Robert Gray: BookExpo Still Haunts Us on Facebook 'Memories'

There will always be books. There will always be conversations about books. The way that conversation happens is what will continue to evolve.

--Rick Joyce, former chief marketing director, Perseus Books Group, speaking at BookExpo America in 2010

It happened again last week, as it does annually to many of us in "the trade." Facebook started haunting me with BookExpo "Memories" like some annoying but lovable uncle at a weekend family barbecue who begins every other sentence with, "Back in the day...."

The flood of "Memories" on our Facebook pages always triggers comments by people who miss or don't or kind of miss BookExpo. We chat for a day or two about each other's pic retrospectives, then it all fades away until the next spring. Nostalgia is sometimes counterbalanced with negative recollections about NYC (crowds, traffic, heat, prices, Javits Center wi-fi, etc.). It was, I suspect, a trade show relationship many of us would label "It's complicated" on a Facebook profile. 

BookExpo (or BookExpo America until its 2016 downsizing) was all about the future, not the past, and a reminder every year that a promising future always trumps a muddled present. Book trade folks tend to be futurists and at BookExpo the full utopian vision was on display. Books that would be published next fall had not failed yet; first-time authors were always promising; any book might grow up to be a bestseller. The past was largely absent, except in the shadows of the remainder pavilion. 

During BEA 2009, in the depths of the economic collapse, I wrote about having lengthy conversations with book people who were looking to the future as enthusiastic devotees of texting and Twitter and FaceBook; with casual tech adapters; as well as with e-cynics. 

The future was always now at BEA. In 2010, I noted that the book business hadn't gotten any easier for indies. Times were tough. Our industry morphed hourly; the future was a bully threatening to punch indie booksellers in the mouth every day and steal their lunch money.

But I also heard something else in their tone of voice at that show. I heard the sound of booksellers talking primarily about their vision for the future, exploring possibilities, working hard to figure out what diverse pieces of the changing book environment--digital options, community partnerships, in-store POD sales, shop local movements, etc.--they might be able to thread together to make indie bookselling a business with a viable future; to make the bully use his own damn lunch money for a change.

BookExpo visions of the future were derailed, of course, in 2020, when all I could write about the virtual show was: "Imagine thousands of book people convening annually for a few days in Manhattan. Imagine a city hotel full of booksellers. Now imagine the book world we're living in this spring. Imagine bright lights, big city, no BookExpo. Imagine people who would be talking books all day--and well into the night, face to face--suddenly becoming Zoom watchers. Imagine that being the best-case scenario under tough, even life-threatening circumstances. Covid-19 hit hard, Javits became a hospital, BookExpo went virtual and we don't know what the book world will become in six months, one year or even five years."

Well, now we do. BookExpo is a ghost that materializes on Facebook Memories once a year. 

Glancing over my shoulder at all those BookExpos I attended as either a bookseller or Shelf Awareness editor, two non-bookish images have stayed with me to counter the show's "future is now... back in the day" time warp.

In 2012, I was heading up the West Side Highway on a shuttle bus from Javits when I realized that the retired space shuttle Enterprise (once a vision of the future itself) was supposed to "land" on the deck of the Intrepid Museum that day. I took out my camera. Seated on the right side of a moving bus, I knew my only shot would be through the opposite window and across the highway. When the moment arrived, I snapped two quick photos. Like many aspects of our business, it all came down to planning, reaction, adaptation and execution, plus a generous dose of blind luck.

The other recollection is from 15 years ago, in 2009, when I noted that many people at BEA were saying the future of the book trade was, at best, cloudy. Shortly afterward, I imagined being on a train (not a leap, since I had taken Amtrak to NYC for the show), which was not even as futuristic an image as the outmoded space shuttle.

Something had happened during BEA 2009, however, that made me realize not everybody on the future train had to ride up front in the engine, scanning the track ahead warily for what might be coming round the next bend. I wondered if the best place to ride might be the caboose, since I would arrive where the engine was within seconds, but still had a great view of where we'd come from out the back window. I wanted to hang on to that perspective, and I guess I have. The caboose offers past, present and future all for the same low price, and throws in Facebook Memories for free.

--Robert Gray, contributing editor
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