"But why does it cost so much?" or, Selling Books to People Outside the Warm Womb of Book Fairs
[Originally posted 1/29/2019]
This weekend I had the distinct pleasure of selling books in the Regency Ballroom as part of San Francisco’s annual Edwardian Ball. The things I saw! Vintage ball gowns, TONS of things that light up and whir, and at least one person walking around with a live chicken perched on their shoulder. As far as places I have tabled, it was definitely the most visually interesting. It was certainly a marked departure from rare book fairs, where I have as yet to converse with anyone sporting a glitter beard and assless chaps.
This was not my first foray into non-book fair bookselling. In fact, I’m becoming a bit of an advocate for non-fair appearances. I haven’t been in the book trade very long, but it’s been long enough to have heard dozens of dealers complain that there aren’t enough new people collecting books. Keeping that in mind, I’ve decided to try tabling in places where there are few, if any, other booksellers. Sort of like an evangelist for book collecting but, like, a cool one. This does not, as I have learned, guarantee a captive audience. In fact, it opens the door to a whole bunch of people who aren’t exactly sure how bookselling works or why, and some who are not very happy about it.
Why does it cost so much?
“Does this book really cost $75?”
“Yes, that’s correct.”
“But, can’t I just give you, like, $20 for it?”
This was a real thing someone said to me this weekend! And, honestly, I was stoked, because this person wanted a rare book! They saw it and flipped through it and made up their mind that it belonged in their library. The only thing acting as a deterrent was price.
Generally when I table for a non-book fair I try to bring books with a range of prices, usually $5 - $1500. It gives people a chance to see and touch books they might not otherwise encounter, while also showing them that books can have many price points but they all equally belong in collections. Sometimes it's nerve-wracking (the tipsy guest with a glass full of wine teetering over my photo collections), sometimes heartbreaking (the well-meaning but overly excited person who split the spine on a $200 book), but sometimes it can feel incredibly affirming, like when a budding collector or amateur bibliophile lays hands on a rare book for the first time in front of you and you watch them go through all the emotions of awe and excitement and then…well, then it gets tough. Seeing someone get stoked about a book only to realize it’s not in their budget at the moment really sucks. Sometimes they get embarrassed and slink off; sometimes they get confused. “Why should this cost so much? It’s old.” Sometimes they get mad.
Welcome to the Weird, Wonderful World of the Book Trade
So, to return to my story, I was about to deal with someone who was confused. This is very comfortable territory for me, as a former librarian. I fucking love talking people through their queries. I told this person the book was that price because it had been out-of-print for over 40 years, and because copies were hard to come by. (And because that’s what I need to sell it for because of what I paid for it in the first place.) As I did, I watched the lights go on in this person’s eyes. Yes, there is such a thing as a rare book, and it might be desirable to them in the future.
They stood around reading the book awhile longer and eventually put it back and resumed reveling. For my part, I felt pretty good. I hadn’t sold the book (in fact, I didn’t sell a single book over $45 all weekend) but I had talked to someone about rare books and book collecting and sent them back into the world, a changed person. Now they know there’s a book trade. Now they know there are hard-to-find books and that these often cost money to acquire. Now they know that there’s something they want in the realm of rare books and booksellers and rare book fairs and collector’s clubs and all the rest of that musty dusty shit we all already love. And maybe one day they’ll come to love those things, too?
Maybe not, but we’ll never find out if we don’t try doing some outreach. The trade isn’t going to support itself, no matter what the old “three booksellers on an island with one book between them and they’re all doing very nicely” joke says. The reason I’m in the trade now is in part because, two years ago at Oakland, some bookseller felt comfortable leaving me alone to paw through a $20,000 book while they ran off to get a coffee even though they knew I was not a serious collector and would unlikely be able to afford it. (Side note: sometimes I just tell people I was employee no. 37 at Facebook, like when I’m looking particularly disheveled and trying to tour a multi-million dollar house in SF for laughs. People dress so down in the Bay Area I’ve never once been called on it.)
That gesture made me feel welcome in the book trade and I haven’t forgotten it. Now, two years later, it's my turn. It is my sincerest hope that I’ll one day be able to inspire someone else to get into the trade, whether as a dealer or collector. I think the book trade has real potential (more on that in a future blog post!) and the best way to keep it going is to open it up. So for now I’m going to keep doing non-book fairs and preaching the gospel of rare books, and I hope this will result in more enlightening conversations with novice bibliophiles…and also more potential customers in assless chaps.