This takes place in the food court of the West County Center, whose Macy’s is the host and sponsor of this annual event. The food court is at the far opposite end of the mall from the parking garage where the fair is held. While the long walk is annoying, it’s also good mental practice to consider the mallwalkers, kiosk vendors, Hollister employees, i.e. people who are not obsessed with the book fair and possible inventory of the book fair. “Putting the fair into perspective” can go a long way toward avoiding fair anxiety, envy, chronic indecision, and other ills of the fair. The food court has the usual suspects: Charlie’s, Chik-Fil-A, Sbarro, plus a few stir-fry places and a strange Greek/Mexican hybrid that does horrible things with apostrophes on its sign. You only go to the West Co. Center once a year, so the general rule is “what happens in the food court, stays in the food court.” You can get whatever greasy and carb-laden food you need to sustain you through the next several hours of intense book buying. Watch out for the sample hawkers in the food court.
2. Anticipation/Fair Anxiety.
It’s a fine line. You honestly don’t have the time or commitment to show up hours early, much less to sleep in your car overnight prior to the fair (enough people do this that the Fair has a policy about it on their website). Ideally, you get in line 10-15 minutes before the fair opens, long enough to experience some anticipation of the event without any accompanying fair anxiety (who are these people in line, how did they get here so soon, that guy looks like a Pynchon reader, etc). This year, the book fair staff does a Times Square style countdown to the opening, which is fun and gets the event started on a positive note.
This stage is inevitable. Because you haven’t slept in the parking garage or spent the entire day waiting in line, the fact is that some folks are going to beat you into the fair and you’re going to have to stand in the long, snaking line bordered with hazard cones and perimeter flags, all the while watching the early arrivals rush inside. And the sad fact is that many of these early arrivals are fair raiders, that is, people who attend the fair for pecuniary gain. They are armed with hand scanners and shopping carts, which they use to speed through the fair like contestants in a TV cooking show. And they do this while you’re still paying your $10 entry fee and getting your hand stamped. There is no avoiding the fact that they are going to decimate the lit table before you even get there, 5-10 minutes after the start of the fair. For example, when you arrive at the lit table there’s a woman whose whole cart is filled with Penguin Classics, she’s clearly just going through and grabbing every single Penguin Classic she sees, which strikes you as chintzy and uncool, but you console yourself by thinking that you’ll soon be spotting William Gass. He comes here every year on the first day of the fair, just like you do.
The nadir of your experience comes early on. You get stuck behind a egregious fair raider you’ll be calling headphones guy from here on out. He is stubbled and wearing the black T-shirt of an obscure punk band. The overall sartorial impression he gives is “I didn’t go to work today.” He’s got a cart, but no hand scanner; even scanning is too much trouble for this guy. He’s chucking Modern Librarys and Everyman Classics into his cart, you see a nice Knopf hardcover of Notes From Underground fall into his hoard, it doesn’t even matter that you already own a copy of this book. The dude is not even giving you the chance to look at anything. Plus, something about the headphones says he’s not even that engaged in the whole experience. He’s casual and blase as he loots the lit table. He’s part high school dropout, part CEO. Here, at the low point of fair anxiety/envy, you feel helpless and defeated, headphones guy seems like an especially adhesive and lithe octopus out to devour all literature, and you wonder why you even came.
4. Spotting William Gass.
In retrospect, this is the turning point of the whole 2013 fair experience. There he is, the author of Middle C, Being Blue, In the Heart of the Heart of the Country, etc., turning over a book in his hands. He examines it, fingers the copyright page, caresses the spine, then finally adds it to his small pile. That, you want to say to headphones guy, is how you behave with a book. You briefly consider trying to take a picture of Gass but decide to leave him alone.
(N.B. – The next morning, Gass spots himself in a St. Louis Post-Dispatch fair photo, as reported by the curator of the Reading William Gass website, Stephen Schenkenberg.)
