Thursday, June 12, 2008

The Great Media Devestment Project...

My folks have been thinking about starting a used book selling business for a while, and this year they decided to take the plunge, and get a booth at the Printer's Row book fair in Chicago. It sounded like fun, and my mom promised me a cute little hardware store apron to store money in, so we drove down for the weekend to help out.

An aside: Printer's Row is an interesting part of the city. My grandfather worked in the printing industry there, back when it was a heavily industrial area--it was such a bad neighborhood that he wouldn't let my grandmother visit him at work, and he refused to park his car there. But a combination of the death of the printing industry in Chicago and the general gentrification of the South-loop area means that the old factories and paper mills are now pricey lofts. My grandfather would be shocked.

Anyway...the Printer's Row book fair has been around for a long time (23 years) and attracts a wide variety of booksellers, including national chains, museums, individual publishers, and "independents"--a category broad enough to encompass Powell's bookstore, the guy who sells only rare architecture books, and HJ booksellers (that is to say, us). The wares sold span as wide a variety as the sellers--brand new best sellers, tattered paperbacks, rare books, seconds/damaged books, overstocks, authors and/or (that "and" is really a bitch, I hear) publishers hawking their latest offering(s), art taken from cut-up books, old magazine covers, posters, and all other conceivable works on paper. We fit right in.

Our booth consisted of a table, with an L-shaped arrangement of bookselves around one side. We were selling a mixture of cookbooks culled from my mom's collection, mysteries and science fiction hardbacks, children's books, and a sometimes-odd mix of non-fiction (including, among other gems, a set of books entitled "The Bottom Line" from the years 1992-1996, published by "Boardroom Classics"). We were basically selling the dregs of my folks' personal collection, so we started off at $3 a book or 4 for $10. My friend Dirk balanced off the other side of the table with his collection of art posters (including a lovely 1979 Lichtenstein poster for the exhibit "Art for Art's Sake").

The first day, we sold around $700 worth of books, easily making back the $200 buy-in cost and the second day, we sold an additional $500 worth of books, bringing our total for two days to $1200--that is approximately 800 items, 40 square feet, or 600 pounds, for those of you keeping track. That, despite getting caught in a micro burst that nearly sent a 30'x30' tent sailing over our heads, 100 pound weights and all.

Ah old friend the tornado siren. Unfortunately, the weekend had a wee bit of drama. On Saturday, we'd had a late-day rainstorm, which was unpleasant but short-lived and pretty innocuous. The next day, at around 11:30 am, we received news from the organizers that we should be expecting "some weather" to come through in about 1/2 hour. We expected the same short rainstorm we'd experienced on Saturday, located our plastic sheets for quick recovery, and went about our business. At 12:30, it started to drizzle, so we covered the books. At 12:40, the sky opened up and the wind swirled up violently, ripping the tarp off the tables of the seller in the tent across the way. We secured our tarps just in time to see one of the 30'x30' tents in the street start to lift off, moving towards us. As it moved, it exposed more of the next tent to the wind, knocking down several bookcases and causing it to start to move as well.

This was about when I realized that this was no normal storm. The tents at this fair are provided by the city and they are not lightweight. They are also weighed down by 55 gallon drums on each corner. Later that day, I tried to move one of the drums and couldn't budge it at all. So this was some Major Wind. When the tent started moving across the street, my sister and Dirk both raced over to help hold it down. Between the two of them, they probably saved it from taking off, 55 gallon drums and all. As it was, the tent had moved about 10 feet to one side. The seller at the tent next door lost considerable stock when the bookcases blew over--I would guess that the weekend was more-or-less a loss for them. Fortunately, our table was shielded from the worst of the wind--a considerable bit of luck, since the sellers at the table 20 feet down the street from us were close enough to the cross street to get blown to shreds. They had actually closed up shop before the storm started because the fair-weather wind was so bad that bystanders were having to hold down the books for them during gusts.

As is usually the case with this kind of storm, the drama was done after about 15 minutes--by which I mean that we were left with pouring rain and lightning, rather than pouring rain, lightning, AND gale-force winds. So we decided that maaaaaybe we should go get some lunch. After lunch, we wandered back to the booth, figuring that the fair would be pretty much over, of the tents NEARLY TOOK OFF. But when we got there, we found a guy waiting for us in the still-drizzling rain, in the hopes that he could buy two of our VHS tapes.

Yes, you heard right. He was waiting--in the rain--to buy two VHS tapes. Tapes that, at that point, we would have been perfectly happy to seen stolen. Moreover, contrary any kind of logic, we did a brisk business for the rest of the day. Who'd have thought?

(By the way, this weekend marks the second (maybe third, if you count sandstorms) time in my life that I've been stuck outside in severe weather. Someday I'll have to tell you about being in a tent during a tornado, which is bit more dramatic.)

Anyway...Ross and I didn't leave the fair empty-handed (how could we?) and and despite feeling like a bit of a book-glutton, I can't help bragging about our great finds. So here's a list of our aquisitions...

From the Art Institute's damaged and overstocked table:

From the movable type seller:
  • Numbers 0-9 in various fonts ($5 total--wood type)
  • Two parentheses, a colon, a curly bracket and a large skinny X ($7 total--metal type that we will use to make a little text guy with a mustache and eyebrows--just think about it for a moment)
  • A type drawer ($20--Ross is going to use this to hold his burgeoning collection of star wars!)

From an art-on-paper dealer:
This was the deal of the century. We were browsing through the bins at a tent selling a variety of art works on paper. Most of them were cut from books or magazines (which we refuse to buy on principle--don't cut up books!), but in one bin marked "African American Artists" we found a whole mess of original, signed(!) woodblock prints from an artist named E.W. Washington. I haven't been able to find anything about him online, but his work looks a bit like the illustrations in Lynd Ward's wordless books. The prints are from about the same era as the wordless books--1917 through 1940--and while they aren't quite as good as Lynd Ward, they are still pretty amazing. We paid less than $70 for three prints.

From Drawn and Quarterly:
3 graphic novels for $36. It's a bit unclear exactly how much of a discount we got. After the big storm, Ross asked if they were selling for retail (Drawn and Quarterly tends to be more expensive than most graphic novel publishers). The two guys behind the table looked at each other, shrugged, and said "How about...half off?" We snapped up three books before they had a chance to change their minds.

And finally, some things that we didn't get:
  • A field guide for US troops in Australia (1942) (the same time my grandfather would have been there--but $15 was too much)
  • A number of pages cut from Lynd Ward books (don't cut up books!)
When what the last time YOU sold nearly a half ton of books?

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