Wilfrid M. de Freitas - Bookseller

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Book Fairs 101
A How-to Handbook for Book Fair Exhibitors

By Susan Ravdin

Part 7
Now That the Fair is Open ...

Well, the fair's now open. In the past there was usually a good line-up at every fair, but more recently people seem to be more laid back about opening times. That may be a reflection on the economy, or maybe people are just more relaxed these days and no longer fear that their competition will beat them to the best books. Whatever the reason, this seems to have become the new norm at most smaller or regional fairs. Don't worry, though, the real book lovers, the keeners, the true collectors will come; they just don't want to stand in line so they'll time their arrival accordingly.

The question is, will you have what people want? More than that, if they want what you have, will they be willing to spend the price you're asking? And if they aren't, will you still be smiling as they leave your booth empty handed? I can't tell you how often someone has said to me, "You have the best things here!" (read: "You have the things that most interest me") and then walk away empty handed. I can't take that personally - it isn't a rejection, it's just a reality. So I just smile and say, "Thank you."

I've often been heard to say that I meet some of the most interesting people at book fairs: strange, odd, fascinating, fixated, focussed, engaging, unconventional, talkative, charming, peculiar, likeable, funny, funky, weird, bright or just plain bookish are all terms I've used singly or in combination to describe them - phew. And I always enjoy meeting them. OK, sometimes I need to be gotten out of a conversation that's just plain gone on too long, or reached the bizarre stage, but for the most part I learn so much from my customers, most of it interesting or entertaining, some of it arcane and esoteric, but all of it worth tucking away for future reference. After all, this business is all about knowing something your competition doesn't, so why not take advantage of what's being offered?

So what advice can I give you in dealing with the public, especially since so much of this will be driven by your own persona and style?

Always seem interested in your customers

I know it's really tough to keep your energy up through all the hours of the fair, especially as it gets towards closing or if you've not sold much that day, but remember that each new visitor to your booth is an opportunity. Make eye contact with them and, if given a chance, greet them. If you sit reading a book, playing with your iPhone, or avoiding eye contact, customers may assume you're unapproachable and walk away without asking the question that might have led to a sale. If you look accessible and are willing to chat, they can ask about your stock, and may be persuaded to actually buy a book. (One caveat: Wilfrid once scared away a certain publicity-shy celebrity book collector in Los Angeles just by saying "Hello"; sadly, the celebrity needn't have worried ... Wilfrid had no idea who he was.)

I've actually walked away from an interesting book when, unable to find the price, I was also unable to get the dealer to look up - when asked directly, he seemed to actually resent being interrupted. His newspaper was more important than my interest in his stock! Not good! No sale ... at any price.

Remember all collectors were newbies once ...

First time attendees are a valuable commodity, as they are the future of collecting and our future customers. Encouraging the interest of someone who's attending his first bookfair, sharing your knowledge with him, and helping him to take home something he'll treasure, will bring him back next year and may be the trigger that turns him into a true collector. Or, perhaps, that should be "her", "she" and "hers" - it doesn't hurt to encourage more women to collect. Although most collectors are men, and they often comment that they need to sneak their latest purchase past their wives, more and more of the younger attendees are enthusiastic women who are still learning about the books that interest them.

I've spoken to young couples who are afraid to touch things, and encouraged them by showing them how to handle my books - and I'm not alone in this, I've watched many colleagues do the same. So, take something off your shelves and assure potential collectors that we, booksellers in general, will happily show them things that catch their eye whether or not they can currently afford them. After all, as I like to say, how can they covet something if they've never seen it, let alone touched it? After all, marketers say that touch is a powerful tool in selling, as it implies possession and encourages desire. And isn't that what we want to do?

To close or not to close ...

Every customer wants to think s/he hasn't missed anything special - that what s/he wants is just waiting there to be found. So what do you do if the book you just sold leaves a gap? or if customers have moved things around? or just generally messed things up? Opinions vary about whether one should straighten up, close up gaps on the shelves or fill empty stands.

Some dealers feel that if the customer sees an empty space it means s/he's missed something special, so there must be good stuff in this booth and it deserves careful attention. These dealers don't mind leaving one or two gaps, or even letting things look decidedly picked over. Personally, I'm of the opinion that no one should think they've missed that one serendipity find they've been hoping for, so I close up all gaps, fill all empty spaces, and generally do what my mother used to call "futzing" (a.k.a. straightening everything up). There's probably a happy medium that will fit your style; I leave the choice to you, as long as it's a considered one. The people I really don't understand are the ones that never seem to do anything, leaving all the books just where the customers dropped them, with the booth getting messier and messier, and less and less organized -- But that's me.

