New York is Still Book Country

I’ve received a few e-mails regarding the post of last week regarding “What Will Happen to Bookstores” (though I would advise and ask that these comments be made in the Blog itself. That’s the way it works, campers.)

I think of the issues raised in that post as I write this particular week’s comment because this was the weekend that the “New York is Book Country” book fair used to take place. There’s a connection between my concern about the future of bookstores and the story of what happened to that book fair.

The New York is Book Country (NYIBC) book fair had been around for some 25 years and it was one of the events in the book calendar that I would wait for with great anticipation. It wasn’t always easy for me to attend this event: it sometimes fell on one of the Jewish High Holy Days (and, during the the time I was a rabbi of a synagogue, my employers/congegregants frowned on my puting in for vacation time just then); sometimes I lived in Boston or the western suburbs of Philadelphia; and sometimes, I was just not paying attention and I missed it. But at least a dozen times over the year, I walked down Fifth Avenue and browsed and chatted with book dealers and authors. If you would like to see what it was like, there was a nice description of the 2003 event, I believe the last one held on Fifth Avenue (between roughly 47th and 54th Streets), that appeared in the IOBA Standard. It’s at:

http://www.ioba.org/newsletter/archive/v13/rfl3.php

That year, an anthology appeared of 25 years of talks, reminiscences and observations under the title, Metrpolis Found–you can see it at:

http://www.amazon.com/Metropolis-Found-Country-Anniversary-Collection/dp/0974061409/ref=sr_1_3/103-9744672-8575848?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1190731058&sr=8-3

The 1999 event was probably its high point, with an appearance by Laura Bush and many authors giving readings and the most intense participation of the Library of Congress in the event. You can see what the LOC had to say about that event at:

http://www.loc.gov/loc/lcib/0001/cfb.html

Really, the event was going well and the only question people had about it was would the weather hold up. Some of the posters created to promote the Fair were real keepers: Maurice Sendak created two of them that became classic:

Sendak NYIBC Poster-01

Everybody seemed to be having a good time. Sure, New York was still reeling from 9/11 and from a blackout, and everybody was concerned about what the Internet was going to do to books and bookselling. But all that was forgotten as soon as people came in contact with the books and the stalls on Fifth Avenue.

It looked like the event would continue and grow, as institutions (for that is what the Fair has become–a New York instituion) are supposed to do.

But then something happened. It’s not exactly clear who did what–a lot of the moves were made behind closed doors, and besides, what’s the difference? The fact is that the Fair made a disastrous move to Washington Square Park–really at the urging of the Parks Commissioner, who assured the Fair’s Board and director that the Fair would find a more congenial home there and would get some real support and promotion by the city, neither of which ever materialized. Instead the Fair was met with hostile neighbors and community protest over the “clutter” and congestion that the Fair was creating in the streets. The tone of the protest was so high-pitched, that I often thought that my mother (by then gone a few years) was leading the protesters in chants of “dust collectors; dust collectors; dust collectors.” They weren’t chanting that–but they were chanting in protest and got the City to withdraw its support in a New York minute as soon as they perceived that the Fair was unpopular with the locals. (Incidentally, if anyone has a different view of these events, or can amplify and explain some things, I’d love to hear from you. My own opinions are based on conversations with people high up in the organization and in related professional offices–many of whom were hard to find and reluctant to discuss this.)

But wait! Here comes the cavalry–in the person of the New York Times. The Times offered to take over the whole shebang and run the thing–the Board couldn’t pack their bags fast enough and headed for the next stage out of town. The Times took over, and proceeded to make the following changes:

• The event would be promoted as a New York Times event in the context of the Times Talks events that take place at the CUNY Graduate Center and Symphony Space. This meant that the Times would select the speakers and manage the entire content of the event–not any book sellers.

• In fact, there wouldn’t be any booksllers. The books on sale would be handled exclusively by Barnes & Noble. Gone were the stalls and the ramshackle booths–and all those scruffy, wizened dealers, authors and bookpeople.

• The Event would be held in Bryant Park, now no longer a property of the NYPL, but privately owned and operated. (Did you know that?)

•The Event would be scheduled for–whenever those running it (which now included Target) thought best, which means, it had to fit into the schedule that the Times felt was best for the promotion of its program.

All that may be fine, and I have enjoyed and apppreciate the Times Talks program. Been to several of them myself. But what we are also left with is this: Cleveland has a book fair; Houston has a book fair; Seattle has a book fair; Miami has a book fair–all the major and many of the smaller cities have book fairs–even Brooklyn has its own book fair; you can read about it at:

http://onlytheblogknowsbrooklyn.typepad.com/only_the_blog_knows_brook/2006/05/brooklyn_book_f.html

All these places have book fairs, BUT NEW YORK DOESNT HAVE A BOOK FAIR!

And I miss it. We all do–and we need one now more than ever! So here is what I am proposing: That we revive this idea. That we create a new effort and call it NEW YORK IS STILL BOOK COUNTRY. (It doesn’t have to be something that starts entirely fron scratch, incidentally. The former director told me the booths, signage and paraphenalia is all in storage and, as Thurber said about his letters, “available as Hell” and ours for the asking.)

How do people out there feel about htis? Do you remember the NYIBC Fairs of the past? Care to share any mamories of those events? And, most imporant, would you join an effort to get a new Fair–New York is Still Book Country--off the ground? Let me know. The real people who have an interest in this are the bookdealers of New York, and particularly the book dealers of Manhattan. Are there any independent bookdealers left in Manhattan? Of course there are, and their book stores are a great asset to the city. They have got to be instumental in this effort if it has a chance of succeeding. And the same is true of all those internet book merchants in apartments and co-ops all over the place–I know your out there (because I bought and sold books galore from and to you. No point hiding–not from me.)

So let’s start talking about this, shall we? I’d hate to look like an idiot when I ride a horse draped in medieval gear and me wearing knights armor, brandishing a huge pencil instaed of a lance, and a large book instead of a shield, riding down Fifth Avenue promoting the New York is Still Book Country Book Fair. And if I do look like an idiot, I’d hate to look like an idiot all alone.

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6 Responses to “New York is Still Book Country”


  1. 1 Heather October 16, 2007 at 3:05 pm

    So *that* is what happened to NYIBC.

  2. 2 Idetrorce December 16, 2007 at 4:52 am

    very interesting, but I don’t agree with you
    Idetrorce

  3. 3 Maximus December 20, 2007 at 12:51 pm

    I would like to see a continuation of the topic

  4. 4 Jason May 24, 2008 at 7:59 am

    The NY is Book Country Fair was something I looked forward to every, year. I know a lot of people in the younger generation who would be very interested in seeing this make a return. I could make some announcement on facebook and myspace to drum up support. I would love to help bring this beloved event back. Let me know how I can be of assistance.

  5. 5 Cuthbert September 19, 2008 at 6:37 pm

    Just (Friday Sept. 19 2008)received an e mail from Books Of Wonder/Peter Glassman stating that New York Is Book Country IS BACK
    Sunday, September 21st 2008!!

  6. 6 Cleveland Wall September 14, 2010 at 5:23 pm

    Thanks for telling the story. I was stunned to find no book fair AND no explanation at the New York Is Book Country site. I live in Pennsylvania, so would not be able to organize a revival, but if somebody does I will surely turn up for it.


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