When I arrived at Café Lazziza’s, an African themed restaurant and night club on the corner of Chartres and Frenchman Street in the New Orleans' Faubourg Marigny neighborhood, I asked around for Robin. I got there a little late and most of the sixty-three vendors had already set up their tables and booths and were standing by for the throngs of interested book people that they hoped would come. I found Robin Stricklin, this year’s promoter and champion of the New Orleans Bookfair, in a yellow, green, and white wool ski cap. In my opinion, she had reason to be a nervous wreck—our own table was supposed to be set up inside Lazziza, but whoever was supposed to open the restaurant up for us had obviously made a late night of it the night before—but Robin wasn’t worked up at all; in fact, she seemed unflappable. “Are you in charge?” I asked her. “Yep,” she said. “Like in charge of the whole bookfair?” I asked. “Yep. What do you think? It’s a good day for a bookfair, right?” I agreed and Robin grabbed a volunteer and got him to set up a table for me across the street. It was fine that we couldn’t set up inside the restaurant, because the weather was wonderful. It was a crisp, sunny day and as I put a white table cloth over the table and laid out copies of Leo’s Balloon, I could feel the sun warming the back of my neck.
This was to be my first bookfair, and I was excited to see how things would pan out. The reason I was there was to help my friend Ben Weisel generate some interest in a children’s book he had written entitled Leo’s Balloon. Ben and I both work as government contractors for NASA’s Test Operations Group at Stennis Space Center located in Pearl River, MS. We work at an experimental rocket testing facility called E-Complex. Having zero technical experience, I work in an administrative capacity and am in charge of the least glamorous part of rocket testing: preventative maintenance (changing light bulbs, painting warning stripes on steps, etc). Ben, however, is an engineer and he’s currently testing a prototype of the chemical steam generator that will eventually be used to test NASA’s next generation of rockets slated to replace the aging space shuttles after they are retired from space flight in the next few years.
After learning that I had some experience with writing and publishing, Ben approached me one day and told me about a children’s book he’d written. I was mildly interested in his project, but to be honest, since he’s an engineer I didn’t expect that what he’d written would be of any substantive quality. But he showed me some proofs of the illustrations and text and I was pleasantly surprised by what he’d done. It seemed quite good. I told Ben about the self-publishing opportunities online and referred him to Lulu.com where I had just finished publishing my first collection of poems called Some Stones. And with the determination and concentration of an engineer, Ben went to work.
Leo’s Balloon began as a recurring dream that Ben had as a child. “The dream had always stayed with me. There was a time when I didn’t dream it anymore, but it stuck with me, you know?” Then one day while he was an intern, learning aerospace technology, he took a nap during his lunch break and his dream revisited the trope of Leo and the bearded man in the balloon. Then he did something he’d never done before; he wrote it down. Leo’s Balloon has a distinct rhythm that is indicative of its dreamy origins. It is not a book written by a professional writer. It feels like a dream, which, for a bedtime story ends up being a dead on bull’s eye.
After writing down Leo’s Balloon in a flurry of chimeric inspiration, Ben spent the next ten years trying to convince his brother, Seth Weisel, to dream up some illustrations of his own to accompany the story’s text. Seth, an artist in his own right, and ceramics instructor at Burman Academy, a Jewish day school in Rockville, Maryland, was at first reluctant to team up with his brother in creating a children’s book. It was an artistic project, but since his field of expertise was ceramic art, doing watercolor illustrations proved to be a substantial shift in focus, one that both annoyed and intimidated him. So, he put it off. And for ten years Ben would bring the project up from time to time, but Seth always had an excuse for putting it off, until only a few months ago, when he finally sat down and did it.
While at the New Orleans Bookfair, I spoke to G.K. Darby from Garret County Press (www.gcpress.com) about what he thought about the fair. “In consideration of what looks like a total collapse of our economic system," he said, "I thought the bookfair went very well. It felt spontaneous, which is unusual for big book events that tend to seem overproduced. Robin Stricklin and Otis Fennell of FAB Books deserve a lot of credit for pulling it together in such a challenging year.”
G.K. produced and organized the first New Orleans Bookfair in 2002. “The NOLA Bookfair was modeled off the San Francisco Anarchist Bookfair, and they share the same spirit,” he told me. “The San Francisco Bookfair is a lot larger and older – it’s one of my favorite book events. I think a lot of small book fairs are inspired by the San Francisco Bookfair.” Having no real knowledge of the “carnival world” of bookfairs, this was something I didn’t know.
Like G.K. said, the New Orleans Bookfair had a very spontaneous and organic feel. It was organized, in that everyone seemed to know what was going on. There was a free program available with wonderful illustrations by John Fitzgerald of Fitzgerald Letterpress and a local artist named Harriet “Happy” Burbeck. Inside the official program was a hand drawn map of Frenchman Street showing the locations of the vendors and a detailed itinerary of the days events, readings, and book signings.
But the bookfair developed throughout the course of the day like a well-written novel where the structure wasn’t stuffy or oppressive. “The challenge now,” said G.K., “is to pull something off like this (volunteer driven, free, a little bit off the wall) without making it annoyingly safe and predictable. I've been to the Book Expo a couple times, and it's depressing how boring and corporate it is.” It’s easy to imagine how big publishing companies could ruin an event like this by sauntering in with their book-of-the-month and free posters and bookmarks, turning a grassroots gathering into a mechanism for boosting bulk book sales.
But if events like the New Orleans Bookfair and the San Francisco Anarchist Bookfair are to be valued for their lack of commercial muscle and their spontaneity, then what purpose do they serve in the writing/publishing community? “I know that bringing publishers to New Orleans has helped us,” said G.K., “deals have been made, friendships forged. I've met designers and writers at the NOLA Bookfair. I've seen crazy new work that I wouldn't normally be exposed to. I think New Orleans fans of the book fair feel the same way. And they're important because they're fun: especially the after parties.”
What purpose did the New Orleans Bookfair serve for Ben Weisel and Leo’s Balloon? Well, at the end of the day Ben walked away with a pocket full of cash after selling close to twenty copies of his book at fifteen dollars apiece, which definitely exceeded my expectations. Patrons of the bookfair were refreshingly and genuinely interested in what we had to offer, and they were friendly and quick to talk about our book and books in general. Ben didn’t get any offers from publishers wanting to take Leo’s Balloon under their wing, but he did get a few business cards and, perhaps the most valuable of all, some warm words of encouragement from people that shared his interest in writing and publishing.
Kenneth Harshbarger is a fiction writer. He received his MA in fiction from the Center for Writers at University of Southern Mississippi. His writing has been published at elimae and elsewhere.