Notebook: The Book Fair Returns! (Part Two)

by Ann Kjellberg, editor

Scenes from indie book fairs: (1) one of Lee Burnley’s New York City Book Fairs; (2) the all-time-favorite book of Maria in #301, from an Astoria Bookshop fair; (3) Astoria book fair at Industry Gymnastics in Long Island City; (4) another Lee Burnley book fair; (5) Astoria fair at Long Island City School of Ballet; (6) 57th Street Bookstore fair at the St. Thomas the Apostle School in Hyde Park; (7) Astoria’s Gina Verdi in her guise as a witch, with the Fantastic Mr. Fox (PS 85 in Astoria, photo by Erin Gilbreth). Lee Burnley told Book Post, “I was a control freak about setting them up. I wanted the wow factor” (photographs of children used with permission)

Read Part One of this post here!

A last-(barely)-standing alternative to Scholastic in the school-book-fair domain, and one that has much to offer, is setting up your school book fair with a local (or indeed a distant) independent bookseller. Unlike Scholastic, which delivers a mostly packaged product, an independent can shape the selection to your school’s needs and the recommendations of teachers, librarians, and parents, and can track over the years what worked well and what didn’t for your school. Some offer customized themed pop-up fairs for, say, the science club. Some, like Gina Verdi at our summer partner bookseller Astoria Bookshop, will set up your book fair and be on hand to advise the kids on their choices. Gina has even dressed up as a witch for Halloween. Some use their relationships with authors, especially local ones, to include author appearances. One now-defunct independent book fair company offered teachers and administrators lunch in their warehouse to pick out books. Lee Burnley, who ran New York City Children’s Book Fairs from 2007 to the mid 2010s, coordinated satellite events with the host school, such as a gathering in the morning in which parents met with teachers to discuss reading levels and book recommendations and a cookies-and-milk read-aloud in the evening in pjs with a local illustrator.

For a remote component, or a whole remote fair, some independent booksellers will provide customized web site within their store’s site, or a code that will credit web purchases on their site to your school. Gina’s digital book fairs for Astoria have included a dedicated Zoom hour for answering kids’ questions and kid-generated reviews—written, video, and drawn. Alternatively, some schools are setting up their own portals (like this) on the indie-supporting Amazon alternative, Some booksellers will open the physical store to you for a private on-site event. 

When your school works with a local bookseller, the profits stay in the community and support healthy businesses in your area, messages that are not lost on kids. Kids who have attended Astoria’s book fairs recognize Gina when they come into the store and they seek out the store’s storytimes, giving them an ongoing literary resource and a vehicle for engaged reading even during the pandemic. A book fair becomes a way to talk with kids about who works in the neighborhood. Gina had a project where kids helped each other as book-buddies (and got a sticker) considering their book options and figuring out what they had to spend: it became a little lesson in math and commerce and being a good neighbor. Watchung Booksellers in Montclair, New Jersey, uses book fairs and other community events to help bring diversity and inclusiveness to the larger neighborhood. The Chicago Lab School, which is down the street from our current partner bookseller, 57th Street/Seminary Coop, works with 57th Street to provide book tables at their community events; a member of their PTA told me that Lab School families “love the store and want it to succeed” and trust 57th Street’s familiar booksellers to know what will appeal to kids they see all the time at storytimes and author appearances; they turn down the offer to co-curate and leave the choosing to the staff. For booksellers like Gina and Lee, getting to know the kids and the schools, giving them personalized advice, cultivating a long-term relationship have been the heart of the book fair enterprise.

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Of course these independent operators lack Scholastic’s market leverage and economies of scale—plus the fact that they are by their nature committed to books of quality and supporting authors and the vitality of children’s literature as a whole—so they are not able to offer Scholastic’s rock-bottom prices. Scholastic will not allow you to double-up your fair with a complementary independent, but some schools find a way to work around the prohibition. Others include a book-swap in their book fair, though this too is of course discouraged by Scholastic, so everyone can go home with something. Lee engaged in an ongoing hunt for low-cost remaindered and discounted books that she could offer as part of her fairs. Former bookseller Danika Ellis advocated for book fairs with used bookstores and partnerships with organizations like Reading is Fundamental that give away books for free. And of course schools could also use the “book token” approach with independents, though the books are more costly.

As part of their “browsing is our product” nonprofit model, Seminary Coop is encouraging other organizations besides schools to partner with a bookseller for on-site book offerings, such as book tables at your company retreat or holiday party, in addition to consultation for building an in-house library for your organization. Responding to the widespread nostalgia for school book fairs, Refinery29 reported that Porter Square Books in Cambridge, MA, has offered a book fair for adults in a local brewery. Astoria has done book tables at a yoga center, a gym, and a ballet studio. Bookstores can offer company discounts and recommendations to your office or group online, organize joint events featuring authors relevant to your group and offering their books for sale, or host events for you in the store. Expanding the book fair model beyond elementary school creates an opportunity to support a local business, nourish writers and the reading economy, and expand the horizons of your workplace or group.

The book fair model could also grow meaningfully within schools with a layer of subsidy. Government, literacy organizations, or individuals could contribute to a school’s book fair with an independent bookseller to make book fairs available to poorly-resourced schools that now lack them and make the books cheaper or free for less affluent students and libraries. Supporting an independent bookstore in this role not only improves the quality of books and recommendations that students and staff receive; it supports a business that’s of benefit to the community and job opportunities in the (currently woefully undiverse, economically and in other respects) books and information industries. Where local bookstores are lacking, a legacy bookstore serving historically underserved communities could host school book fairs remotely and retain and train on-site booksellers from the community. Businesses that spread learning benefit both their customers and their employees. The joy with which these ranks of enchanted millennials remember their encounter with the school book fair seems to offer the beckoning possibility of a more book-enriched future through the book-fair’s magic doorway.   

Ann Kjellberg is the founding editor of Book Post. She worked as a book review editor at the New York Review of Books from 1988 to 2017, founded the literary magazine Little Star, and is the literary executor of the poet Joseph Brodsky.

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Below: Book Fair action with our fall partner 57th Street Books/Seminary Coop in Hyde Park, Chicago