Fair Friends and Book Selling Al Fresco

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Fair Friends and Book Selling Al Fresco

Hi Chuck, I’d like to stop and visit you on Tues. the 27th at 5PM to show you some books, and if you have the time to go out to dinner. I can’t stay over though I have to be near Baltimore for an early set up. We will make reservations and hope you can join us Sat. eve look forward to it.

I think my first Florida Antiquarian Book Show was in March 1982. Was it their second year? 2020 will mark their 39th annual show. My mentor and silent partner Carl Sickles told me I should go to it. He had gone the first year with his wife Eleanor and son Ray. He said it was fun and a good way to combine a vacation with making money and learning the book trade.

In those years, I was totally clueless. Now I’m just substantially clueless.

I’d never been to a book show before. I’d opened my bookstore in September 1980. I was fresh out of college. Now I was struggling to survive on $150 a week. I supplemented that by mowing the landlord’s grass in the little strip center my 1800 sq ft store was in.

Actually, Carl sort of insisted I go. After a year and half on my own, I think he knew I needed a break. I sure couldn’t afford a “real” vacation.

“Pack your best books and anything you have on Florida and the South. We will drive them down in the van for you. You can stay with us in our condo at Sailport on Tampa Bay.”

The first few years the show was held in a very exotic building at the University of Tampa. That venue had once been a lavish resort built by railway magnate Henry Plant. I don’t recall much about its interior opulence except carpeted hallways with massive columns. I vividly remember its profile had numerous minarets.

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My future wife and I drove down in her Honda Civic. I didn’t think my old once-white Ford F-150 pickup with a “Don’t Go Topless” cap covering the bed would make the trip. The Honda certainly didn’t hold very many books.

I was so anxious to get there I drove straight through. 17 hours down I 95. I napped at a rest stop for a couple hours.

Somewhere in South Carolina… “Palm trees!” I marveled aloud.

Seeing those first palm trees was a big deal for me.

The condo Carl found held, was it 8 of us? that year. His sons Ray and John and daughter Carol and John’s wife? It had two tiny bedrooms. I remember sleeping on the floor amongst other bodies. It was cramped. CRAMPED! But beggars can’t be choosers.

But we all got along, and it was quite an adventure. I had no money or credit card. I really wonder how it all came off. Nowadays with talking phones and credit cards, it would be a simple trip.

I was very lucky Carl talked me into this adventure. Those first years, he gave me a lot of great advice both business and personal. That relationship gave me a great grounding. Both of my parents had passed away few years earlier.

So began 18 years, plus or minus, of working vacations and immersion bookselling/book buying on spring 4-day weekends in Tampa/St Petersburg.

The next year I had my own booth and condo.

I was still a very novice bookseller. It was always a little bit of a struggle getting my booth set up in the early years. Other, more experienced booksellers would appear and hover over every box I opened. Some even offered to help me unpack! Go figure! They knew a lot more about books than I—especially if I had titles in their specialties. I’m sure they found some great bargains. At first I was little chagrined about that. It took me years to get over the feeling I was being taken advantage of. Foolish, I know. After all, they WERE paying my penciled-in selling price (less a little “professional” discount.)

My long departed Alabama momma would have said: “Yer jes jealous.”

And she would have been right. I’ve always been envious of colleagues whose knowledge and specialties far exceed my own seat-of-the-pants bookselling modus operandi.

Sometimes, or actually usually, my pre-show sales to fellow exhibitors far exceeded the four days I would be selling to the public.

Back then, set up was Wednesday or early Thursday. The show opened Thursday evening. It ran all day Friday and Saturday and until late afternoon Sunday.

I would wear a jacket and tie throughout the show. One year I’d forgotten a tie and rushed to a nearby flea market to pick one up for a dollar. Funny the things you remember.

Some years, business could be very slow for me. There would be hours and hours between sales to the public. I’d long exhausted anything to talk about with my neighbors. I soon had the back of my next-door neighbor’s head memorized—as we all usually sat in a metal folding chair at the edge of our booth facing down the aisle waiting for the next customer to wander by. But once you got to know them, you could always get one of your fellow dealers to:

“Watch my booth for a little while?”

