My First Book Fair: A San Francisco Fairy Tale


Kara McLaughlin

Kara McLaughlin

I thought I knew what to expect from my ‘first’ fair. From a visitor’s perspective, I had a visual and sensory expectation set, which went something like: heavy lifting, eight-hours standing, casual browsers, heavy hitters, high rollers, soft selling, gentle banter, brain teasing questions, booth memory game, occasional water breaks, invoice writing, rinse, repeat.

All true. But I missed an important piece to the puzzle: it’s a love story.

Some time ago, some century or decade past, our story begins with a font’s impression, a pen’s flourish. The object of affection: bound, free or gathered, emerges and makes its way through the hands of time and man, until we are here at this moment. Now the dispensary of art, beauty, and the word awaits discovery. Thus the courtship begins.

photo 2The keeper of these, bookseller and custodian, now must take a trip through his vault of treasures and begin the process of choosing the books, broadsides and manuscripts to display like a peacock’s tail. It’s quite an exciting task actually, especially when surrounded by endless shelves of relevant beauties like those at Tavistock Books. When you’re new and over-thinking everything, it’s challenging, but at the end of the day a portable, miniature vignette of wares must be decided on and boxed.

Time to decorate for company. Counting down to their arrival, books are gently upwrapped, paired with easels and shelves as they find their way into context and storyline. How does this guest become drawn in? The lures: visual, sensory and tactile – the cadence and tone of the siren’s song.

The bacchanalian stage is readied, the curtains rise: seekers descend and set forth, clutching maps, on a quest for their object of longing. Hopes high for literary intervention and sated appetites.

Some liltingly run their eyes across the general culture of the booth and move quickly on. Some are captured by a shelf, a book propped open to an illustration that tempts. Some resist, but some fall madly. I sent a personal friend (a first time fair visitor) to wander about, and my counsel was this: Allow yourself to take in the macro, then slowly attune to the micro. A cacophony of spines and text slowly filters into meaning and recognition, look close and see.. a shelf, book. Then really look. Start a conversation and listen – what is the book whispering to you? Asking of you? Stirring in you?

A young, dynamic, lovestruck couple strolled in on Sunday, and some of Vic’s ‘Books on Books’ reference titles got piled up for purchase. Their heads were clear and they were making sober choices. But then: the siren called. A lush, richly and naturally buffed leather Bible, in Gaelic, spoke to them, haunted them with font and form – love at first sight. Two visitations and a couple of gold coins later, and they rode off into the sunset together.

One morning, a seasoned, perhaps jaded, lover of the book strode in, and again, and again. He visited perhaps three times – caressing and courting one particular San Francisco journal that he coveted. He was a collector of loves, had 60 of the same title in different manifestations, but was missing this particular binding color. Butterflies will be caught and pinned – the suitor would have his way, and he did.

A green eyed, mature beauty who had suffered love and loss in the flesh spent time with us one day. She had become a lover of Fine Press titles, a new fascination and friend to her, something to adore and cherish, somewhere to pour the love that once poured out. She sought much from the book but as well in the company kept. Here, the custodians and fellow lovers are all in communion – she found solace in this love story.

Thus, with naive eyes I witnessed, in the course two rich, influential days, the stories not of the written page -but of those inked upon the human heart. As we rolled up our tents and caravan, I slept dreaming of the tales yet to be spoken and discovered. Such to be spun not by tradesmen, but by talismen, as we administer the rites for lovers and seekers.

Dreamers, hope! The muse awaits.

The Standard: The Journal of the Independent Online Booksellers Association

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