anymore. They like brightness and light. Darkness and gloom is a turn off.

Rare Book Monthly

  • <b>Swann Auction Galleries May 14:</b> William Shakespeare, <i>Shakespeare’s Sonnets, In Two Parts,</i> limited Saint Dunstan edition, Oxford University Press, 1901. $6,000 to $9,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries May 14:</b> Benjamin Graham & David L. Dodd, <i>Security Analysis,</i> first edition, inscribed by Graham to a Wall Street trader, NY, 1934. $18,000 to $25,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries May 14:</b><br>Ian Fleming, <i>Goldfinger,</i> first edition, inscribed to Sir Henry Cotton, MBE, London, 1959. $12,000 to $18,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries May 14:</b><br>Ian Fleming, <i>The Man with the Golden Gun,</i> first edition, first state with the dust jacket, London, 1965. $6,000 to $9,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries May 14:</b> Virginia Woolf, <i>The Voyage Out,</i> first American edition of the author’s first book, in rare dust jacket, NY, 1920. $2,000 to $3,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries May 14:</b> Gabriel García Márquez, <i>Cien años de soledad,</i> Buenos Aires, 1967. $2,000 to $3,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries May 14:</b> Mary Mapes Dodge, <i>Along the Way,</i> first edition, author’s copy, annotated in her hand, NY, 1879. $1,800 to $2,500.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries May 14:</b> <i>The Dial: A Monthly Magazine for Literature, Philosophy and Religion,</i> first edition, Ralph Waldo Emerson’s copy, Cincinnati, 1860. $2,500 to $3,500.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries May 14:</b> Gaston Leroux, <i>The Phantom of the Opera,</i> first American edition, first printing, New York, 1911. $12,000 to $18,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries May 14:</b> Walt Whitman, <i>Leaves of Grass,</i> signed, Camden, 1876. $4,000 to $6,000.
  • <center><b>Bonhams<br>Fine Books and Manuscripts<br>New York | June 11, 2019</b>
    <b>Bonhams, Jun 11:</b> Faulkner, William. <i>The Sound and the Fury.</i> New York: Jonathan Cape, [1929]. First edition in dust jacket. $10,000 to $15,000
    <b>Bonhams, Jun 11:</b> Trautz-Bauzonnet bindery. Shakespeare, William. Sonnets. 1901. 2 volumes. Printed on vellum and illuminated by Ross Turner. $12,000 to $18,000
    <b>Bonhams, Jun 11:</b> Thompson, Kay. <i>Eloise at Christmastime.</i> New York: Random House, [1958]. First edition. In custom binding by Asprey. $2,000 to $3,000
    <center><b>Bonhams<br>Fine Books and Manuscripts<br>New York | June 11, 2019</b>
    <b>Bonhams, Jun 11:</b> Beardsley, Aubrey. <i>The Birth, Life, and Acts of King Arthur.</i> 1893-94. 2 volumes. Contemporary painted vellum gilt by Chivers. $2,000 to $3,000
    <b>Bonhams, Jun 11:</b> Assisi, St. Francis. <i>The Canticle of Brother Sun.</i> Illuminated on vellum, for the Grolier Society. $6,000 to $9,000
    <b>Bonhams, Jun 11:</b> Taylor, Deems. <i>Walt Disney’s Fantasia.</i> New York: 1940. In custom binding by Asprey. $2,500 to $3,500

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