Book fair draws big-name authors

The educated single adult who read 25 books each year a half-century ago now reads on average five, a statistic most likely made up of a small percentage of adults who still read 25 books a year and a large majority who read one, or none. A reading population on the decline means business on the decline for the smaller booksellers and publishers whose independent business have largely gone the way of record stores and other Mom ‘n Pop establishments.

No worry, the Chicago Tribune Printer's Row Book Fair began today at 10 a.m. in the historic Printer's Row district of the city. Readings by such renowned authors as E.L. Doctorow, who won the National Book Critics Circle Award last year with his Civil War novel The March; John Updike, whose soon-to-be-released novel focuses on the current threat of terrorism; and Augusten Burroughs, memoirist and fiction writer, highlight the event, but the depth of the fair lies in its endless rows of books, booksellers, and publishers.

Drawing up to 70,000 pedestrians on a weekend with cooperative weather (the fair runs Saturday and Sunday from 10 a.m. until 6 p.m.), the Fair is a chance for smaller literature enterprises to interact with other booklovers, browse the aisles and aisles of books, and sell merchandise at a rate akin to Ford's Model T assembly line.

The one-man antique and rare bookselling operation Joyce and Company (named not for the Modernist author of Ulysses and Dubliners but for its proprietor, Tom Joyce), sells one or two books on a regular day, but sells several hundred over the weekend of the fair.

'It's a great way to meet people, and the people you meet are interested in books,' said Joyce, who has held a sidewalk table at the Fair every year since its inception in 1984.

'They don't come for the food, but there is food. They don't come for the music, but there is music. They come for the books and it's a wonderful thing.'

The Chicago Tribune is committed to making smaller enterprises the heart of the weekend-long event by keeping prices on sidewalk tables and tents at a reasonable cost, said Aleks Kostovski of the Tribune.

The majority of the booths belong to independent, antique, or specialty booksellers. Good news for the sellers, who have had to turn to the Internet and fairs such as these to sustain a business.

Tom Joyce takes his stock to several fairs throughout the Midwest each year and sells much of his merchandise online. According to the rare bookseller, it's the nature of the technological beast that Internet sales dwarf walk-in purchases.

But not all independent booksellers are as preoccupied with the declining number of in-store customers.

Sandmeyer's Bookstore in Printer's Row was packed with voracious readers and buyers late on Wednesday afternoon, and to the old-school sellers, this fair is just another reason to enjoy being a part of the nation of letters.

'It's absolutely wonderful to have thousands of books and book lovers in one place,' said Ellen Sandmeyer, who owns the establishment with her husband and has run a table on the sidewalk in front of their store since 1984, also.

Of the literary atmosphere and hordes of pedestrians, spectators, and customers who come from throughout the country to the event, Sandmeyer said giddy-eyed, 'It's the greatest.'