A social event where books are sold

2019 Vermont Summer Books and Ephemera Fair comes to Bennington

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BENNINGTON - There's an old saying advising us that we can't buy happiness, but we can buy books, and that's kind of the same thing.

Buying an old or collectible book, while still offering up a potential reading experience, often has other intrinsic and sentimental value past just what's between the covers.

These two great bibliophile notions will converge from all over the state of Vermont in Bennington on Sunday, Aug. 11 at the 2019 Vermont Summer Books and Ephemera Fair.

The fair, which is sponsored by the Vermont Antiquarian Bookseller's Association (VABA), will be held from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at Grace Christian School.

John Hess, owner of Catamount Books in nearby Arlington, said that at last count there will be between 12 and 15 book and ephemera dealers on hand, and all carry a variety of past treasures such as maps, postcards, letters, prints and other such gems.

"All books are priced, which can usually be negotiated, but sometimes not," Hess said. "You could wait until the end of the fair and possibly get a great deal, but that item might be sold earlier in the day."

Given this occasional bazaar-like vibe, one might think a book fair is like a flea market. That's an incorrect assumption, said Ben Koenig, owner of The Country Bookshop in Plainfield.

One of the greatest benefits of attending such a fair, Koenig said, is that dealers have thoughtfully curated their inventory for the show. And the value, he insists, goes beyond just making a sale.

"The antiquarian book business has gone through many changes in the 42 years that I have been doing this," Koenig said. "However, one thing remains the same. We are finding and preserving pieces of history which might otherwise be discarded forever."

Koenig said he once found a postcard signed by Wilbur Wright at the bottom of a trash heap in an old barn, a discovery he called "priceless." Such moments arm dealers with knowledge they are happy to share, he said.

"I've been able to tell the children of collectors just how important were the books their parents collected," Koenig said. "I've educated librarians about why certain of their books should not be discarded. I've helped individuals and institutions to discover the value of their collections."

Shifting tides

As antique book sellers have retired, many have found no takers for their businesses, and closed their doors for good. The Internet has taken a toll, though many used/antiquarian booksellers have also turned their inventories online.

Others find a middle road or are able to continue because of low overhead situations or second careers, among other reasons.

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Ryan Appel, seasonal manager at Now and Then Books in Bennington, said the store remains "old school" and discontinued its online sales years ago, opting instead to target peak foot traffic only between Memorial Day and Labor Day, leaf season in early fall, and between Thanksgiving and New Year's Day, for a total open time of about five months a year - sometimes less.

Appel, a computer engineering major at Rochester Institute of Technology, manages the store during his school vacations. He said it's difficult for antique book stores to survive, since "in this new age of access people can get whatever they want when they want to, and they don't even need to step outside their door."

"This particular open shop needs people who want to walk in and find something they've never seen before, but they're becoming all the less common" Appel said. "These stores have owners with passion. It's not a money maker. Once they can't afford it anymore it's hard to say how many will remain."

In Arlington, Hess, who has been in the business for more than two decades, had an open shop for about two years before closing it due to lack of foot traffic and sales.

"I'm currently retrenching at home in my barn, where I will be selling mostly online," Hess said. "The Internet has certainly cut into the local market. It's hard to tell what you are getting online. Some Internet sellers are very optimistic in their book condition descriptions."

Another factor, Hess continued, is that there are "so many books out there, and it's very easy for a bookseller to get loaded up on unsellable books."

A positive view

Despite these difficult times for the industry, Patty McWilliams, owner of Hermit Hill Books in Poultney is one of the dealers attending the show whose brick and mortar store is doing well.

"The hardest part of having a used-antiquarian bookstore in this day and age is trying to keep it fresh and exciting," McWilliams said. "You don't want it to look old, even if what you're selling is. I've noticed recently that I am getting more 20 to 30 year-olds in browsing. A very welcome sight."

McWilliams said that attending shows is all "about celebrating the world of the book, sharing stories with fellow dealers, colleagues and book lovers. It's a social event with the added benefit of selling books."

"This year, I'll be bringing a lovely collection of first edition 'Wizard of Oz' books that I just picked up," McWilliams said. "Also, a first edition of Seuss's 'Green Eggs and Ham,' with a dust jacket. This book had gotten buried in the back room, under a pile of old magazines. I recently uncovered it and discovered I had a gem."

Hess agreed with McWilliams, saying that he continues to participate in book fairs because they help him stay in touch with both individual collectors and other book dealers.

"Maintaining a brick and mortar bookshop, even if now in my barn and selling mostly online, gives me a ready supply of books," Hess said. "The book fairs put me in touch with customers that I don't see in my shop. But most importantly, book fairs are just plain fun."

Telly Halkias is an award-winning freelance journalist, and a VABA member who neither participates in its annual fairs, nor received VABA compensation for this article. Contact him at tchalkias@aol.com, or on Twitter @Telly Halkias.


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