Monday, February 6, 2012

Feeding the Machine

New South Wales Almanac, 1836. One of the "not stupid" purchases.

You can imagine how good it feels to leave a bleak New England winter for sunny California. They’ve had a drought out here, and we feel bad for them, but we’ll take that string of sunny days with temperatures in the 60s and 70s.

My wife and I have been doing this since the 1980s, and even though it’s old hat the elation of stepping off the plane into blue skies and warm sun is still there. This lasts a day or two before we have to set up for the first fair. We used to spend those days scouting books. Now, I’m sorry to say, we are reduced to visiting friends. Dear old friends. It’s great, actually. Restful. And, God knows, we need rest.

Because as soon as we start lugging boxes into our booth we realize how cramped and squalid the space is,

and we wonder, for the nth time, why we brought so many damned books?

At home, doing the mock-up for the booth, our stock seemed so interesting and fresh. When it’s on the floor competing with 100,000 other books, the material loses a little of its sheen. Vacation is over. We’re back at work.

We slog through the process – setting a few books up, scouting a little, chatting with colleagues we haven’t seen since the last California fair, fussing with the booth some more.

Inevitably, scouting through the fair, I find something really terrific. Yeah, I pay too much for it (“I left my wallet in San Francisco.”), but if I didn’t pay, I’d never have gotten it. And I’ll make money on it.

1849 Journal of a Sea Voyage from Maine to San Francisco to Hawaii

Equally inevitably, every one excellent buy is offset by three or four stupid purchases. Well, not really stupid, just a little forced.

I spent my walk back to the hotel last night wondering why this was so, and decided that it arises from the fact that I run a catalog operation and that I feel a constant pressure to obtain new material. To feed the machine. If I restricted my buys just to home runs, it’d take me six months to accumulate enough material for a catalog. Since I’m on a six week cycle, that just won’t do. And anyway, there’s no sure fire way to predict what will sell. Some of those “bad” buys jump off the shelf. Some of the home runs hang around for far too long.

Next day several colleagues confirmed my theory. It seems to boil down to a matter of habit or training. We need to buy to survive, we need to feed the machine. And, because of the way we're conditioned, we will buy to the level of the material. If we’re only seeing junk, we wind up buying junk. Once it gets wired into us, it’s a difficult habit to break.

OK. Now down to the nuts and bolts. Nancy Johnson

bought this fair from Walter Larsen last year, and this was her first attempt at promoting it. In the months leading up to this event there was considerable whining on the ABAA chat line – “I sent my check two months ago and have yet to hear from her!” – And similar complaints. Her answering machine frequently played a reply that went something like, “I’m traveling in the mountains and am out of cell phone range.” It began to seem as if she was spending an awful lot of time in those mountains, out of cell phone range. Would there even be a San Francisco Fair? Would it be a giant mess?

Well, the answers are yes and no. Somehow everyone got their info kits on time. Setup went smoothly – Walter even put in an appearance – and the gates opened Saturday morning to one of the biggest and most enthusiastic crowds I’ve seen at that fair in recent years.

And they kept coming until the middle of the afternoon. Yes, there were minor glitches. But remember the year Walter lost the showcases?

I like the mix of material at this show, and the democratic way auctioneers, book clubs, decorators, binders, and trade groups like IOBA share floor space with exhibitors. I think it adds to the energy of the event. The more rigidly controlled ABAA fairs can be rather ghettoized in that regard.

So, the machine has been fed. Spent about $15K getting that done. Now we're off to the Pasadena ABAA show to see what happens in that high end ghetto.

Whatever it is, you'll be the first to know.