I would take a break and wander around the show and see what others brought to sell.

That was a big part of the learning value of the show. It was nice to make a little money to take home as well as seeing what I could sell to pros and the public. I learned much more by wandering through my betters’ booths and seeing what books they brought and what they were asking for them. These were mostly excellent booksellers who did a lot of shows every year.

I heard from different colleagues about legendary Road Warriors who would exhibit at LOTS of book shows every year. In the pre-internet years, there were a lot more book shows than there are now—just as there were many more open bookstores. Some weekends had multiple one-day shows within driving distance. So a bookseller with a partner could do two or even three shows on a weekend. What the exact record is perhaps lost in memory or exaggeration, but I had heard 50?! Some booksellers regularly did 30 or so every year. I reached out to my ABAA colleagues. Numerous votes and anecdotes were forthcoming. With permission I copy this email sent to John Kuenzig—himself a Road Warrior who used to do about 25 shows a year. He reached out to Lee Temares. She and her husband Mike are long-time booksellers. Lee wrote:

Hi John,

Hi John,

The record for us was 55 in a year, and we actually did that for about 3 years. We would do a Friday-Saturday show, and then a Sunday show. I don’t know how we did it, but we were hungry!

Hope all is well with you, both health and business wise.

All the best,

Lee

55…more than one a week! I always felt some of these folk had some gypsy spirit in them to be traveling so much.

So if an experienced “Road Warrior” brought a book to the fair, it was vital that it had an excellent chance of selling. It is a huge amount of effort to pack and drive and setup and sit through and breakdown one’s stock in a show. You don’t want to keep bringing the same thing either. Also every time you handle—and every time a customer handles—a book there’s a risk of it being slightly… “handled.” Their prices had to be right too. If they were too low, they would sell their best material to dealers before the show (like me LOL) and not build relationships with private collectors and institutional buyers. If your books were too high, they wouldn’t sell. You’d get a reputation for being overpriced. I vividly recall setting up my booth for my first show on my own. There were 5 or 6 booksellers perusing the books I was pulling out of boxes and setting on the tables randomly for them to root through. A pro from New England, I forget his name, but he had big eyes, held up some book I had on Colt pistols. He raised it above his head so the other booksellers ravaging my stock could see and announced:

“He’s got 75 on this. It’s only a 35 dollar book!”

I’m sure I turned beet red. Back then I was young, thin-skinned and high-strung. (I’ve changed some. I am no longer young—LOL.)

I was mortified.

Why? I dunno. But I’ve never forgotten that ancient slight. That guy was an “enemy” from then on. I’d never buy anything from him nor would I cut him a break on anything I had.

Another dealer in my booth replied: “A book is worth whatever it sells for. See if it is still here Sunday.”

That bookseller was a friend at every show from then on. I often give him first crack at stuff I knew was in his specialty.

The Colt book wasn’t there Sunday. But I probably didn’t sell it for 75 either.

So book shows are a lot of work no matter what.

For me and the Florida show for 18 years:

  • 1 day pulling, packing and loading.
  • 1 day driving 17 hours.
  • 1 day set up and selling to fellow booksellers.
  • Thursday night – Sunday late afternoon sitting my booth.
  • Sunday breakdown and roll boxes outside to vehicle as fast as possible.
  • Maybe 3 or 4 days off roasting on a beach and looking for books in places like Mike Slicker’s Lighthouse Books in Tampa.
  • 1 day driving back 17 hours.
  • 1 day unpacking and restocking my “best” books as well as anything I bought at the show or while traveling.

I think my last Florida show was in 2000. I stopped doing shows for numerous reasons:

  • The kids were not able to be away from school that long anymore.
  • Internet sales were booming (we went online in 1997.) It was impractical to take my best books off the shelves for two weeks. Also, they needed to be meticulously re-shelved in cyber-order when I returned.
  • I really wasn’t very talented at show bookselling.
  • They were really HARD work.
  • I was going through my first (of many) midlife crisis.
  • 🙂

Maybe some day I’ll write more about the years doing the Florida show. In many ways, it was a big part of making me the bookseller I was to become. [That’s a tortured sentence but there you are!]

