All the Fun of the Fair

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Could anything be more civilized than a second-hand bookshop and teashop combined? For many years I pictured myself running the bookshop, a friend baking the cakes and scones, and the customers enjoying the hospitality in comfortable surroundings. It was a shame it remained no more than a picture.

It was only after I retired that I looked along my bookshelves and realized there were many books I was never going to open again – so why not try to sell them? I signed up to sell online and was delighted when Heidegger’s Being and Time, unopened for decades and then only very briefly, sold the next day. This was evidently a Good Idea.

I had been attending book fairs for years, so the next step was obvious: take a stall at a fair. I thought I knew the basics – that the condition of a book is crucial, people love dust jackets and a fine one can add value to certain books out of all proportion to a mere piece of paper, and so on. However, I soon found that I didn’t know nearly as much about books and bookselling as I thought. The learning process began.

At fairs, as in second-hand bookshops, non-fiction is far more important than fiction.  There will always be people wanting novels, but they’re a small minority. And the more specialized the title the better. There are, for instance, vast numbers of books about railways, especially steam trains; but a book on steam trains in general will never sell, whereas one on a branch line in the middle of nowhere that existed for a few years in the 19th century will be snapped up at a good price. I’m rather ashamed of how long it took me to put this into practice, despite being given good advice by the dealers.

It soon became clear that fairs are busiest in the mornings, as the bibliophiles ensure they maximize their chances of finding what they’re searching for, as well as claiming any bargains that are going. Around 70% of the people who come in are regulars, and almost all come before lunch. With some you could almost set your watch by their invariable arrival time.

I hadn’t realized how important the weather is. A hot sunny day is bad news, as people prefer to be outside. A very wet day is just as bad, as people simply stay at home. A cloudy day with a few showers is much better. However, large numbers through the door do not necessarily mean good takings; sometimes a collective decision that ‘we won’t be parting with our money today’ seems to descend on almost everyone present. Psychiatrists probably have a name for it.

On the basis that at the end of the day it’s easier on the back muscles to carry notes and coins to the car than boxes of unsold books, I tried to keep my prices low. But then I heard a dealer say to his friend: ‘This hasn’t sold. I think I’ll double the price.’ I realized that many people who come to fairs are prepared to pay well for what they want as long as it’s in good condition, so I began to price accordingly. There are those, however, who unfailingly ask for a discount; ‘Can you do anything on this?’ is the common line. Usually you’re just pleased to make a sale, so you agree. Though not always, for a reputation as too soft a touch is not desirable.

I heard tales of how in ‘the good old days’, before the banking crisis and the e-reader, individual takings could run into thousands of pounds. It seemed astonishing that, even now, some dealers were taking several hundred pounds when I thought I’d had a good day if I reached a hundred (less the stall rent, fuel costs and initial outlay on the books, of course).  These were experienced people who knew their regular customers and were prepared to spend a lot to get something they were pretty sure would sell at a substantial profit. I had neither the knowledge nor the confidence to go down that road; buying for a quid and selling for a fiver was more my style, though I have become more adventurous as time has passed.

A lot of trading takes place among the dealers before the customers arrive, always at a discount. You don’t have to sell like this, as you can hope a customer will pay the full price later on, but in practice everyone takes the money while they can. This also helps to keep the stock moving – despite the unsatisfactory feeling that a good proportion of the books at a fair are just going from dealer to dealer to dealer without ever ending up where they should be: on someone’s bookshelves.

It is essential to bring fresh stock to each fair, so buying books quickly became a compulsion of mine; I couldn’t pass a charity shop without checking their books because you never know what gem might be found. (The rare times I’ve made a large profit I’ve gone back and made a donation.) I started going to auctions, which is good fun – though I wasn’t too amused on one occasion when, as I went to pay, a dealer said he was pleased as he’d just sold books he hadn’t been able to sell at fairs. ‘And you’ve just bought them,’ he added.

I learned other things too:

• Having several people around your stall at the same time is not the good thing it might seem. They get in each other’s way and all wander off without buying anything.

• Someone who stands there looking through a book for more than two minutes never buys it. I don’t know why this is, but it’s an infallible rule.

• Someone searching in their bag is not looking for their purse or wallet but for their glasses.

• The fact that someone has kept hold of a book while looking at others does not imply they are going to buy it. They change their minds exasperatingly often.

• Buying a book because the title amuses you can be a good way to waste money. A History of the Chartered Accountants of Scotland from the Earliest Times until 1954 seemed like a good candidate for the Most Esoteric Title of the Day competition, but it remains unsold. On the other hand, The Axis of Evil Cookbook, with recipes from Iran, Iraq, North Korea and more, was, of all the books I’ve had, my most confident bet for a quick sale. I was right.

• Just because the day has started well does not mean it will continue that way. The afternoons are sometimes mind-numbingly quiet.

For most of the time, though, I was enjoying myself. Profits weren’t big, and some days I hardly covered my costs, but usually I made just enough to feel it had been worthwhile. I soon made some good friends, and we got through slow afternoons by chatting and joking. I looked forward to the fairs as social occasions as well as opportunities to make some money.

Then the fair organizer announced that he was finishing at the end of the year. No one seemed interested in taking over, so I decided I would like to try. The fact that my predecessor had given up organizing when he reached 60 and I had taken it on at 70 caused some amusement. For years my job had been organizing adult education courses, so arranging a few book fairs didn’t seem beyond my capabilities. Eventually a group of us got together, with different people organizing fairs in their locality.

Since the beginning of 2017 I’ve been organizing a dozen fairs a year and thoroughly enjoying it. It isn’t arduous, it helps to keep the brain active as I near my dotage, and it’s very satisfying to see a hall buzzing with people browsing, bargaining and pouncing on something they’ve been looking for; and you know they’re at the fairs because they love real books and want some more to enjoy reading and to grace their homes. If the dreaded word Kindle is mentioned at all it is almost always dismissed out of hand.

And there’s one more thing: most of the fairs have a café. These are sometimes run by a professional caterer, sometimes by a group of local ladies. The quality is always good, and for many people having a bacon bun and a piece of cake is just as important as buying books.

So although I never did run a second-hand bookshop combined with a teashop, I get a lot of pleasure knowing that I’ve ended up with the next best thing.

© Gerry Cotter 2018


About the contributor

Together with a group of friends Gerry Cotter runs North West Book Fairs in Lancashire and North Yorkshire, details of which are on the NWBF Facebook page. Free entry is available to all Slightly Foxed subscribers, thereby enabling them to spend more on books, bacon buns or cakes. Preferably books.

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