An Interview with Bruce Gventer of B&S Gventer Books and Ephemera and babf PromotionsShawn Purcell
-Hi Bruce. Thanks for discussing the ins, outs, ups and downs of organizing book fairs. Before we get into it, can you tell us a little about your early background?
I was working in the high tech industry in NYC in the late 70s when we moved to Berkshire County, MA where there was no high tech industry yet. I was looking for a career, saw a store for rent in South Egremont for $75 a month, and decided I should be able to sell something to cover the rent. Both my wife Sue and I loved books, so we decided to try selling used books. We were new to the book world and bought every used book we came across, including many non-sellable items, which was a good lesson in what to never purchase again. Every summer we had a huge tent sale. We did a great deal of reading/research and attending book auctions religiously in order to learn the business. After two years we discovered book fairs, and after the first show we learned that you could, in fact, make a living at this if you put yourself where there are more people than are found in an isolated rural town.
-Tell us about your specialties as a bookseller.
After three years we built a book barn on our property in South Egremont. Our first specialty was 19th century hand colored illustrated books, as I was intrigued by the amount of individual labor involved in the process. Our next specialty became medieval manuscript pages, sparked by the discovery of a page priced at $300 at a book fair on Long Island. After this aroused my curiosity, I met Nick Pavlov, who explained that the item I had noticed was an original page from the Johannes Gutenberg Bible worth close to $10,000. I made an appointment to visit Nick at his home in order to view his collection. I convinced my wife to join me, worried that I could/would easily spend all of our money on these intense individualized works of art, where as many as four people could be responsible for the writing, the artwork, and the gold leafing/drawing on one single page. While reviewing the pages with Sue, she began creating a small pile and a large pile, and I soon discovered that the larger pile were those most to her liking. Interestingly enough, I spent more money by bringing my wife than I would have if I had gone alone. I now specialize in Antiphonal pages as well.
While I now boast a broad range of specialties including children's books, cookbooks, art and architecture, and engravings and maps, with the addition of my new partner D. Curto and her genuine interest in vintage documents, photographs, comic books etc., ephemera has also become a great and interesting specialty of the business.
-May we assume that you have participated in book fairs early on strictly as a seller and found some were run better than others?
I have exhibited at as many as 30 shows in one given year, and find them to be run on many different levels.
-How did you get into the book fair promotion part of the business?
The managers of the Stockbridge Antiquarian Book Fair were retiring and approached me to continue the show. I realized that my best sales came from show exhibitions, and as I also did not want to lose that show, I took it over.
-Do you maintain a table at your own book fairs?
One of the main reasons that I promote book fairs is so that I have places to sell from.
-What were some of your greatest buys ever at book fairs?
I consistently shop at book fairs and have owned some of the rarest items for sometimes only minutes at a time before they were purchased from me. The best thing I ever found was an Egyptian Papyrus from 1500 BC at a small show in Cazenovia, NY.
-What states do you work in?
From the beginning, I always exhibited/promoted in New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts and Maine. I later added New Jersey.
In 2006, due to her interest and excitement in the business, my new partner began exhibiting for me at paper shows in Pennsylvania and antique shows in Atlanta, North Carolina, Washington, D.C. and Texas. She then began buying in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee and the Carolinas on her way home.
-Roughly how many fairs have you produced over the years?
Close to 100 shows since 1985. Some shows were dropped and others were added.
-Is the business financially self-sustaining?
While selling books and ephemera can be profitable, one is constantly putting money out in order to replace inventory. In the promotion business there can be a lot of risks involved. One show might make a profit and another might endure a loss.
-Why and how did GABF beget babf?
Actually the first business was Berkshire Antiquarian Book Fairs which I named babf when I produced outside of the Berkshires in Litchfield, Connecticut and Portland, Maine. GABF started later as the Greenwich Connecticut Antiquarian Book Fair when I took on a partner and began NYC book fairs as GABF/babf Promotions. Last year I dissolved the GABF partnership and took on D. Curto as a new partner with babf Promotions.
-What does a Creative Director bring to the tables, as it were?
D. Curto came to me in 2006, when I was in the process of designing a website and considering the internet for additional business. I placed an ad to have someone research and input the book related information online, and D. was in the process of recreating herself and her lifestyle in order to care for her mother back here in NY. Ironically, after meeting D., we never completed the internet process.
With over 30 years as a visual merchandiser, D. first began her own business of window display as 'Definitely D.' in the Bronx. In the late 80s she moved to Florida where she began working for the likes of Jacobson's Stores, Saks Fifth Avenue and the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center, where she produced window displays, fashion shows, high end events and innovative floral designs as a freelance artist. She also worked as marketing director and public relations manager for a major real estate developer in Florida, producing ground breaking events (and even book fairs) while designing brochures and promotional items for the company. D. joined Neiman Marcus in 2000 as a Visual Presentation Manager in Tampa, and was later promoted to the Neiman Marcus flagship store in Dallas, TX. The question should read what doesn't D. Curto, my Creative Director, bring to the table?
As Creative Director for babf antiquarian book and ephemera events, working full time either onsite or from her private design studio, D. is responsible for executing creative direction, art direction and team strategy; determining event site location and event production needs; overall direction, strength, profile, output, and excellence of the company, as well as the tone and quality of company interactions and collaborations; and creative management and development for babf Promotions, designing promotional and marketing/advertising materials and consulting on www.bookfairs.com web design.
-Your "shows" (whoops, "fairs") have a reputation for elegance. How is this achieved?
