On the eve of Britain’s largest book fair, Chris Titley talks to one of the organisers about why the printed page remains so popular in these digital times
Once upon a time – well, in 1974 to be precise – a group of booksellers got together to organise a book fair in York. Twenty exhibitors set out their stalls in the White Swan Hotel on Piccadilly and the event was deemed a modest success.
Flick past the intervening chapters and you arrive at the present day. Around 220 exhibitors will take over three floors of the Knavesmire Suite on York Racecourse for two days (September 20-21), showcasing upwards of 100,000 volumes to more than 2,000 visitors.
York National Book Fair is the largest of its kind in Britain. If you like reading, you will find something of interest here.
“If you want to by a £25,000 book, you will be able to find something at the book fair. If you want to spend £5, you can spend £5,” says Janette Ray, who runs her distinctive blue bookshop on Bootham.
“The fair has always catered for different markets. There’s something for everybody.”
In fact, the book fair is aimed at three distinct markets. There’s the trade itself, with antiquarian book specialists always on the look out for something special. “It’s a great platform for them to find undiscovered gems,” Janette said.
Then there are the institutional customers: librarians from the likes of the British Library, various universities or the Royal Institute Of British Architects, on the hunt to fill gaps in their collections.
“And the third and most important market is the public.”
City of books
From those modest beginnings in the White Swan through a residence at the Barbican, the book fair steadily grew. But it was the move to the racecourse which enabled it to expand to its full potential.
“It’s now about the optimum size, which is governed by the amount of books people can physically see,” Janette said. “There’s a saturation point where people feel really overwhelmed.”
Janette, who organisers the event alongside the owners of Ken Spelman Books on Micklegate and Lucius Books on Fossgate, says: “It’s a year in the planning, two days in the execution.”
So why has it become so popular? She has a simple explanation.
“You can’t divorce the size and activity of this book fair with the fact that there is quite a collection of bookshops in York.”
In fact there are ten second hand bookshops in the city. “The dynamics of the book trade in York is quite important,” Janette explains.
“York’s got a reputation for being the centre of the book trade. Alongside the shops in York there’s quite a lot of people working behind closed doors.”
She cites David Chilton, who runs Taikoo Books just up the road on Bootham; he specialises in African and Asian books and trades across the world. Similarly, Jeffrey Stern in Heslington has an “international profile” thanks to his online business in academic titles.
This makes the whole of York “like a book department store divided up into different sections. Then you have big general shops, like Ken Spelman’s, which have all sorts.
“Book fairs mirror that structure of the book trade. Specialists and generalists all in one place.”
Mostly the book trade is a clubbable and collaborative sort of business, but there will be a fair bit of covert surveillance by booksellers at the Knavesmire fair, Janette admits.
“People in the book trade operate in quite a cooperative way – until the competition gets stiff, then it’s each for their own.”
Pricing second hand books is an “opaque area”.
“The price of a book relates to the rarity and condition. If a common book is in a poor condition they’re worth very little. Rare books, if they’re falling apart, it doesn’t matter.”
Like so much of life, the internet has changed the book trade forever. People download books to read on Kindles and tablets.
“For me, the much bigger problem is the internet gives the impression that everything can be researched and found online.
“As somebody who does a lot of research into rare books, that is not the case. You still need reference books.”
Janette is worried about the trend in libraries in York and elsewhere to digitise “relevant” articles from a printed journal before throwing the original away.
And as for those e-readers… “I think Kindles are very good for reading newspapers. But I like paper, and I like reading on paper, and I like books.”
- York National Book Fair is at York Racecourse on Friday, September 20 from noon to 7pm and Saturday, September 21 from 10am to 5pm
- Full details on the book fair website
- See also Six books to buy at York Book Fair
- See also York Book Fair puts the cat amongst the pigeons