A Trip to the Olympia Book Fair
By Ellie Aroney
Introducing Michael Graves-Johnston, Kevin Johnson of Royal Books, Michael Steinbach, Nick McConnell, Fang-Ling Jong from Hong Kong, and the PBFA Fair
My first book fair was the International Antiquarian Book Fair held in Melbourne. At the time I was young and attending university. I worked part time for Paul at his second hand store in Newtown. I had never been to any book fair before so it was a real learning experience. Hordes of people came through the doors to fill the beautiful Melbourne Exhibition Hall. They asked me questions that I was not yet able to answer. People threw money into Paul's hands. I wrote receipt after receipt and gently wrapped the books up for the customers.
At the end of the first day I was utterly exhausted, but Paul said we were going to dinner and I should wear something nice. We walked into the centre of town and I was taken up a flight of stairs to a very nice Chinese restaurant. Paul walked over to a large table with two people sitting at it. It was Michael Graves-Johnston (Oscar) and his wife Carol. Michael Graves-Johnston has been a bookseller for over thirty years. He specializes in Africa, the Pacific, and tribal and ancient civilisations. We sat and ate beautiful food and sipped delicious wine. The booksellers reminisced about old times, joking and laughing. A very pleasant night.
It was at this point that I figured out what book selling was really all about. Book fairs are hard work, but it is the friendships made along the way that are important. Every time I see Oscar and Carol I think about this moment, a moment that altered my path in life.
The first time I met Kevin Johnson of Royal Books was at the Colorado Rare Book School. He was a lecturer there. He got up and spoke about his past life and what excites him about book selling. He loves books about movies, which isn't surprising really because he wrote two wonderful bibliographies called “The Dark Page 1 and 2. Illustrated volumes of first editions books that inspired films in dustwrappers. On Kevin's stand a poster of a Hitchock film. “The 39 Steps” that was originally a book by John Buchan. The film starring Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll, from 1935.
I remember the first time I met Michael Steinbach. He had a grin on his face from ear to ear and he wore the same grin today. Another charming man with beautiful books. He is a very respected man in the book trade and at one time was on the committee of ILAB. Michael may not look it, but he has been trading in the book business for a very long time. I looked over his stand. He has some very graphical beautiful books. I grinned back at him and said: "Those books are a little bit naughty". Hidden, although not that well, on the bottom shelf sat a sort of pillow book.
The first time I met Nick McConnell was in our shop in Sydney. He was visiting a relative, but still managed some time to go to some bookshops while he was in town. He has been specialising fine bindings for over 30 years. And I can see why he does it. Why not surround yourself with full leather gilt bindings? When I see his books, I think of learned gentlemen sitting in their study or library in front of a fire reading and sipping tea.
The PBFA Fair was inviting. Not quite as impressive as the Olympia Fair, the stalls are just tables of books. It felt like an old school hall or market. The books were not as grand, but the atmosphere was slightly more exciting. Why? I think it is because people hope to find a bargain. I definitely had fun rummaging. For me it was like a good house call. You know the collection in front of you has something good in it, but you just haven't found it yet.
Fang-Ling and I worked together during the first two International Antiquarian Bookfairs in Hong Kong. She was a very hard working publicist. I found out that she has moved on to bigger and better things.She was in London to promote her new book: Tales of Bookshops. Tawain, Vista, 2010. ".... uniquely exploring the Western book world through an Asian's eyes; though its text is in Chinese, its color photography is unmatched in any language, with an emphasis on antiquarian bookshops, particularly in the Bay Area." (www.abaa.org)
I sat on the plane and reflect. Had I had a successful trip? Well, the answer is, yes. I spoke to many people about the fair. Most people seemed enthusiastic about it and they all seemed to be talking to one another about it. I walked around the room and people I had never met already knew who I was and what I was here for.
And then I thought about the other booksellers. Did they have a successful fair? Well, I know that a lot is riding on a book fair. Booksellers not only need to be at the fair but they have to bring their books to sell. They are heavy and awkward to carry. They often travel great distances. But this is only half the battle. Once books and booksellers arrive they battle different time zones, unfamiliar and uncomfortable surroundings, different languages, lack of sleep and small installation crises. They need to stand for long periods of time and to be polite to colleagues and customers. If they can do all this and then only if they get a lucky will they may have a successful fair.
So, why and how do they do it?
Booksellers are a rare breed. A friend once said that it was a "gentleman's trade". But it is much, much more than this. A book selling is as much about the books as about the friendships made along the way.
The article was published on Introducing the Cornstalk Gang. It is presented here by permission of the author.