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Memories of the Book Fair

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 24, 2009 - Though the Book Fair is underway, it'll be back next year. The Public Insight Network is a way for readers to let the Beacon and KETC-Channel 9 know what matters to them.

Betty Torno

Betty Torno - 71, book fair volunteer, University City - recalled a conversation with her aunt when she became co-chairman of the book fair in 1976 with Helen Serotte.

She said, "When I told my late aunt, Dot Holland, that I was going to be a co-chair, my aunt said that she had been the book fair's very first customer at the first fair at Temple Israel on Kingshighway."

Her aunt had lived at 4914 McPherson so it was a short walk to the fair.

Torno said Holland was actually third in line, but two men were ahead of her.

She said, "When it was time for the fair to begin, my aunt discovered that chivalry was not dead, as both men stepped aside and let her in first."

Kathy Roth

Kathy Roth - 55, chairperson, Innsbrook - said she first discovered the book fair when it was in the tent at the old Famous-Barr parking lot.

She said, "I was about 11 years old and it was the first time I got to buy my own books (paperbacks were 10 cents each, and I had just discovered Agatha Christie mysteries)."

Roth said she remembers picking out as many as her arms could carry and just being ecstatic about having her own library of books.

"I still have those books - and hundreds more besides," she said.

Roth said she has worked her way up through the ranks beginning as a customer when she was a child, then as a mom with children shopper and from that to empty-nest shopper interested in becoming a volunteer. She has now reached the pinnacle as the book fair chairperson.

"It just goes to show how you should be careful what you wish for," Roth said.

Peggy Kornfein

Peggy Kornfein -  60, book fair volunteer, Ballwin -  remembers how "the selection of books was overwhelming."

She said her fondest memories are of Helen Weiss (a longtime supporter of the Book Fair) when she was a chairperson.

Kornfein said, "Weiss reminded all chairs 'don't forget to mention Famous-Barr,' we didn't want to let her down by forgetting to mention Famous. During one interview, a man operating the camera, reminded me to mention Famous. No one wanted to let Helen down."

Wayne Crosslin

Wayne Crosslin - book fair shopper, St. Louis - said that he remembers standing at the entrance during the opening day of the festival as a photojournalist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Crosslin said, "I almost got run over trying to take a photograph as the gates open."

He said that besides the usual arguments 'that's my pile of books,' 'the books in the box are mine,' the strangest thing that he has seen was a man with a bar code reader attached to his palm pilot, scanning the bar code on a book and talking on his cell phone at the same time.

He added that this is the first book fair since Weiss has died. "Whenever I think about the fair she comes to mind," he said.

Because he has both worked in the media and is a photo book collector, he has always interacted with Weiss at the fair.

"Weiss was a great woman, one of a kind, they don't make PR people like that any more," he said.

Crosslin said that from the website he saw that the Nursery Foundation has built a new playground at its school and dedicated it to Weiss, "as far as I am concerned they should name the book fair after her also."

Since its inception, proceeds raised by the Greater St. Louis Book Fair have helped support the Nursery Foundation of St. Louis, a multi-cultural learning center in the city of St. Louis.

While most people have fond memories of the book fair, it is not without its controversy. One issue had to deal with the sale of adult-theme books. Although the book fair does not currently sell these as a separate category, the Beacon asked how people would react if they started selling them again.

Kornfein and Crosslin said they wouldn't have problems with it. Crosslin suggested, "The area be roped off with a volunteer handy to make sure that only adults had access to these books."

Todd Smith is a freelance writer.

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