It is now 2019. There was a gap of about 12 years before I began going to book shows. Now I went as an attendee. Sometime in the 2000s, I was convinced I should join the ABAA by another mentor. But I was too busy growing the business, raising kids, going through midlife crises…to think about book shows. I maintained mostly online relationships with some of the booksellers I “grew up” with in Florida and other shows. I think the first book show I went to as an attendee was the New York Antiquarian Book Fair in 2013. It was there I ran into my old friend Ron Cozzi.

Ron and I exhibited at the Florida show and the Baltimore Antiques and Book Show and maybe some other regional shows together many times. I was born and grew up in Buffalo, New York. Ron has had an enormous wondrous bookstore in Buffalo (which moved to North Tonawanda in 2018) for many years—Old Editions. We would chat about Buffalo at the shows. I would drool over his stock at the shows. He was one of the Pros. He knew what to bring. He knew what to buy at the shows.

It was as if no time had passed.

“Chuck! Great to see you, buddy!”

The difference was that now I was an attendee. Also, unlike the good ole days, I had some money. The kids were grown, I’d become a Nose-to-Tail bookseller online and with brick and mortar stores and book sidelines like Books by the Foot. I started looking at his stock. Now I could actually buy some things I’d only dreamed of—books that were not the sort likely to drop into the stores or appear at house calls I made.

“Have you ever seen on of these?”

It was an enormous archival clamshell box with the label: The Bruce Rogers World Bible.

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Ron hoisted the mammoth thing onto his glass case and lifted the lid.

I was like Mr Toad in The Wind in the Willows. I don’t think I verbalized: “Poop, Poop, Poop!”, but my eyes likely bulged and began spinning a bit.

THAT monster would NEVER have walked in one of my bookstores.

“I’ll make you deal.”

Thus began Phase 2 of my friendship with Ron.

He pulled another book for me and another and another: “Have you ever seen this one?”

He’d explain things about the books he chose for me to enhance the appeal.

We needed a four-wheel dolly to roll my purchases out to my car when I drove up to the Armory on my way home Sunday. We tried to roll it out the front, and security turned us around and sent us to the loading doors in the rear.

Maybe I knew this in the distant past, but one night over dinner and drinks after a show, Ron told me about his chess book collection. I inquired further, and he humbly confessed he had been a champion of New York state…and he had played Bobby Fisher before that quirky genius exiled himself to Iceland.

It’s no wonder Ron has me figured out. He is always 3 or 4 moves ahead of me. Like only one other bookseller I work with, he often knows what I want before I do.

I now seek him out first at any show he is exhibiting at.

“Let me show you this one…”

I don’t think I’ve ever left his booth empty handed unless my selections needed to be shipped because I wasn’t driving.

He knows I can be a sucker for big beautiful books. Take, for instance, the Gutenberg Bible he told me I should get.

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It’s just a (wonderful) facsimile. I’m sure I’ll never get a real one. Even a single page—a “leaf”—taken from a defective copy will cost you mid to high 5 figures.

But I’ve gotten amazing books of all sizes from him.

I visited Ron’s 4-story bookstore in downtown Buffalo in 2015.

[That was very good year.]

His store was like his booth—only on steroids. Every book—from the exotically furnished Rare Room to his open stock was good. Or great. Or amazing.

Yep. He had to ship me a number of boxes after that visit since I’d flown in.

After taking all my money, he gave me a tour of my hometown and taught me things I’d never known about it.

For instance, how one of the best James Joyce collections in the world made its way to the University there…

We now have a tradition of having dinner together with other booksellers at the New York and Baltimore shows.

He has started another tradition as well. He still does the Baltimore Antique show at the Convention about this time. When I used to do it, there could be a LOT of booksellers there. Was it 150? Now it has whittled down to just 20 or so. There are still hundreds of antique booths of every persuasion. But the booksellers are now relegated to small row. He now stops on his way to Baltimore to:

“Show me a few things.”

And go to dinner.

His van is always a little lighter after he leaves Frederick for Baltimore.

