NY Book Art Posters: Charles Schulz to Maurice Sendak
A couple of years ago I stumbled upon six art posters at a garage sale, theme: New York is Book Country. Enchanted by the delightful cartoon drawings depicting both reading & Manhattan, I wanted to know more about this event & how it snagged such notable children's authors as Charles Schulz and Maurice Sendak to design its posters. Turns out the history of New York is Book Country mirrors the ups & downs punctuating the book fair & book publishing industry over the last 30 years.
Books, Sunshine and Celebrities
New York is Book Country was a non-profit created in 1979 to host a one day street fair in New York City promoting literacy and the joy of reading. Benefiting the Children's Services Division of the New York Public Library, the event featured booths overflowing with books and prominent authors along NYC's 5th Avenue. Founder and President Linda Exman effused, "this fair celebrates the city as well as books", as it promoted poets, novelists, and playwrights while bringing authors into local area schools.
Mission: promote literacy and get people to see bookstores as hospitable places filled with treasures, where one could browse and stay awhile (a theme cleverly capitalized on by Barnes & Noble). Early NYIBC book fairs included t-shirts and five dollar posters, with costumed characters such as Clifford, Pooh, Arthur and Bart Simpson wandering 5th Avenue between 48th-57th Street.
Awards for booths included Best Showcase for a single book or author, Best Appearance, and Best Interaction with the fairgoers, such as "How to Photograph Dogs" from the Dog-Lover's Book Shop.
Charles Schulz, 1986
Each year a major artist created and donated the artwork for the poster's design. Sole criteria: it had to be recognizably New York. Maurice Sendak ("Where the Wild Things Are") contributed four times, from the first poster in 1979, to the fair's 25th anniversary in 2003 (prior to this, the outdoor fair was only cancelled twice- once due to rain, and in 2001, after 9/11).
Peanuts creator Charles Schulz, in 1986, contributed a charming poster featuring Linus building a Statue of Liberty-shaped sandcastle; street artist Keith Haring depicted books with legs dancing in the New York City streets, in 1985.
Keith Haring, 1985
The artists were on hand to autograph their posters for any of the 250,000 New York is Book Country attendees who decided to purchase one; the original creation was auctioned off to benefit the non-profit. Out-of-towners could mail five dollars plus $1.50 for postage and handling to the New York Public Library and have a poster delivered to them, unsigned. The artwork year after year ranged from low-key to inspired, and, by presenting the same theme, offered an insight into what makes each successful artist unique.
James Stevenson, 1982
Big and Small Alike
For $500-$600, large and small publishers could set up a booth at New York Is Book Country, showcase their products, promote their authors, and sell some books. Attendees had the opportunity to casually chat with favorite novelists. George Plimpton was on hand at one booth to promote his efforts as Editor at The Paris Review.
Events were held during the month bringing authors and illustrators into local schools and libraries. Meet the Author events featured over 100 authors, ranging from History, Science Fiction, Graphic Novels, Mysteries to Best Sellers. Forty new exhibitors were joining NYIBC every year.
William Steig, 1984
Good Ideas Spread
The large number of publishers and initial enthusiasm made it easy to raise the $250,000 needed yearly for booths, advertising, staff time, press releases and postage costs. Other cities took note: book fairs proliferated throughout the country- Miami Book Fair International, L.A. Times Festival of Books, and more (Nashville, Seattle, San Francisco). But New York is Book Country was perhaps the first of its kind. Meanwhile, more and more events were added such as the Author Lunch at Park Avenue's Waldorf-Astoria, featuring Slaughterhouse Five author Kurt Vonnegut.
James Gurney, 1996
Beginning of the End
New York is Book Country's non-profit board initially featured specialty booksellers, small presses, independent publishers and bookstore chains. By 1997, in a C-SPAN street interview at the fair, NYIBC Founder and President Linda Exman noted that where seven or eight bookstores once stood along the book fair's strip of 5th Avenue; now only one, Barnes & Noble, remained. Publishers, like the bookstores themselves, had also condensed: Random House had bought up seven or eight competitiors such as Fawcett and Ballantine. Doubleday was bought out by Bantam, B. Dalton's by Barnes & Noble. Booksellers Scribner and Brentano's had already gone under.
Maurice Sendak, 2003
Expand too far and something goes pop
The fair too, had changed from its humble beginnings, perhaps biting off more than it could chew; in 2003, for its 25th anniversary, patrons could choose between attending a benefit featuring Frank McCourt, Mary Higgins Clark, and Maurice Sendak with cocktails and hor d'oeuvres, a Literary Brunch at the Waldorf-Astoria with James Patterson, Mitch Albom and others for $150, or a presentation by Steve Martin previewing his new novel The Pleasure of My Company (free!), among other literary events. The little street fair was attempting to be a big player in a city already brimming with entertainment choices.
The 25th anniversary year even saw the publishing of a book, Metropolis Found, commemorating the fair, along with the aforementioned galas, happenings, and 300-plus booths. How do you follow that up? You don't. The founder retired/stepped down. Publisher and public support waned. Money became scarce.
Arnold Lobel, 1981
Age of the Corporate Sponsor
Big city book festivals today often rely on corporate sponsors who provide both funding and a strong arm in dictating how events are run and who gets invited to participate. The age of the little booth on the corner, like Meg Ryan's book shop in You've Got Mail, may be over. After missing 2005-2007 entirely, the NYIBC book fair relocated from 5th Avenue to Washington Square Park in 2008, much to the dismay of locals who resented both the congestion and their lack of benefit from the event. Hastily moving the fair to Central Park in '09 clinched it - the New York is Book Country book fair and its non-profit folded for good in 2010.
Sandra Boynton, 1983
Art Posters - The Legacy
It's not all bad news. Today, a few small, independent book fairs have sprung up in places like the nearby borough of Brooklyn. Additionally, web-based HubPages and Squidoo have emerged, co-existing alongside ever-larger, traditional publishing houses.
What remains from the thirty years of New York is Book Country events is, above all, a love of reading and the need for self-expression. Both are reflected in the artwork. Those six garage sale posters turned out to be a pretty good find.