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Memoirs of a Book Fair addict

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 20, 2009 - As the week began, workers and volunteers were hauling more than a million books, record albums, CDs, DVDs, tapes and ephemera into the parking garage at West County Center for the 60th Greater St. Louis Book Fair. That's about 750 tons of ink on paper if you figure the average hardback (say 350 pages) weighs about a pound and a half.

In a digital age when any one of us can haul around as many as 1,500 books in a dust-free, backlit 10.2 ounce reader like a Kindle or 10,000 tunes or audio books on an iPod, some might ask whether the Book Fair is a bit anachronistic.

Let's make the Book Fair virtual, we might suggest. Set up an Amazon-style warehouse. Create an eBay or craigslist kind of system. Establish a secure server to handle the credit cards -- and no one has to leave the comfort of his or her couch.

Well, it isn't as if some of these notions haven't occurred to the people who run the Book Fair. The Book Fair does have a website where you can find a listing of rare books, collectibles and items up for auction in a variety of categories.

But the Book Fair is not high tech, nor is it likely to ever be. Veteran volunteer Joni Karandjeff says she could never imagine reading a book on a Kindle. And one guesses that she is not alone among the dozens of volunteers and thousands of shoppers who will be at the Book Fair opening night Thursday, April 23 and through the weekend at West County Center.

Drive your hybrid to the Book Fair. Take time out in the middle of your perusing to check the e-mail on your BlackBerry if you must.

But when it comes to the books ... there's no way to do it other than the way your mom and pop did, browsing one book at a time, thumbing a page or two or three at a time, inhaling the aroma the Thomas Pynchon novel has absorbed from someone's parlor, bathing in the romantic inscription that a loved one has left for another in a red-leather bound volume of Jane Austen's "Pride and Prejudice" or dealing with the sticky grape jelly stains left by a 6-year-old (now perhaps 36 or 46) enchanted with the Cat in the Hat.

There's no way to get that online, Karandjeff knows. Nor is there a better way to bring the family together for a day or evening of browsing. This is what has sustained the Book Fair since its inception in 1950 when the first chair Evelyn Newman started the event as a way of raising money for an inner city pre-school school supported by the Nursery Foundation.

BIG BUSINESS

The first fair was held at Temple Israel, then at Kingshighway and Washington Avenue. More than 23,000 books were collected and the two-day event netted $2,500.

Over the years, the Book Fair "has become a big business," Karandjeff said. The Book Fair now raises $250,000 to $300,000. That amount has allowed the Book Fair for the first time this year to support other charities beyond the Nursery Foundation.

But the more things change, the more they remain the same. You will still find references in Book Fair promotional materials to the chairs with their husband's names ... as in Mrs. Drew (Joni) Karandjeff.

And people still ask the same kinds of questions like whether the books have been alphabetized to aid with their browsing. (Answer: You've got to be kidding.)

They are categorized to help making the browsing a bit easier. As an added convenience at one point, organizers decided to segregate the books that had an erotic appeal.

Those books sold very well and for many years. But some fussy people raised objections. Now those seeking such material will have to do the needle in a haystack kind of thing. And, of course, there's plenty of that sort of thing online, isn't there?

The Book Fair also used to have an adjoining flea market, but that too faded into oblivion. And you could buy a hot dog and a soda to sustain. But that went away when the Book Fair moved to West County where the mall offered plenty of food and drink.

What nearly everyone remembers is the Book Fair under the big top -- tents that were set up for many years on the parking lot of the old Westroads shopping center (now the site of the Galleria) and  old Famous-Barr Clayton store at Forsyth and Jackson avenues. The tent kept the books out of the elements for the most part, but since April is tornado season, the tents could sometimes seem like a wind sock.

Contrary to what may be popular opinion, the book fair organizers don't mind if the weather is something other than sunny and mild. If the weather is too nice, they say, shoppers might spend more time in their gardens or at a baseball game.

PECULIARLY LOCAL

What the Book Fair can always count on are the regulars who line up early for preview night (it actually begins at 4 p.m.), pay an admission fee ($10) and get first dibs on the tomes. Provisions have been made for people who want to sleep in their cars in the garage Wednesday night. (But no campers allowed.)

Regulars, of course, also include volunteers -- the people who have served year after year for the sheer joy of being around tons of books and thousands of people who love them. Karandjeff is among them although among some she maybe considered a relative newcomer considering that women like Betty Torno and Beryl Davis have been working the fair for more than 30 years.

Karandjeff worked her first Book Fair in 1986 and has been a chair or co-chair five times (1995, 2001, 2006, 2007, and 2008). That's a record. But her memories of the Book Fair go back much farther.

Joni McBride Karandjeff grew up in Streator, Ill., in the 1950s and '60s, which lies 220 miles to the north and east of our town. She remembers as a child getting absorbed with Nancy Drew mysteries. By then the Book Fair's reputation among bibliophiles had already spread there and across the Midwest. And there were plenty of Nancy Drews to be found at the Book Fair.

"My whole family has been big readers and a trip to the Book Fair was something special," Karandjeff recalled. When Karandjeff moved to the St. Louis area with her husband, Drew, a banker, she got involved with the Junior League, which has supported the Book Fair for decades. Along with chairing the annual event, Karandjeff has become the fair's historian. She is slowly pulling together the newspaper clippings and other accounts that demonstrate this event is much more than a fundraiser, but a quirky St. Louis extravaganza.

To draw a crowd, Book Fairies (this is what they call themselves) touted the gems they found among the tens of thousands of books they collected and reached out to celebrities to help with the cause.

For the fourth fair in 1953, chaired by Mrs. Henry (Cecile) Lowenhaupt, the Fairies created the "Celebrity Corner" in which 68 famous people were ask to send autographed copies of their favorite books. Sen. Adlai Stevenson, who had run for president the year before, sent "Of Men and Mountains," by William O. Douglas, who was then in the middle of the longest term ever on the U.S. Supreme Court.

And Sen. Joe McCarthy (yes, that one) perhaps not surprisingly contributed his own book, "McCarthyism: The Fight for America."

You have to wonder what either of those books would fetch on eBay these days.

Of course, that is not exactly in the spirit of the Book Fair. While it does draw mercenaries interested in buying and reselling, Karandjeff sees the Book Fair as "a community service, so people have a way of sharing their books with others."

"You know," she said, "Everyone has a hard time throwing away a book."

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