I recently attended Oxford’s major annual book fair, held up at the Brooke’s University Campus on Gypsy Lane.
I should clarify something here: I have never actually been to a book fair before, and am amazed that they still exist. Why wouldn’t you buy an e-Book, or a paperback from Amazon, or your cherished first editions from Abe Books with its global reach and consumer-friendly price transparency?
The Oxford Book Fair is a big deal. Or at least, big. Tony Fothergill, manning a stand for Ken Spelman Books in York, told me that the only bigger provincial show is held on York Race Course each September. He knows; he organizes it.
Why provincial, I ask? The very word has the ring of death about it. He clarifies: there is a posher group of booksellers called the ABA — Antiquarian Booksellers Association, not to be confused with the Amateur Boxing Association — which holds a big bash twice each year in London, at Olympia in June and Chelsea in November. That’s the crème de la crème in this curious world, to use a suitably no-longer-really-recherché descriptor.
Meanwhile, the Provincial Booksellers Fairs Association, which was started in 1972 by some West Country booksellers, holds a series of non-London shows of which Oxford’s is second only to York. The idea, it seems, is partly that different book sellers will produce, with a flourish, Oxford-related material that is rare and desirable. If you can sprint over to the correct stand as the fair swings open its doors, it could be yours.
On this basis I was nervously chewing my nails as the doors opened, with a spare bike lock in hand to shove aside old ladies as I sprinted towards Edward Thomas’ Rose Acre Papers, a snip at £750. But there was barely a murmur. And no queue at all. (Before you ask: No, I didn’t really buy it. Are you kidding?)
Fothergill says that this is what has changed the most. “There is no longer spontaneity in purchasing,” he says. “People no longer trust to their own judgment. If they find a book, they want to check the online pricing first, then they’ll come back and haggle.” Digesting this obvious development, I ask him why the fair exists at all — though I do it with a flinch because everyone is conspicuously nice and I don’t want to sound brutal and non-provincial.
He then points out that 90 percent of the books in front of me are “a repository of what’s not on the internet.” Later, I ask several booksellers why, and they just say that its anathema to their way of working. One notes that they are there for the fellowship. There’s a real community here, between traders and perhaps also customers. I count just two young adults; this crowd is almost entirely offline in every sense. Another leading seller, Paul Hutchinson, says to me that he doubts the fair will even exist a few years down the line. “Look around you,” he says, “we’ve all got grey hair.”
I was about to leave but went back to Tony and asked him another question. How do the economics of this work in the face of naughty, non-tax-paying Amazon? I cannot imagine how any of the traders even cleared their petrol bills to drive all that heavy stock down to Oxford. “Traders have wised up massively about their stock. You can no longer hang on to books that won’t sell,” he explains. Hot right now? “Manuscripts,” comes the reply.
Apparently diaries, inventories, household accounts — anything handwritten rather than printed – are all being snapped up by institutions like Yale’s Beinecke Rare Books library. Particularly where the institution in question is trying to assemble disparate materials from many sources, that when brought together could form the basis of revelatory research. Even grander, there is unquenchable thirst from private collectors for similar, but more recognizable, pre-internet documents that amidst all the ephemera of the web have assumed an almost ridiculous priority.
Let me give you two examples. Francis Crick, the British scientist co-credited with discovering the double helix structure of DNA in 1953, wrote about it to his son in a seven-page letter. He said, understating things rather, that “Jim Watson and I have probably made a most important discovery…” The letter was recently auctioned by Christie’s, New York. Greedily, one might say, the auctioneers ventured a fantastic estimate of $800,000 for the letter. It sold for $6 million.
July 10th will, I predict, see more of this sort of thing, when Sotheby’s sells the Stanley Seeger library. Seeger was one of the 20th century’s greatest collectors – especially of Joseph Conrad papers. The centrepiece of the collection is the working manuscript of Typhoon: one of Conrad’s greatest stories of the sea and perhaps the most important Conrad manuscript remaining in private hands. It’s estimated to realise £500,000. Bingo.
This is all completely in defiance of digitization and takes us off into the philosophy of art and the importance of the original as opposed to the reproduction. Booksellers might still have a future — but I’m still unconvinced about their shows.