Once & Future

Charlotte Ashley – Book seller, collector, writer, editor, historian

May 4, 2009

The Toronto Book Fair and Paper Show

Despite the baby and I being sick with a nasty (un-swine-related) flu, my family and I bustled off bright and early yesterday morning to the Spring Toronto Book Fair and Paper Show in the St. Lawrence Market.  After 24 hours of reflection on the event I am now prepared to declare it a sad little affair which is, I suspect, staggering towards its ultimate demise.

The May 2009 Toronto Book Fair and Paper Show

1.  First Impressions Last: I’ll begin on the outside and work my way in.  We approached the market building to find the usual Sunday Antiques market in full and lively swing.  It was a beautiful day and the colourful booths were busy and full of tourists and collectors.  This, however, was not the Book Fair. After some searching we fought our way to the front door of 92 Front St. proper, finding it lamely signed with an 8 x 11″ print out announcing the event within.  Passing from the sunny, bustling out-of-doors into the cool, dank and deserted room was sobering and not a little frightening.

2.  Show us the money: I don’t begrudge any organization their fees, because I understand that all events have costs associated with them.  But what, exactly, has Heritage Antique Shows been doing with theirs?  $7 per person is a moderate entry fee, but other than rental of the space, I fail to see what Heritage contributed to the show.  Pre-advertising was nonexistent, limited, as far as I could tell, to their vintage 1998-style poster board website and fliers being distributed at the door (why do I need a flier for an event I am already at?).  The website is limited and unprofessional.  Nothing was done to the hall except to provide bare tables for the vendors.  The “snack bar” seemed to be running on rations – there was something especially pathetic about reading a specials board which lists the Soup of the Day as “NO SOUP”.

By comparison, the New York Antiquarian Book Fair costs $20 to get in, but takes place at the Park Avenue Armory, issues its own catalogue, provides a floor plan, map and guide to the guests, has a beautiful, functional website, is warmly and tastefully decorated for the event and hosts private events during the show.  I don’t ask Toronto’s show to rival the “Best in the World”, but surely they can provide something other than a dark hovel for book gnomes to sniff and scratch books in.

3.  This isn’t thirty years ago:  The draw of a book fair used to be in part the opportunity to see the wares of out-of-town book dealers, as well as those dealers who keep a closed shop.  But alas, this is the age of Abebooks.com, and the stock of unseen vendors is no longer a big undiscovered mystery.  If you are going to ask book collectors to come out and see your wares, you need to show them something they didn’t see 45 minutes earlier online.  What might that be?  Oh, I don’t know.  Debut some new finds.  Offer show specials and discounts.  Mini-raffles.  Free appraisals.  ANYTHING.

This is probably a big part of why the busiest aspect of the show by far was the “Paper” part.  Postcards, prints, maps and various ephemera were getting a lot of attention.  Well – there’s no Abepostcards.com yet!  Paper collectors still have a reason to come out and root through boxes and binders.  Book collectors – not so much.

4. Retiring Attendees: I passed quite a few people having hushed conversations about the attendance.  Attendance is down again, always declining.  Not just on the customer side either – it looks as if dealers are opting not to come show either.  The site was looking barren.  The fewer people show up, the fewer dealers show up, and so on.  I’m willing to cast stones in all directions on this one.  The attendees on both sides of the glass were as antique as the books.  With dealers shutting doors left right and centre, they don’t seem over-eager to participate in an exercise in self-promotion like a Book Fair.  Many booksellers are quietly fading into semi-retirement, relying on their existing customer bases to keep them company until they finish.  Customers, on the other hand, are dying off quicker than new ones are born.  There may be a way or a venue for younger, more forward-thinking dealers and collectors to gather, but this wasn’t it.

5.  But it wasn’t all bad…: Okay, there were a few good things about the event.  It was lovely to see all the local books, the Canadiana on display.  Lots of Toronto history, Ontario history, Canadian literature.  This may not be the New York fair, but New York doesn’t have our books.  I was especially pleased to find a dealer right at the end featuring a signed copy of a book by my own great-great uncle George T. Denison, Recollections of a Police Magistrate.  After some internal struggle, a few phone calls to relatives, and a short, unsuccessful bout of haggling I did not buy it, however, reasoning that someone in the family has probably still got a copy somewhere.

And I did buy one book for myself: a first edition of John Carter’s ABC for Book Collectors.  They say every collector ought to have a copy and somehow I’d avoided getting one until now.  This copy cost me less than a new copy of the latest edition would, and is still in beautiful, usable condition.  Success!

Now all this said, I would go again because I have no alternatives.  But there was a gloomy atmosphere at the fair this time around, a sense of impending doom.  If this fair is going to survive, some changes need to be made.  Or, perhaps, someone needs to pick up the slack and mount an event that’s more suited to a literary city of Toronto’s calibre.  Anyone???

4 thoughts on “The Toronto Book Fair and Paper Show”

  1. Hello Charotte Ashley (I believe)
    I read your comments on the Toronto Bookfair. And tend to agree on the most part. It has been a long time since Mr. Zammit ( the owner of the show ) has put any effort into the show.
    I am a one of the youngest dealers that participate in this show. And have been doing this show on and off for about 13 years. More on then off.
    But here’s the real problem. I can’t bring people in. I can suggest and send emails and phone people and say “Hey John the Toronto bookfair is on this week.” But 90% of my customers are American. The other ten percent are divided between Canada and UK. So my out reach to Canadians who could attend the show is very small.”
    Do you remember Marlene? She used to run the Toronto Paperback show.
    Anyways she held two shows about 5 to 7 years ago. Advertised until she was blue in the face. On the day of the show she had about 70 dealers, and 1000’s of attendees. City TV showed up and did a live remote and everything. It was awesome.
    She stopped after the second one and there are several rumors flying as to why. One is that she didn’t make enough money at it. Second Zammit went to City Hall and complained that there wasn’t enough room in TO for two shows and being the Older show he won.
    She walked away from all of it.
    But this is the flaw when someone says the internet is killing book fairs. It might be true but the biggest stab in the back is lack of advertising.
    As far as the rest of the dealers I can’t speak for them. But I know the amount of work that goes into getting ready for one of these shows is hard and long. And then we arrive and ( like usual ) no one lining up to get in.
    As you said at the end of your blog “Now all this said, I would go again because I have no alternatives.” We as dealers stand around going “Why do I come? Because we have no alternatives.”
    Thank you. Don

    1. Charlotte says:

      Hi Don,

      Thanks for your reply! I think I learned more about the Ontario rare book “scene” in that post than I have managed to figure out in twelve years of book-buying in Toronto. You raise some interesting issues. If you look at the reception that something like, say, the University of Toronto college book sales get, it’s hard to understand why a dedicated antiquarian show can’t raise the same amount of interest. Clearly, the buyers exist! So what is keeping them from the dedicated book show?

      Hopefully something will change. I’d hate to loose the Toronto show completely, but if they won’t advertise or put some effort in, I don’t see how they can hope to continue with declining attendance. My hope is that someone steps up and tries to put together a show of their own. Heck, I’d do it myself if I didn’t have a young daughter demanding all my spare time!

      Maybe that’s a project to consider once she gets a little older!

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