In the Name of Research

Perhaps you have wondered what a Book Fair manager does in the off-season. Is it all a matter of piling up boxes, sorting books into categories, and looking up prices? Or does he practice some arcane fitness ritual, a toughening of mind and body for the donors and customers to come?

Well, there has been a lot of piling up books, avocado gelato. Not everyone in the world, to my surprise, refrains from making donations in August, as requested. We’ve had a collection of baseball books, a collection of cookbooks, and a small collection of First Edition Circle signed books, all of which must be taken care of. (And three collections, so far, of sheet music. Maybe 2015 will be a musical year.)

But there was also a collection of book catalogs, from which I selected a few. This is part of the outside reading segment of my training regimen. There has been eBay research: what ARE people paying for vintage audiocassettes and blinking dreydels these days? And once a year, when I can spare the time and travel expenses, I step away from the hurly-burly of the workaday world to attend a quiet, contemplative gathering of cultural philosophers.

Yes, I was at the Chicago Comicon this weekend, and no, I was NOT the one wearing the long grey cape. I don’t know where the people come from who think I wear a cape. You have weird imaginations.

Don’t you know how hard it is to maintain a secret identity if you’re carrying a cape around with you everywhere you go?

Anyway, there I was, trying to keep my finger on the pulse of pop culture, while at the same time sympathizing with a passerby who told her husband, “I don’t know who half these children are dressed up to be, and furthermore, I do not wish to know.”

Some of my observations as I considered the crowd are things anybody might have noted. (Spandex is still king, and sometimes king-sized, and anyone who dresses as the Joker could, with just a few alterations, dress as Michael Jackson instead.) Others are simply warm and nostalgic, at least to someone of my era. (There are as many Ghostbusters and Princess Leias as there are Spongebobs or Harry Potters. And not a single Barney.) It looks to me as if zombies are dying, but, on second thought, I guess they’re supposed to look like that.

Some observations deal more specifically with this work that needs to be done at the Newberry. I made a note to check the website of the VHSPS (VHS Preservation Society) and jotted down the prices of some vintage paperbacks. I observed the vintage graphic styles being swiped by artists in search of new looks (the 1940s are making a surge; the revival of 1960s cocktail napkin style is receding a bit). And for sheer bookish geekiness (or geeky bookishness) I had to stand back and admire a pair of Lycra tights (on a mannequin) printed with the map from the opening pages of The Lord of the Rings.

I saw people older than I am, and I saw people less than a tenth my age. And, except for one small boy who wanted a six-foot claymore with ground steel blade, and the lady I mentioned above, everybody seemed to be having a good time. They were enjoying their Hello Kitty obsession among the Batman fans and Gryffindor graduates.

Does this mean anything to the long-range future of the book? I don’t know. They were no doubt picking up a lot of their enthusiasms from a screen of some sort: movie, TV, telephone. But it does mean they can get together and enjoy something vintage, something collectible, without a screen in their hand or on their wrist. I didn’t see a single Kindle all day. (Mind you, I was kind of busy with my Spandex statistics. And those figures can be alarming, let me tell you.)

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