Let's make a deal!

Yes, there are those customers that won't make a purchase unless they feel they've beaten you down - too much Market Warriors or Let's Make a Deal influence. How you deal with them is up to you, my only advice is to take into account how they approach you. If they are polite and ask nicely, a small concession may make the sale. If they're rude and boorish, all gloves are off (one man threw a book in front of me and asked "What's your real price?" to which I longed to answer "Twice what's on it", but I held my tongue, opened the book and read off the marked price, much to his annoyance). So know how badly you want to sell the book, and what you're willing to put up with to do so. It's a delicate balance, but remember s/he may be back next year for another round!

We're up against the wall ... er, web

These days, half the customer have the web at their fingertips thanks to phones and tablets, and they will use them, often in your booth, right in front of you. Some are looking in their private databases, others are comparing prices, and we know which are which. But it's the reality of this new world, and we can't fight it; the internet has changed our business and, whether we like it or not, it's here to stay and we have to adapt to it.

So be prepared to back up your stock, justify your prices and answer the indignant "I can get that book for $5 on ABE!" comment. Take a deep breath and explain why the $5 book on the web isn't the same as the one in your booth, and why you have to charge sales tax (our answer is that we don't charge sales tax, we only collect it ...). Explain that when buying a book at the fair, they can see exactly what they're getting with no risk of being stung by misleading or incomplete descriptions, that there's no additional shipping cost, and that they can enjoy their treasure immediately rather than waiting four to twelve days for delivery. Or maybe - if you're lucky - they're looking at the listing of a top end dealer charging premium-plus prices, and you'll only have to explain how you can afford to sell yours for half the price.

When you need the Great Escape ...

Much as I generally enjoy chatting with the public, there are the non-customers who just want to take up my time, the lonely-hearts who come for the company, or the slightly-batty folks who just won't go away when serious customers are waving books they want to buy at me. I can't bring myself to just say "Go Away!" (though I have heard it said). I always try to remember that this year's boor may be (and occasionally is) next year's collector, so what to do?

Once in a while you get trapped by a well-meaning, but tedious member of the public who may or may not have any interest in your stock, and there just seems no polite way out. A signal that lets your partner or neighbour know that you need to be rescued and a technique to effect that escape is invaluable. We have a signal that means "HELP!", and a standard excuse we can use to interrupt in times of desperate need. And we try to be aware of those around us who might need bailing out; in fact, I remember using our technique once to rescue a colleague who was being shown a "customer's" 20+ year-old ballerina photos, and whose eyes had glazed over. He still thanks me for it -10 years later!

The last hour

You know, in every fair the dullest, longest, least interesting time is the last hour. Yes, there are still members of the public in the room, but they're almost all tire kickers and, generally speaking, the dealers outnumber the public by at least two to one and we stand around talking to each other. Still, we have made sales in that last hour, once or twice even substantial sales - one year at the Toronto ABAC fair we made our largest deal of the weekend in the last hour - so we keep on our toes, continue to greet people and hope for another customer to make a purchase.

Many dealers, especially at smaller fairs, begin packing early, sometimes as much as an hour before closing. OK, sometimes they're just picking up tags or gathering stands and bookends, but to the public that looks like they're closing down and customers are no longer welcome in the booth. Some organizers prohibit early packing, threatening to bar dealers who do so from returning; but in the current market, fewer and fewer can afford to do so. I won't presume to tell you what you should or shouldn't do, but consider carefully the message you're sending to potential customers if you do begin early; might they just turn away from your stock altogether?

These are just some of the things that you might want to think about when dealing with the public. In essence, it never hurts to treat your customers as you would want to be treated in a fine restaurant or a high-end boutique. Courtesy and consideration will not only help you to a sale, but will also make our customers feel welcome at the fair, thereby helping us all.

Next up "Beware the thieves!"

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Wilfrid M. de Freitas - Bookseller
P.O. Box 232, Westmount Station
Westmount (Montreal), Quebec, Canada H3Z 2T2
Tel: (514) 935-9581
E-mail: Wilfrid@deFreitasBooks.com

Last updated: 04/02/2017
Site maintained by Susan Ravdin