By Carlos Martinez
Bibliodisia Books, IOBA
No one was more surprised than I when at last year’s book fair Chicagoans repaid my rather ordinary book collection with a sales volume I have only seen at Printers Row. Sure, Chicago has been called “the City of Big Readers” (someone misquoted Sandburg), but it can also be very stingy when it comes to paying a good price for an exceptional book. So what happened to loosen all these bulky wallets at Plumbers Hall?
Looking at my sales book for the fair, I note that the highest priced book I sold was a set of Bruce Catton’s 3-volume Centennial History of the Civil War. Two were signed by Catton, attracting our celebrated colleague Dan Weinberg, of the fabled Abraham Lincoln Bookshop, at the asking price of $300 less the 20% courtesy discount. I was fortunate enough to find this set at a suburban estate sale for less than 10% of my selling price, so I was thrilled and grateful at Mr. Weinberg’s generosity.
Some of us would argue that these books were greatly undervalued given the high prices online and elsewhere for identical sets. My goal, however, is not to make a killing but to achieve the kind of turnover that makes doing a fair worthwhile. Besides, if one tries to make a killing with Chicago’s savvy bargain-hunters—who are well schooled in the classrooms of eBay, Amazon, and the Newberry Book Fair—they will, well, sort of kill you. I speak from deathly experience: at the 2011 Plumbers Hall fair I sold only five books, barely breaking even. Now that’s no way for a retired public school teacher to supplement his meager pension, not with Mayor Emanuel lusting after my COLA’s and Medicare benefits.
This time, pricing my books very attractively and choosing them carefully according to experience at past fairs and at Printers Row, I sold 66 books. That’s a better than 1200%
sales increase (excuse my poor math, maybe more). The breakdown by categories and prices may interest future exhibitors—I know I will be studying it like a rabbi studies the Talmud.
|$240 (the set)|
|Illustrators (e.g., Gorey)||
|Lakeside Classics (greens)||
|Modern First (except genres)||
|Modern Library (pre-1966)||
|WPA Guide (Montana)||
|Miscellany (Folio Society, Basil Rathbone bio, T. E. Lawrence, Anne Frank)||
Our total intake was $2,823 of which $667 was from fellow book dealers. These figures compare favorably with our Saturday Printers Row grosses, all from a customer base that is approximately 1/130th that of Printers Row.
A few things may be observed by studying these sales breakdowns. First, unless you are a specialist with a large blue chip stock (think Ken Lopez or Tom Congalton, or our own Larry van de Carr or Jeff Hirsch), it pays to bring a categorically diverse stock. Second, the Chicago book fair clientele pays low-end prices (after all, we did have three items priced at over $1,000 and several over $300, and none sold despite being in reasonably high demand). But they also do not mind a few blemishes in their books. They are not too picky, like the folks from Park Avenue or Copley Square. That does not mean they lack taste in quality book choice; every book I sold was of some value, from a second printing in dust jacket of Anne Frank’s diary to Hemingway’s Across the River and Into the Trees with the wrong spine color, to a price-clipped second issue of True Grit. Chicago bookbuyers appreciate content much more than condition, without totally disregarding the latter.
Third, in my online dealings I discovered that Babylon Revisited was interested in 1920s-30’s mysteries with Art Deco jackets, by authors like Oppenheim and Van Dyne and that they were coming to the fair. So I made sure of bringing a dozen from my stock—and sure enough, they bought $320 worth of books. It does pays off to keep one’s ears on the grapevine and web-vine for potential sales.
Fourth, never underestimate the power of genre fiction or bookmark ads. At Printers Row I met two collectors of 1940s-50s Sci-Fi, and told them I had a good selection and would bring some of the better titles to Plumbers Hall. I handed them the bookmark ads given me by Chris Rohe, our fair manager, and presto, it was as if they were beamed down on Washington Street in October. I sold 9 titles, including three of the early Shasta and Fantasy Press titles I found in an obscure little bookshop somewhere in eastern Indiana (sorry folks, must protect my sources!).
I owe my grandfather two things — my fastidiousness and my organizational ability. They may have made me a doofus, but both helped me to plan a fair well ahead of the date. In my attached, climate-controlled garage I keep six folding bookcases, the same six I take to the fair (I normally rent two tables, though last time I spread them out over three after Chris offered one more at a bargain rate). These cases have labels on each shelf for each of the categories I know are in demand, and during the months preceding a fair, whenever I find a book I know has a chance to sell, I clean it up, put the jacket in a Brodart, price it according to what I know my Chicago clients want to pay, and save it on the shelf until fair day.
Selling at a book fair can be a really rewarding experience from many angles. You have the satisfaction of seeing your judgment in books validated. You experience the thrill of placing good books in the hands of readers and collectors who will give them (and you) some permanence in their libraries. And you take pride in knowing that you have contributed to the cultural and material betterment not only of this great city, but of your loved ones.