Dealers returned to the 30th edition of the Chelsea Book Fair for the first time since 2019 on April 29-30.
The event, which is organised by the Antiquarian Booksellers Association at Chelsea Old Town Hall, is traditionally held in November but took the spring slot, leaving some breathing room for Firsts which this year takes place in September 15-18 at the Saatchi Gallery.
Despite following hot on the heels of the ABAA New York International Antiquarian Book Fair and coinciding with a Bank Holiday weekend, most traders reported lots of visitors and steady – if not necessarily heady – sales.
“The fair is small and the costs are low”, said Nigel Talbot of Grosvenor Prints. “It’s really a trade fair for us in a wonderful room with an informal and relaxed feel.”
His sales included one to a new collector: a framed engraving of Sancho, the gun dog owned by amateur cricketer and horse breeder Sir John Shelley. It was offered framed for £360.
Organisers hailed the return while admitting there was room for growth: “While 2022 did not beat 2019 in terms of visitor attendance, it did put up a good fight with a reduction of 16%. However, advance online sales for 2022 showed an increase of 18%. The shortfall in physical visitors combined with the reduction in exhibitors measured against the increase in online sales suggests the effects of Covid are still being felt.”
They added that the median sales figure per dealer was £4500, with the highest single exhibitor takes of £31,000 and £28,000.
Graham York, chair of the book fair committee said: “The two top sales figures must be among the highest ever at Chelsea, proving the demand for higher-priced items along with the lower-priced items that constitute the bulk of our sales.”
This was the fair’s first staging since the pandemic began. It was also the first since the introduction of Brexit regulations, and it was this, even more than sales, that had dealers talking. Marc and Marcia Harrison of Harrison Hiett Rare Books, who moved from the UK to the Netherlands five years ago following the referendum, were one of only a handful overseas traders to attend. The difficulty is the rolls of red tape.
“Brexit has massively affected us”, they said, describing the arduous process of transporting books themselves rather than through shippers. It required recording item by item the stock they transported to the fair – a total of 347 books, pictures and lithographs each with a name, number and value. Ultimately, they moved their items across the border twice successfully.
“It has cost €250, much chewing of nails but no actual problems”, they said. “No one ever asked to look at anything, but we were ready if they did.”
Fellow European dealer Alessando Borgato came from Italy and was fortunate enough to have a supply of stock in the UK from previous events, but he predicted that it will be expensive and difficult in future. “Brexit is very negative for the trade”, he added. “London was one of the most important places, a hub for booksellers. Now it will be a place to avoid.”
Hampshire dealer Clare Trimming of Beaux Books said that Brexit had meant fewer sales to the continent, with European trade more or less drying up since the introduction of regulations.
Whether it had a direct impact on dealers’ bottom lines at Chelsea is harder to judge. Trimming was also pleased to report plenty of selling to private clients and dealers, and said that, post-Covid, much of the stock on offer was quite fresh.
James Hallgate of Lucius Books also reported that it was a good fair, “quite buzzy” with “lots of local people”.
“The world has certainly changed”, he added. “The pandemic pushed many more customers and dealers online.” But he added that there is still a clear place for book fairs, which give traders a chance to meet a huge range of collectors – including newcomers who arrive without a clear idea of what they want.
Another aspect that seems not to have changed since 2019 is the quest for the unique. First or early editions – harder to source before the trade first went online – used to be enough.
Now collectors seek out books that have something extra – the dust jacket, the signed or association copy. Among Lucius’ sales, for example, was a copy of From Station to Station: Travels with David Bowie 1973-1976. It was signed by both Bowie and coauthor Geoff Maccomack. Hallgate added: “The trade has constantly changed over the past 30 years, and we are constantly tweaking how we do business.”