The Printer’s Row Book Fair is always an incredible event and, this year, again lived up to its reputation. It’s the Midwest’s largest outdoor book and author festival, which cannot be rivaled. Printer’s Row is great because it brings all the elements of the book world together; there are self-publishers, big name stores (Powell’s, Barnes and Noble, Borders) and the used and antiquarian dealers, as well as amazing authors. As a bookseller with booth space at this event it is always hard to spend a lot time attending all the readings and signings offered, but still the added element they bring to the book fair always adds interest.
The management of Printer’s Row Book Fair was taken over this year from The Burnham Park Planning Board (a neighborhood association) by the able staff of the Chicago Tribune. The promotion the fair received by having the connections with the city’s largest distributed daily paper was certainly advantageous. Exhibitors were given a slick comb bound booklet as our “Exhibitor Manual” which provided detailed instructions for participation. The staff on hand at the fair site did a great job of solving problems quickly, but there were a few glitches. For instance, when we arrived we had been given a one-table booth instead of the two tables that we had ordered. Nothing makes a bookseller panic like trying to figure out how to put two vanloads of books onto one 8 ft table! All was shortly solved, though, and the unloading could begin.
Printer’s Row is an outdoor book fair that stretches for three blocks in down Dearborn Street in front of Dearborn Station in Downtown Chicago. This year there were 46 20′ X 20′ canopies, with sellers on all four sides of each tent. Plus, many dealers were allowed to set up on the sidewalks along Dearborn Street. There are hundreds of booksellers and publishers to peruse. It’s amazing the sheer variety of all the books and items being offered.
Since Printer’s Row is outdoors, being prepared for the onslaught of the elements is a must for antiquarian and used booksellers. The sun can be pretty damaging on books, as well as so many customers (estimates at 20,000 each day) handling your books, not to mention the wind factor. Since there are tall buildings all around, the wind can whip through the streets quite fiercely. One year, I recall we wore long johns and gloves. You can go from wearing sandals and sundress to sweatshirts and jeans in the course of the day, so layers and alternative gear is always required.
Saturday there were numerous author signings, including such luminaries as former Clinton Administration official Sidney Blumenthal and graphic novelist Neil Gaiman. There was a Poetry Tent, a Culinary tent where hot and trendy chefs give food demos as well as sign their latest books, and Panels on literary theory and surrealism were presented. This book fair has much to offer young and old alike. Gems for the causal reader or advanced collector could be found.
After the booths were all secured for evening, (most used and rare dealers leave their books wrapped and tarped for the night) and the security starting roaming the streets, we headed up to the VIP tent party for a bite to eat after a busy day. Sponsored by Powell’s and the Tribune, the food was catered by Bar Louie, a popular eatery in nearby Dearborn Station. The thrill of the party was that we spotted Canadian literary legend Margaret Atwood mingling.
As for Sunday… Day Two of the Adventure-
It started out slow and but soon the pace picked up and there was brisk selling until the rains came at about 1:30 in the afternoon. Torrential rain poured down and first we thought it would go away, but it didn’t. A quick tour down the street proved that many colleagues were packing up and heading out; no one wants to sit around for three more hours in the rain, and once the rain started, most of the casual customers dispersed into the local eateries along the book fair route for protection.
Some sellers are very innovative when it comes to protecting their wares. One seller used vinyl shower curtains to close off his tent from the rain on Sunday afternoon. Others used plastic tarps and sheeting. We made a giant baggy of our bookcases, which were just enough inside the canopy to be protected. The book fair did provide an each table a flimsy plastic covering but that was not enough to protect some sellers. Many began close up shop early, but there were some issues with booksellers driving their vans into the booth areas while the fair was still going on. However, when the rain refused to let up, the fair management allowed sellers to load out.
It always rains on Sunday at Printer’s Row, but usually it happens just shortly before the closing and is a short burst rather than the prolonged downpour experienced this year. Many sellers were stuck; it was too wet to even leave the protection of the canopy at times. But luckily the rain didn’t stop all the customers, and some of the dedicated ones were still trying to look at books under plastic sheeting and behind the protection of a shower curtain.
All in all a rainy and wet success, and we look forward the adventure again next year, because–admit it, we like the punishment we get from doing such a book fair. It’s fun, you meet interesting people and you sleep really, really well on Sunday night.