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Fall Book Fairs Attract Readers and Authors

Festivals also give boost to literacy, libraries

By John TessitoreSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / September 29, 1997


Demand for books is never higher than during the fall season, beginning with the back-to-school blitz and ending with the winter holidays.

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To satisfy some of this demand and, in some cases, to parlay enthusiasm for books into enthusiasm for the industry's pet causes, publishers and booksellers set aside the months of September, October, and November for community and consumer book fairs.

This year's crop of fairs, including the Southern Festival of Books, the Rocky Mountain Book Festival, and New York Is Book Country, exhibits a wide variety of formats and themes; but the motivation behind each fair is to bring the written word to an engaged and sympathetic reading community.

The sixth annual Northwest Bookfest, held in Seattle Oct. 25-26, is a good example of the kind of multi-faceted show that has become the standard since the first consumer fairs of the early 1980s. It offers 175 exhibitions, including publisher and bookseller booths, hands-on bookbinding demonstrations, Scrabble tournaments, a children's section, and visits from 200 authors, such as Tobias Wolff, Jamaica Kincaid, and Anita Hill.

"We tried to create for the Northwest a giant celebration of books," says Bookfest director Kitty Harmon.

"We want to acknowledge the importance of reading as an activity that has the power to change people's lives, particularly at a time when electronic media are having a greater effect on people's lives."

The fair's organizers solicit donations from patrons for literacy groups in the region. Last year, the Bookfest raised $35,470 solely from these donations. Other book fairs, like the Texas Book Festival in Austin, are entirely committed to this kind of fund-raising. The Texas Book Festival was able to donate $127,000 to 40 public libraries throughout Texas last year.

Another approach is that of the fair here in New Brunswick, N.J.

The New Jersey fair is not a personality-driven event, as are the Miami and Texas fairs. Author appearances are almost an afterthought. The sponsor of this sixth annual fair, the New Brunswick City Market, is a civic organization with very specific goals for its eight-block event on George Street.

"We are hosting this event to draw people into New Brunswick, to see the wonderful things that have been happening here, and to attract people to come back again," says Christine Whalen, public relations and special events coordinator for the New Brunswick City Market.

With an estimated 20,000 visitors, the single-day event is certainly a successful attraction. But the fair's visitors seem mostly drawn to the books on sale, not the City Market's plans for a revitalized downtown area.

Discount books a big draw

The majority of the exhibitors here are representatives of used bookstores and book remainder warehouses offering hardcover and softcover books for discount prices.

"I'll go to a writer's tent if I know the writer," says Michelle Nichols, a video operator for the New Jersey Sports and Exhibition Authority, who is visiting the fair for the third year in a row. "But I'm a consumer. I'm here to buy."

She holds up two plastic bags loaded with books. "Dr. Seuss for five bucks. The complete Shakespeare for five bucks. Not bad," she says. "It's great for Christmas shopping."

While the remainder tables are doing a brisk business, the few publishing houses attending the fair are satisfied simply with the community-relations opportunities that the fair provides.

Although book fairs are occasionally successful as charity events, these shows do not generate profit for the vast majority of the publishing houses and booksellers who attend. Visitor turnout is high, ranging from the 2,500 people who attended the Small Press Book Fair in Manhattan Sept. 20-21 to the 300,000 people who are expected to attend the Miami Book Fair International Nov. 16 to 23.