Since meeting my wife Anne nearly 10 years ago, we’ve had several constants: farmer’s markets, writing and books. I’d include sex, but those pesky kids …. Since I frequently talk about farmer’s markets and books, today I’ll discuss book festivals.
West Palm Beach, for example, had a small, indoor festival. It was quaint, but also had some unique vendors that made it worthwhile.
Los Angeles, though, puts on the real show. The sprawling May event covers a good chunk of the UCLA campus. The kids’ section is by far the largest venue, with bands playing at one end and storytellers at the other. The place is thick with happy kids and parents. (I suspect those vendors selling cotton candy and churros make the most money.)
Despite the knot of activity in the kids section, the overall book festival actually many, many times larger. It can take the entire day to peruse every stall. If you have a topic or issue, you will find it. This usually is a booth dedicated to L. Ron Hubbard’s books, for example. Cool science and political books line UCLA’s and USC’s stalls. You can find impenetrable policy tomes at the Rand stand. If you are seeking the mainstream, there is always the enormous Target, Borders and Barnes and Noble tents offering bargains.
Looking for a Master in Fine Arts? Pick from the various colleges. Want to join a writer’s union? Pick one. Interested in the There Kabala? The only problem will be whittling down the choices.
Food vendors, face painting and other fun events will keep your kids happy despite the often debilitating heat. Lecture halls are packed with interesting speakers and authors debating whether the web is destroying print, authors telling you the best ways to get published and publishers checking up on their authors. You may even get to meet Ray Bradbury.
Seeing as how Chicago is pretty darned big with a varied cultural history, I was eager to discover what the city would have to offer at its book festival, which is put on by the same company (sort of) as the one in Los Angeles. (Both are managed by the Tribune Company via the two towns respective newspapers. Disclaimer: I used to work at the Los Angles Times)
One concern before going: The website touting the festival was a boring chunk of pages, with little thought to enticing visitors. Good luck finding the venue map. It took my wife a few minutes to find the list of speakers. Another worry: How was a book festival going to compete with an Art Fair and a Blues Festival just down the road?
The location, historic Printer’s Row, is close to where I work, so I also wondered just how big the festival would be. The space, adjacent to a former industrial area being converted to residential apartments and condos, is constantly undergoing construction upheavals in a manner decidedly unfriendly to kids.
Because of construction on the subway, we thought it best to drive. After 15 minutes of looking, we found parking for $6.25, which beats the $20 by my office, though we still had to walk along a busy road to get to the event.
There was a fairly sizable crowd at the festival relative to the venue space, but to me, the whole thing was a dud. I’m sure the organizers would disagree, but oh well.
The problem is that Chicago’s book festival seemed to lack a soul. It was, just a few books, some lectures and a few stalls and that was it. Nothing more. In Los Angeles the book festival is an EVENT. An Outing. A feast of food, books, scenery, people, fun and music.
Here are my gripes in a handy list form for the organizers:
- Food? What food? Two hot dog/burger stands and two ice cream trucks was it. Oh, and a couple of the restaurants were open. Good luck getting seated. Please, please bring in some food vendors.
- Book vendors were forced into tiny, egalitarian stalls. What fun is that? Why should Border’s be forced into the same-sized tent as smalltime books? One vendor confided to me, a relative signed up for a second tent under a different name. Good for him. You hear that organizers? Get rid of all stupid restrictions.
- Are these all the vendors Chicago has to offer? Did someone forget to send out the invites? Where is the independent self-published crowd? Where are the foreign language folks? Where are the map companies? Where are the religious publishers? Even though I never look at those books, they should be there! There just has to be more options in a metro area this size.
- Don’t have room for more stalls? What about the two empty streets nearby. Better yet, move the frigging event to the lake, where there are cool breezes – it was roasting hot – and a lot of room to spread out. Maybe Printer’s Row will grow into the role 10 years, but right now it’s the wrong place at the wrong time. It also would be nice if the event was closer to more-convenient bus lines.
- Advertise and promote the event in a much bigger way.
- Invite way more vendors.
- Pick a better weekend!
- MAKE IT FUN for kids! Gawd, the only thing for my kids to do was play with a few lame Gymboree blocks, which were repeatedly kicked down by ill-raised ruffians and a 95-degree fun mobile loaded with barely interesting toys, which also commandeered by even worse ruffians.
Somebody, please, rescue this event!!!!!