Seeing William Gass has cheered you up, but there’s nothing like a couple of good finds to usher in the acceptance stage. (Your first good finds take place over at the fiction table, not the lit table; the good stuff is more dispersed at the fiction tables, and thus not such a lure for fair raiders.) This year, your first really great find is a beautiful hardcover of the Pevear/Volokhonsky translation of Doctor Zhivago. You’re also delighted to find Maria Semple’s Where’d You Go, Bernadette. But it’s the elusive used copy of Suttree by Cormac McCarthy, which you’ve been hunting in bookstores for several months, that really inaugurates the acceptance stage. Headphones guy fades into the background and you approach Erasmic levels of equilibrium.
6. The Sorting Area.
Once you’ve hit your groove and are happily filling your box, there comes a point where you will have to hit the sorting area to pare down your collection. Unlike the fair raiders, you’ve got to be selective and avoid over-buying, which can give you the sick, glutted feeling you get from accepting too many samples in the West Co. Center food court. Plus you are riding the bus and there’s a definite limit to what you can carry. Be honest with yourself: there was a lot of stuff you pulled off the tables just because it was a buck, not because you have any intentions of reading it or using it in a productive way. Goodbye, Paris Peasant by Louis Aragon! The sorting area is also where you kind of take a breather from the fair and closely examine the things you’ve collected for flaws, marginalia, ephemera, etc. For example, this year you find this collection of T.S. Eliot with a love note inside:
After perusing this 1992 love note, you conclude that if the gift itself did not destroy the relationship, it was at least a sign of the end. The dour, formal, erotically troubled Eliot seems like a disastrous choice, pretty much the anti-aphrodisiac of poets. Furthermore, sentiments like “don’t ever get me any book for a present because I’d rather get cool stuff” and “even if you didn’t like it, it’d look good in your library” really call the sender’s judgment into question. The only real mystery remaining is why Lisa waited 21 years before donating this objet d’amour. You end up sloughing off the Eliot in the sorting area.
7. Chronic Indecision.
This is a tricky stage at the fair, which can easily get ugly and return you to the fair anxiety/envy stage you’ve seemingly conquered and surpassed. The thing about the book fair is, the volunteers and paid workers frequently bring out new boxes of books throughout the weekend. If you’re not careful, you can get caught in a loop of return sweeps at tables you’ve already scoured, hanging around hungry-eyed and totally invading the personal space of fair employees as they open new boxes. The box-openings inevitably bring a swarm of fair raiders, particularly at the lit table, with headphones guy practically hanging over the shoulder of the red-aproned fair volunteer, tentacular arms outstretched, perhaps equipped with sensors that identify and remove books that you would like to look at, or so it seems.
But then a remarkable thing occurs. You head over to the lit table where a new box is being unpacked. Out of this box you see a silvery Faulkner Modern Library edition emerge. Headphones guy is directly to the left of the fair employee, about to pounce, but you’ve worked yourself into a nice position to the right of the fair employee; you swoop in, liberate the Faulkner while headphones guy is trapped behind an empty box — the poetry of that image! — and better yet, when you look at the volume in your hand, it’s Absalom, Absalom!, a book you read and loved in a crappy mass-market paperback edition and now own in a beautiful hardback that costs one dollar. Headphones guy gives you the stink eye across the table but you pay him no mind, you head to the sorting area to make your final selections.
Put that in your pipe and smoke it, headphones guy.
8. Get on the Bus and Go Home to Your Wife.
You’ve had a great year at the book fair, and there’s no reason to prolong the chronic indecision stage. Best to go out on a high note, and you’re unlikely to surpass your miraculous save of the Faulkner from the avaricious grasp of headphones guy. Get home at a reasonable hour so you can enjoy what you’ve found. The book fair presents a number of hazards to the bibliophile, and you’ve managed to avoid most of them this year.
At the bus stop, you meet a fair employee in a red sweatshirt smoking a cigarillo. He tells you that what you really need is “someone on the inside” who can get you an early look at the inventory. He already has one client, he says. It’s deeply tempting for a moment, the thought of it–completely alone, no fair raiders to contend with . . . But that’s the ultimate fair raider dream, and you’re no fair raider. This event is about sharing a love of print, and supporting a good cause–the Greater St. Louis Book Fair and its allied literacy nonprofits. Ultimately, you hope everybody can find their Suttree this year. That’s what this is all about. You tell the fair worker no thanks, and you follow him onto the bus, burdened just enough.