It was on my calendar he was coming this Tuesday. In my head, he was coming Wednesday. I’d scheduled a cookout at my house for Tuesday. I rarely entertain anymore. It was a massive effort to get the house and yard presentable for company. My guests were two Egyptologists, a sister of one of them and a computer engineer who is thinking of taking a vow of poverty and become a bookseller. Her goal is to have a cat bookstore. The other three bought our mutual friend Barbara Mertz’s (a.k.a. Elizabeth Peters/Barbara Michaels) gorgeous Frederick estate.

I was in a tizzy (whatever a tizzy ever was) to get the place ready and plan what to cook and…

Ron texted me: “On my way from Buffalo. I’ll be there around 5.”

OMG!!!

I replied: “I’m having company. Can you come to the house and join us for dinner? You can show me books there.”

He has visited the house before. I live at the end of a one-mile private lane near the to top of a Catoctin Mountain ridge.

“I don’t think I want to try to get my van up there. It’s filled to the roof with books.”

“Park at the bottom. I’ll come down and get you.”

Of course, everyone arrived at the same time.

Of course, I was not nearly ready.

I had my local friends open the wine for themselves and drove down to pick up Ron at the “mailbox.”

It turned out to be a great evening. Ron was thrilled about the Egyptologists. They are the real thing. They head the digs at the University of Chicago/Oriental Institute in Luxor 6 months of every year. He asked for pictures and autographs. Ron in turn regaled us all with stories about bookselling and chess and more…

Like, how he came so close to getting a Shakespeare First Folio for 25,000 in the 70s. And other great successes and near misses. And how he became a bookseller because the post office would likely never make him a full time postal worker. (Lucky that!)

The cookout went well. The tizzy never stopped. It got dark.

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Ron needed to get on the road. But first… “I brought a few things to show you.”

My road was better than he recollected, and I offered to take him down so he could drive his van up.

“Wanna ride on the back of my ATV?”

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He was at first dubious but then agreed to take a chance. That machine can really roll. I’ve had it up to near 50 mph. But I bumped down the mountain conservatively. Ron then followed me up.

He parked on my flat “Landing Area” of my driveway.

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And thus began one of my more unusual book buying experiences. There are no streetlights up there. My house spotlights weren’t able to adequately illuminate his van. So I brought out a flashlight. He opened the rear door, and indeed the van was stuffed front to back and floor to ceiling.

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He slipped out a box from the very top and set it on the ground. I set up one of his wooden folding bookcases on the pavement. Ron bent and retrieved the first book. A Rackham first edition. His audience of five oohed and aahed. After we’d all perused it by flashlight, I put it on the top shelf.

“Gotta have it.”

I didn’t even look at the price. I knew it would be right.

One after another…great books emerged.

My friends were fascinated.

I bought most of what he’d brought to show me. I had to reject a few just to maintain my self-respect for not being a pushover. We carried them in and set them atop the bar.

Ron totaled them up and said he had to get on the road.

“You’re coming to the fair Saturday, aren’t you? We’re making dinner reservations.”

Well, of course I am.

And no doubt when I get to Ron’s booth, he will know what I’m going to want before I do.

“I want you to see this one, Chuck…”

Here’s the stack he left on the mountain:

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Ron’s been a hero to me for many years now. I’ve learned a lot about integrity, books and friendship. He’s been supportive in tough times as well.

I just wish I could get closer than being three moves behind him all the time.

What will I do with the great books I’ve gotten? Maybe I’ll do a show again someday. I could have a booth I’d be proud of.

2 Comments on Article

  1. Chuck -Another great post. Your early fair experiences caused me to recall one of my own – a well known dealer appeared in one of my first show booths, looked my booth over, and asked “Is this a fluke, or do you have more nice items like this back home?” holding a single book in the air. Later at the same fair, someone I knew commented in earshot on a new dealer at the fair: “The quality of his leather is not good.” Made me a bit anxious, and I wondered for years if the quality of my booth was good enough. Thankfully the positive comments far outweighed the bad – generally dealers are a good bunch! John

    1. chuck replied on

      Thanks for reading and commenting John!
      And thanks for the help w what I’m sure are the record holders.
      Yes, most booksellers are great. But some just like to be PIAs
      Best
      Chuck

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