Jay Platt is the proprietor of Ann Arbor’s oldest bookshop, West Side Book Shop. He is also the founder of the Antiquarian Book Fair, set for Sunday, May 17th in the Michigan Union. In business nearly 40 years, Jay has seen the rise and fall of national chains, and has sold books with prices ranging from a few dollars to over $37,000. I have loved his bookshop since opening my own just a few blocks away. Though we have different inventory (he sells used books, we sell new) many of our opinions on books and bookselling are similar. One morning, we talked for an hour over coffee about the history and the future of books in Ann Arbor.
Tell me about that first year of the Antiquarian Book Fair.
In the summer of 1976, the American Library Association was having a rare book conference. We said, “Why don’t we put on a book fair for these rare book librarians?” We had 14 dealers and hosted a reception with cheese and wine. They came for the reception, then the next two days we sat around and looked at each other and bought and sold books among ourselves. It was mid-July and we didn’t have air conditioning.
It’s grown from 14 vendors to 40. Do you imagine it growing any more?
Not in size. One year we had 54 dealers, but that was too much. It’s a manageable size. It’s good to have a show that is selective.
What’s been the goal of the Antiquarian Book Fair?
Well, the first ever book fair started in 1960 in New York. The idea was more educational: It was to introduce people to books. Since then, it’s evolved into a selling event. Some of the fairs have workshops, too. Now, it’s partly educational, partly to introduce people to book collecting. I’d like to encourage people to come to it, because a dealer said at one time, “This is the best book shop in the world” Dealers bring the best books, and it’s a great way to see interesting things. I never know what people are going to bring. There are always surprises.
It seems not everyone has subscribed to the “digital age.” Do customers comment on e-readers when they come into your store?
I don’t like e-readers and don’t use them. I think it’ll replace a certain type of book, but from a book collector point of view, you can’t collect [e-readers]. The physical book is important to a lot of people and I think it always will be. I have a sign in the shop that says something to the effect, “Just like the wheel, you can’t improve a book as a technology.” A book is a book. When I give talks on book collecting, I say, “Here’s a technology you can go back 500 years ago and know how to use it. And conversely, someone from 500 years ago could come here and know how to use it.”
You’ve been around the longest of any current bookstore proprietor. What’s been the biggest surprise over the past 40 years in terms of the book industry here in Ann Arbor?
Borders started as a used store. I’ve known Tom and Louis Borders since 1971 when they opened a used bookstore on William Street, then on State Street. That store evolved and how it grew and became a powerhouse. My feeling is when they ran it, they had back stock and a knowledgeable staff. When K-Mart bought it, that went out the window. The back stock was minimal and they were carrying teddy bears. The staff was too much on computers. In the end, it was a surprise to see the rise and fall of Borders.
Is it more difficult to find the rare or used books that you want?
Every dealer is afraid they are going to run out of books. This has been a complaint going back as long as there has been a book trade. “There are no good books anymore!”
Do you think there will be fewer bookstores in Ann Arbor 10 years from now?
If I had to make a prediction, I would say, that’s true. With used bookstores, stores seldom survive. It happens occasionally, a store will get sold, but that’s really rare. Sometimes a son or a daughter will take over. But in most cases, stores don’t outlive their owners. The way of entering the business has changed. Too many people rely on selling online as opposed to the physical act of selling books.
What’s the future of the Antiquarian Book Fair?
As long as I want to do it, I’ll do it. I’m not sure if anyone would like to take it over. Oddly enough, I had a dream last night, it was almost like a nightmare, that the fair was a disaster. No one showed up. The dealers were angry. Everyone was angry two hours into the show. I dream a lot about books.
Antiquarian Book Fair, Sunday, May 17, 11am-5pm, Ballroom of the Michigan Union, 530 S. State St,
Ann Arbor. annarborbookfair.com