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Newberry Library is ending its popular annual book fair

There is no shortage of used books in this city. You can find them in informal little libraries in neighborhood parks and in public libraries that require library cards and in overstuffed display cases filled with yellowed pages without dust covers, wrapped in the plastic jackets of far-flung suburban libraries that smell of attics.

However, since 1985 the Newberry Library had been holding its annual book fair. the Chicago used book apalooza.

For 38 summers, it’s been a must-visit if you’re a reader, a writer, or an antiques obsessive: Tens of thousands of donated books, divided into 70 categories, were spread out in front of thousands of book lovers, leaving a hefty chunk of change in return. Newberry is a 136-year-old, non-profit, free literary research institution. Newberry himself estimates that more than 10,000 books were included in his massive collection after being donated to the book fair. Bill Charles, his lead volunteer in recent years, said the event is always a warm handshake with a great city and neighborhood that doesn’t include education in Newberry.

“I always thought this was the best, smartest public relations,” he said, “especially for a place that’s so academic. Every year, without error“During the fair, someone who lived nearby would come in and say they had no idea what was going on in this building.”

Still, the Newberry Library Book Fair is growing in importance.

In several recent meetings, administrators informed volunteers that the largely volunteer-run event would be discontinued, removed from the calendar, and permanently shelved.

“I’m surprised,” Charles said.

Many volunteers at these meetings said no alternatives to the popular book fair were presented or discussed. “The entire leadership team ultimately discussed the decision,” a library spokesperson said. But the final decision came from Gail Kern Paster, Newberry’s interim president and librarian; He has served as interim president since April and is leaving Nov. 30 to make way for a new president, Astrida Orle Tantillo, former dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Paster said he made the call after “deliberate discussions” with senior staff – particularly staff in the development and public relations offices that work closely with the fair – and said, “I clearly feel it’s a good decision, even though it’s unpopular.” One.”

A number of reasons were given. He said the event drained resources, space and staff energy and did not generate enough money to make the event worthwhile. He said he didn’t know how much the last fair in July brought in, but core volunteers who spent most of the year preparing the fair said the library made at least $75,000 from the weekend.

He said when the library conducted surveys during the book fair, most attendees said the event was the only time they’d been to Newberry. But first, he said: “Newberry has a strategic plan that includes some new ways to engage the public that hosting a book fair doesn’t reflect.” The Pattis Family Foundation Chicago Book Award, launched in 2021 to honor books that expand understanding of the city, is closer to the spirit of the library, he said. It will also continue the book fair’s annual Bughouse Square Debates in Washington Square Park across from the library—longtime afternoons of informal speeches honoring soapbox tirades in the park (nicknamed Bughouse Square) from the 1880s to the 1930s. regular Chicago Storytelling series.

But given the library’s “core mission” — which includes preserving the collection, growing the collection, making the collection available to readers and serving a community of academic researchers who rely on the collection — they have annual used book sales, Paster said. paperbacks and hardcovers “had become an outlier.”

Many volunteers who spoke to the Tribune about the fair’s conclusion said they took on the book fair it was it’s about engaging the public and growing the collection.

They said they thought a tradition-conscious institution like Newberry always understood the goodwill such a mundane event could create in the community.

“My God, it puts books in the hands of people who want to read,” said Claudia Hueser, who has been volunteering at the fair for 12 years. “I encourage the general public who aren’t too fond of reading Chaucer in Middle English to stop by and justify your presence!

“This is the first I’ve heard of this being a huge headache.”

But this isn’t the first time Dan Crawford has heard this. Crawford was the book fair’s only full-time employee and ran the fair from 1995 until 2020, when she was laid off. It was founded by library donors and was cared for in its early years by his aunt, Evelyn Lampe. It’s become a tradition for local authors, from Sara Paretsky to Roger Ebert, to donate bags of books each year. Peggy Guggenheim donated shelves from her collection, including first editions by her ex-lover Samuel Beckett. Council members donated family heirlooms. Richard M. Daley asked to donate law books from his office — “but we had to turn him away because law books don’t sell because we’ve been doing this for years.” For years, the library considered the fair so important that it collected donations from private houses.

Understandably so.

Books donated over the years include first editions of the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy (mostly left anonymously), signed art books by Picasso and classics by Hemingway. Last July someone left a signed first edition of Yeats’s poetry collection.

Despite the successes, the event was not to the liking of some staff, Crawford said. “It was initially seen as a way to bring Chicago into the building, but then there were people who thought book sales were low class for a place like this. One of my superiors even told me that it was very bad that such an institution had stooped so low.”

He said he was disappointed in Newberry’s decision and found his statements about the fair particularly vague and incompatible with the library’s mission. “They don’t really explain what they mean, and you can’t argue with it because they don’t give you much to argue with.”

But for now, Newberry is still accepting book donations — though there’s nothing to show for it library website This shows that donations are not going to the book fair. Paster said the plan is to sell a handful of donated books at the library gift shop, with the rest sent to ThriftBooks, which bills itself as the world’s largest online seller of independent second-hand books. A percentage of sales made through Thrift goes back to the library.

In the past, books not sold at the fair were donated to Chicago nonprofit Open Books or to charities and institutions ranging from prison libraries to women’s shelters. When the pandemic canceled 2020 book fair plans, donations made that year went to ThriftBooks, and the library continued to use the Seattle-area-based company, which sells books through a variety of websites, including eBay and Amazon.

Susan Levy, who has been involved with the book fair for 20 years, said volunteers who spend most of the year sorting and pricing donations in the library’s basement were told they were invited to sort newly donated books in anticipation of the event. Choose which one goes to the gift shop and which one goes to ThriftBooks. He doesn’t plan to return. “I don’t think most of us who do this have any interest in volunteering our time for a for-profit business.”

cborrelli@chicagotribune.com

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