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>Bonhams, Jun 13 results:</b> Darwin, Charles. <i>On the Origin of Species.</i> Presentation Copy. Sold for $500,075.
    <b>Bonhams, Jun 13 results:</b> Darwin, Charles. Autograph Letter Signed, 3 pp, negotiating the 2nd American edition with Appleton. Sold for $21,325.
    <b>Bonhams, Jun 13 results:</b> Hemingway, Ernest. Autograph Letter Signed, 8 pp, Paris, 1924, to his father discussing Bullfighting, Stories, and his new baby. Sold for $25,075.
    <b>Bonhams, Jun 13 results:</b> Shakespeare, William. <i>Corialanus.</i> London, 1623. 1st printing [Extracted from the First Folio]. Sold for $50,075.
    <b>Bonhams, Jun 13 results:</b> Swift, Jonathan. <i>Gulliver's Travels.</i> London, 1726. 1st edition, Teerink's A edition, fine, large copy. Sold for $21,325.
    <b>Bonhams, Jun 13 results:</b> Fitzroy, Robert. Autograph Letter Signed to agent Thomas Stilwell, informing him of the progress of H.M.S. Beagle. Sold for $17,575.
    <center><b>Bonhams<br> Property from the Collection of Nicole and William R. Keck II</b>
    <b>Bonhams, Jun 13 results:</b> Shakespeare, William. <i>Sonnets.</i> 1901. 2 volumes. Printed on vellum and illuminated by Ross Turner, bound by Trautz-Bauzonnet. Sold for $13,825.
    <b>Bonhams, Jun 13 results:</b> Beardsley, Aubrey. <i>The Birth, Life, and Acts of King Arthur.</i> 1893-94. 2 volumes. Contemporary painted vellum gilt by Chivers. Sold for $5,325.
    <b>Bonhams, Jun 13 results:</b> Assisi, St. Francis. <i>The Canticle of Brother Sun.</i> Illuminated on vellum, for the Grolier Society. Sold for $7,575.
    <b>Bonhams, Jun 13 results:</b> Rackham, Arthur. <i>Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens.</i> 1/500 copies signed by Rackham. Sold for $4,825.
    <b>Bonhams, Jun 13 results:</b> Proust, Marcel. <i>Du coté de chez Swann.</i> 1st edition, 1st issue. Inscribed by Proust. Sold for $8,825.
  • <b>Mayfair Book Auctions, July 17:</b><br>Lot 14. [CRIMEAN WAR] HAMLEY. <i>The Story of the Campaign of Sebastopol.</i> 1855. £150 to £200
    <b>Mayfair Book Auctions, July 17:</b><br>Lot 17. JONGH & D'ALMEIDA. <i>L’armee Russe...</i> c.1898. Colour plates and many illustrations. £500 to £600
    <b>Mayfair Book Auctions, July 17:</b><br>Lot 18. [RUSSIA] LE PRINCE. <i>Oeuvres. 1782.</i> Rare folio format with 80 etchings and 74 aquatints. £4000 to £6000
    <b>Mayfair Book Auctions, July 17:</b><br>Lot 21. [RUSSIA] MORNAY. Set of 8 hand-coloured aquatints of carriages, sleighs and occupants. c.1825. £1200 to £1800
    <b>Mayfair Book Auctions, July 17:</b><br>Lot 33. BOWDICH. <i>Excursions in Madeira and Porto Santo.</i> 1825. A fine copy. £800 to £1200
    <b>Mayfair Book Auctions, July 17:</b><br>Lot 37. QUIN. <i>An Historical Atlas.</i> 1836. 2nd edn, 21 hand-coloured maps revealing civilisation. £800 to £1200
    <b>Mayfair Book Auctions, July 17:</b><br>Lot 39. LE BRUN. <i>Voyages [...] par la Moscovie, en Perse...</i> 1718. 300+ engravings, panorama. £4500 to £5500
    <b>Mayfair Book Auctions, July 17:</b><br>Lot 48. BRIERLY. <i>The English and French fleets in the Baltic.</i> 1855. Colour lithographs. £7000 to £9000
    <b>Mayfair Book Auctions, July 17:</b><br>Lot 60. DELLA VALLE. <i>Reise Beschreibung... in Turckey, Egypten, Palestina[...].</i> 1674. £1500 to £2000
    <b>Mayfair Book Auctions, July 17:</b><br>Lot 77. MURRAY, Mrs. Watercolour Album of Heaths. c.1860. 55 original watercolours. £750 to £1000
    <b>Mayfair Book Auctions, July 17:</b><br>Lot 91. ADDISON. <i>Works...</i> 1721. 4 vols, large paper copy, English red morocco. £2500 to £3500
    <b>Mayfair Book Auctions, July 17:</b><br>Lot 96. HOLBEIN. Imitations of original drawings. 1792-1800. Exceptional copy. £4000 to £6000
  • <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Ian Fleming, <i>Goldfinger,</i> first edition, inscribed to Sir Henry Cotton, MBE, London, 1959. Sold for $25,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Joseph Brant, Mohawk Chief, ALS, writing after pledging support to King George III against American rebels, 1776. Sold for a record $35,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Sonia Delaunay, <i>Ses Peintures</i> . . ., 20 pochoir plates, Paris, 1925. Sold for a record $13,750.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Diana, Princess of Wales, 6 autograph letters signed to British <i>Vogue</i> editor, 1989-92. Sold for $10,400.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Alexander Hamilton, ALS, as Secretary of the Treasury covering costs of the new U.S. Mint, 1793. Sold for $12,500.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Benjamin Graham & David L. Dodd, <i>Security Analysis,</i> first edition, inscribed by Graham to a Wall Street trader, NY, 1934. Sold for $20,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> George Barbier & François-Louis Schmied, <i>Personnages de Comédie,</i> Paris, 1922. Sold for $9,375.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Alphonse Mucha, <i>Ilsée, Princesse de Tripoli,</i> Paris, 1897. Sold for a record $13,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Ralph Waldo Emerson, <i>The Dial,</i> first edition of the reconstituted issue, Emerson’s copy with inscriptions, Cincinnati, 1860. Sold for a record $3,250.

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