Book Browsing Under the Sun

MOST summer days, Copley Square in Boston's Back Bay attracts three groups of people: office workers eating brown-bag lunches by the fountain, teenage boys skateboarding on the sidewalk, and sun-lovers relaxing on the grass.

For two days in June, this urban oasis also draws another crowd: book-buyers attending the Boston Book Fair. Part literary marketplace, part open-air festival, the free event offers a lively combination of books, music, and literary performances.

Here in the weekend sunshine, this year's 40,000 fairgoers, including 1,000 students bused in from 12 public schools, could wander through more than 100 booksellers' and publishers' booths, set up under yellow-and-white canopies. They could also listen to a 17-piece jazz band, hear to children perform readings, and attend panel discussions on poetry and mysteries.

"It's a marvelous idea, especially for children," says Juan Plascencia of Grolier Poetry Book Shop in Cambridge, Mass. "They see other people browsing, as opposed to merely going to the library, which sometimes seems rather sterile. You see people interested in books in a different environment."

Across the country, from San Francisco to Nashville and from Chicago to Miami, book fairs like this one are bringing booksellers, publishers, and readers together in innovative ways. Not all are outdoor events. But whatever the setting, organizers hope they will spark interest in reading, perhaps drawing people who never visit bookstores or libraries.

Some fairs also serve a charitable purpose. Boston's, for instance, benefits Reading Is Fundamental Inc., the nation's largest literacy program for children. Sponsors and participants donated an estimated $22,000 in cash and books to the program.

Explaining the success of this year's fair, director Michael Quinlin says, "The public response was great. Booksellers did a very brisk trade. It gives them a chance to showcase their specialties, and to do it in an environment where people wouldn't traditionally go to buy books - namely, a park."

For bookstores, these fairs provide access to new customers. "We had a lot of contact during the year with teachers and parents who came to the store because they had seen us at the book fair," says Leslie Browman, manager of Savanna Books in Cambridge, a store specializing in books about children of color.

For some customers, the open-air setting offers definite advantages. Christina Shuman of Sharon, Mass., sits on the grass reading a new copy of "The Very Hungry Caterpillar" to her three-year-old son and one-year-old daughter. "We've borrowed this from the library, but now we have our own autographed copy," Mrs. Shuman explains. Referring to the fair, she adds, "This is great. It's a nice thing to do for a day."

Here, as elsewhere, everyone loves a bargain. The busiest cash registers are those at the Buck A Book booth, which resembles a literary Filene's Basement as customers line up, arms full of new books. ("$1.00 - really!" reads one sign.) Bruce Moyer, owner of the 14-store chain, calls the event a "huge success." He notes that his stall this year is twice as large as the one he rented last year.

Other booksellers have traveled here from other states. Elinor and Ross Howell, owners of Howell Press in Charlottesville, Va., have previously exhibited at a large book fair in Nashville and expect to take part in more regional book shows.

"It's a good way to go directly to the customers," says Mrs. Howell says.

As for the customers, many could echo the message on Mr. Plascencia's T-shirt: "So many books ... so little time."

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