This article was first published on the website of the Antiquarian Booksellers Association of America and is reposted here with permission of the association.
Ask Questions/Develop Relationships with the Dealers
Veteran bookseller John Windle notes that "a good, close, trusting connection to a dealer will yield the best possible results," so book fairs present a valuable opportunity to get to know many dealers, and let them get to know you and your interests as a collector.
Lorne Bair agrees, adding that his "number one piece of advice to beginning collectors attending their first book fair is to ask questions! Antiquarian booksellers as a rule get very few opportunities to talk about their books with people who are genuinely interested. Book fairs are the one environment where they can open up, share their experience and expertise, and communicate with members of the public who share an enthusiasm for what they do."
However, don't mistake the museum-quality artefacts with a museum's explicit invitation to stand around and admire all day. The object of book fairs is to sell books -- how else will the dealers be able to buy more books? Many dealers have traveled a long way to offer their particular treasures at the fair. On the other hand, booksellers are eager to establish relationships with collectors and would-be collectors, and are generally happy to talk books and share their knowledge. Just use common sense if you see a line forming for entrance to the booth in question.
Bair underlines the value of a good relationshop between collectors and dealers: "a good bookseller is more than a merchant: she is a source of advice, encouragement, and accumulated wisdom. Great collections have always involved a collaboration between great collectors and great dealers, so don’t try to go it alone."
Know Your Interest Areas
Rather than browse the aisles seeing what catches your eye, it's often best to go in with a plan: What areas are you interested in? Which items are you hunting?
Michael Hackenberg of Hackenberg Booksellers advises collectors “definitely have the subject areas of interest in mind, and some of the books in those areas of specific interest." But, even if you're not sure where you ultimately want your collection to go, a few fixed reference points can be great conversation starters when meeting dealers, who will be only to happy to share their knowledge and advise on refining your focus.
John Windle feels either approach is valid: "the 'I'll know it when I see it' is a great way to buy, but having a focus and at least the basis of a list of wants is a great start."
Then, Buy the Best Copies You Can Afford
Lorne Bair advises new collectors to "avoid the temptation to buy defective and/or restored books. The best collections are not always the largest." Additionally, while there are dozens of new catalogs published every week by ABAA members, (and even more the week before a big book fair like Boston, California, or New York) don't feel that you have to read every single catalog before visiting a fair! Reading a wide range of dealer catalogs is useful to get an idea of what's currently available and guage relative scarcity, but it's not essential before attending your first book fair. John Windle notes that it's good to know the going rate for items of interest, and also to gain some understanding of "what each dealer means by fine" and other notes on condition.
ABC for Book Collectors, by John Carter, is a very useful introduction to the technical terms and phrases used in the rare-book trade.
But, Don't Buy for Investment
"Once you’ve found a dealer with whom you enjoy doing business, who sells the kind of books you’re looking for, and who shows a genuine grasp of your collecting interests — develop a relationship!" notes Lorne Bair. But, don't "buy for investment. Books are not securities. Buy what you love and let your own taste be your guide. Many of the most-interesting collections are comprised of material that nobody considered valuable until some collector thought to assemble them."
A good collection is more than the merits of each individual piece, it lies in what the collection illustrates, what it reveals in the relation between the items. A good collection is quite literally more than the sum of its parts.
On a more practical level:
Don't Be Afraid to Touch the Books (Gently)
Part of the thrill of a book fair is to see and touch volumes you have only heard of -- or never knew existed! Windle comments that "handling rare books is an essential skill and if in doubt ask the dealer to help until you feel confident with a $250,000 book in your hands and $100 in your pocket." Hackenberg advises excited new collectors to "use caution by not splaying volumes open or slapping through pages. Dealers will gladly assist novices on book handling etiquette.” However, if a book is damaged from your mishandling it, the dealer will require you to compensate them for the damage. So keep food and drinks away from the books, make sure your hands are clean, and if in doubt, ask.
When attending the major, ABAA-sponsored fairs like California, New York, and Boston, collectors should make a point of exploring the booths of the international dealers -- they will have items on display you're unlikely to see anywhere else!
Most forms of payment are accepted
While cash might be impractical for higher-end rarities, John Windle notes that "dealers love cash not for nefarious reasons but because it gives them some spending money in the pocket for purchases, entertainment, etc. when they've been stuck in a hall for four days and have run out of cash!" Book dealers are collectors themselves, and often unexpectedly find essential items to acquire for their own collectors, and like most book lovers, are quite content to forego other pleasures to prevent an exciting book getting away.
Never bargain with an exhibitor over an item's price. The exhibitor wants to build a relationship with future clients and collectors, but that's difficult if it begins with haggling. If you have a collecting interest and see an item you want and you believe the dealer might offer other such items to you in the future, pay what's on the price tag and you'll be rewarded by getting offered items first in the future. Dealers know the market for rare books intimately, and set prices accordingly.
Don't look up something on your smart phone while standing in a dealer's booth to see if it is available for less online (aka showrooming). That's just rude. And don't begin any sentence addressed to an exhibitor with "But on eBay..." if you want to be taken seriously. In any case, books cannot be evaluated sight unseen, and internet dealers often lack the experience to describe their items accurately, so any prices you might find could be extremely misleading.
Most dealers bring items at all price-levels, so there should be interesting and desireable books and ephemera to be found at the book fair to suit every collectors' budget.
Many of a larger book fairs -- like the Boston International Antiquarian Book Fair -- organize some seminars or lectures on topics or authors of interest. These are great opportunities to learn more about an area of interest, and also a good chance to meet like-minded collectors and dealers.
“Discovery Days” are a chance to bring in an item or two along for appraisal, and in the process learn more about how professionals evaluate antiquarian books. Not all fairs offer this feature, so check the fair website before you go.
Antiquarian book fairs are welcoming places, full of collectors and dealers eager to talk about books, browses the aisles, and see beautiful manuscripts up close. Dealers are happy to discuss and display their wares, and to forge new friendships from shared interests in books and collecting.
Learn more about upcoming book fairs on our events page...
Don't miss the 63rd New York International Antiquarian Book Fair, April 27-30, 2023 at the Park Avenue Armory!
(Photos: Meredith Nierman Photography)