It is a "show" by all means of the word, but books always seems to make it a book "fair!" We remain conscious of and careful not to confuse the customer, who has seen the word "fair" for a long time now. Elegance came with the arrival of D. Curto. When we met, D. became so absorbed in the presentation side of the business that she basically took it over. After walking through and shopping my booth, my regular clients would then ask me if in fact this was my booth. D. truly has the ability to create and present things in an alluring manner. With my shows promotion and her organization skills and show production background we have produced great results. The first thing she mentioned (after seeing the different colored table cloths that each vendor would bring to my shows) was that we needed to provide uniform tablecloths ourselves for consistency. She then added a champagne service, floral decorations, and most recently, a harpist as an added touch of, well, elegance. Obviously I am very happy to have D. Curto "behind the curtain".
-How does one buy or take over an existing book fair?
I am typically approached by other show managers due to the fact that I have been in the business for over 20 years. They appreciate that I come from the book selling aspect of the business, which just helps/works overall.
-How do "satellite" book fairs work? Don't they present some negatives for the more established fair?
While the book world has its competitive aspects, I like to think that we can do better when the customer gets caught up in the options and combination of shows exhibiting simultaneously. We have actually hired buses in order to transport book shoppers from our shows to other shows and of course from their shows to ours, as a customer courtesy.
-Bruce, take us on an impressionistic journey through a typical fair as if you were explaining it to somebody who has never attended one, from the time you are the first one through the doors until you finally leave two or three days later.
Months and months precede the preparation of a successful event. D. is constantly researching marketing and presentation standards/options, while I am constantly referencing my past contacts/resources (over 20 years of a collected client database and knowledge of the book world). From load-in day through the end of the show, with D. now on board, we are reinventing the process as we speak, so maybe I can better address this in the future!
-Who do you usually work with when booking a venue?
I used to work with all the same people/processes/locations, however D. now insists on visual appeal combined with location, location, location. Our last show took place in a beautiful loft, most commonly used for weddings and high end events/fashion shows. With Hunter College, our most recently acquired venue, D. was adamant about the location, even though with a gymnasium she has given herself quite the challenge. I utilized my book world contacts in order to open some (let's just say) "closed" doors, so we have a great location, and it will cost us to give it visual appeal.
-The logistics of organizing a book fair must be mind boggling, particularly in New York City. How do you do it? What things do you have to take care of?
Parking is the ultimate nightmare, and the exhibitor load-in process can sometimes be exhausting and difficult. D. has this amazing ability to network, partner and build relationships. We will produce this upcoming show with all of that and more in place.
-What about insurance?
We buy show management insurance for each production.
-Amid the fine wares, scholarship, mentoring, and pockets of humility at a high-end book fair, there is a good deal of puffery, one-upmanship, and even the occasional obfuscation. What are the most common complaints booksellers are apt to make about each other?
My approach is to always build support and I consistently try not to partake in any of the drama and cajoling so to speak. I have always had a reputation for being fair and considerate in both my pricing and in my business, and D. is the queen of diplomacy and consideration, always attempting to please everyone. At our show last April, she asked that I turn the air conditioning on and off every ten minutes, and we took turns doing so because some exhibitors were cold and some were hot! As both exhibitors and as show promoters in most cases, if you care about people, they tend to try (at least) to care back.
-What are the most common customer complaints?
Customers always want new product or new exhibitors, and diversity. They are not happy if they come though the door and cannot find something/anything to add to their collection. They all want to get in there and get it before someone else does!
-You receive many accolades and compliments, and things usually go splendidly, but what are some of the worst specific things that ever happened at your fairs?
For some reason, it is always about the parking and exhibitor load-in or load-out process. The shows/fairs typically go well for the most part. We try to run the shows so that if problems arise, no one actually knows that there are any problems.
-I started doing book shows before the online revolution and found this to be an invaluable learning experience. As one small example, I was swarmed for under priced bargains at my first show, and later raided newbies myself before the opening bell for the same reason. Even today, aspiring booksellers in many parts of the country can find entry-level shows that will provide a more rounded experience. For awhile there the internet was hurting buyer and seller attendance at the better shows, partly because there are fewer greatly underpriced bargains to be had, and partly because it can be easier and less expensive to buy and sell from home. Has this leveled off?
While I did attempt to join the online revolution, I never left the book fair market. I actually refused to get caught up in the frenzy. While many people capitalized online, I stood fast to the idea that I, as a buyer, always wanted to see, touch and feel the product. I found most of my customers agreed, and they remained in the market and at the fairs. There are others who do quite well online and enjoy the armchair opportunity to shop/search.
One can never be too sure where it will go or end up, but there will always be an individual approach to the process itself, which will hopefully sustain us all at some level. I still have plans to get my product online and on my website to encourage additional sales. It is my understanding that some dealers had a very difficult time with the online revolution, but I believe it is all in the understanding, concept and approach. You have to keep up both the buying side and the selling side, both in person and online. I have noticed that many exhibitors have returned to my book fairs from the online world.
-What fairs do you have coming up in 2008?
Visit our website at www.bookfairs.com for all of not only our upcoming show promotions, but those of other management companies as well.
-Thanks again for your time and insights Bruce. I'll stop in and buy something from you the next time I pass through the lovely town of South Egremont. Probably an illuminating book rather than one of those illuminated pages.
Bruce Gventer operates B&S Gventer Books and Ephemera in, and babf out of, South Egremont, MA and can be contacted at http://www.bookfairs.com.IOBA Standard, Spring Edition 2008, Volume 9, No. 2.
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