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Burning Man, Chicago & 17,000 Book Lovers

Freely admitting I’m a country bumpkin that doesn’t get to the big city very often a recent trip to Chicago to attend the American Booksellers Association convention drew me into a megalopolis.

I had to fly, and in doing so I made a humorous discovery. As may readers know I attend the Burning Man festival every year and report on it to this newspaper. As I spent time on the tarmac waiting for my airliner to depart I had this nagging thought that all the activity outside the plane window was reminding me of something…but what?

Then the little mental light bulb flashed on…Burning Man! Why, you might ask? Unlikely human and mechanical activities abound at Burning Man and airport sites. Wheeled vehicles of every color and shape scoot around, from huge plodding trucks moving who knows what to tiny transport for one person zipping around at both places 2,000 miles apart. Every color, size and shape of humanity was swirling around on the tarmac and in the terminals.

The lights of O’Hare airport, at over 7,000 acres, look like Disneyland, or Burning Man at night. Extremely bright blue lights, in patterns, guide aircraft to boarding gates. Other lights outline runways and every aircraft has blinking beacons. I kid you not…it looked like the playa at night at Burning Man.

I know what metered freeway on-ramp stoplights look like, allowing a smooth flow of traffic onto the roadway. Try the same system with jumbo jets, all lined up like cars, often 20 in a row, waiting to advance to the runway. This was reminiscent of Burning Man where thousands of people in vehicles exit the playa on a two lane county road…it takes forever but it sure is colorful.

And in the midst of all this insanity there is one person standing on the ground using an object that technology has yet to figure out how to eliminate. It’s the worker holding a shiny orange stick guiding the jet into a parking space.

Looking at statistics when I got home I saw that two thirds the population of Burning Man could pass through O’Hare airport in a month, about 50,000 people, on their way to 189 departure gates. O’Hare offers 200 food & gift shops. Burning Man beats that as everyone offers food and gifts for free all over the playa. Inside O’Hare the lines of people waiting to get through TSA check points reminded me of Burners waiting in line to buy coffee at Burning Man’s Center Camp. Only Burning Man is more efficient providing enough customer contact points that lines move quickly and efficiently…Airports at night really do remind me of Burning Man.

The convention I went to, called BookExpo, attracts 17,000publishers, booksellers, librarians and bloggers. It had been 12 years since I last attended one and back then you had a “Press Room” for jounalists. Now you have a “Bloggers Lounge” with plug in’s for electronic devices. BookExpo is a giant “Show & Tell” for all the industry with professional workshops for independent bookstores, e-publishing, and topics of interest to the trade. Amazon was not in evidence, but thousands of self-published authors were. Every publisher offered stacks of forthcoming books for free on the hopes a bookstore employee would find a title they would love and feature face-out with a review when it arrived.

No matter how intellectual we think we are would you like to know which publisher had the longest lines to meet the author and get a free autographed book? Harlequin…a woman’s romance novel publisher. An attendee could have the latest autographed “bodice-ripper” romanced tucked into their book bag next to the serious non-fiction university press title already stashed in there. You could skip meals on the convention floor if your body could survive on the candy hand-outs from many booths.

I prided myself on being very selective on what books I gathered to send home but still shipped 17 pounds of books home by Media Mail through the post office. I could have shipped them from the exhibit hall’s package delivery service but I was warned they can and would charge you double normal rates for the convenience.

Book Clubs on the Mendocino Coast and everywhere are always looking for new titles to share so I went to a workshop called “Speed Dating for Book Clubs.” Each table had 10 seats and in front of your chair were 20 books. Each publishers representative had about two minutes to tell the bookseller why each title of theirs in the stack was perfect for your book clubs. These folks talked fast. At the end I took the printed guide and a whopping two books to bring home to Gallery Bookshop.

Unfortunately I find that after 40 years as a librarian and 26 years as a bookseller I am getting REALLY picky about what I will read and recommend to my customers. I’ll read 20 books before I can find a title I can get excited enough about to suggest to others. I’m jaded…I admit it…so what was my show score? I met Louise Penny and got a copy of “A Dead Reckoning” and it’s really good.

My son lives in Chicago and I stayed with him in the Pilsen/Bridgeport district and we had gustatory adventures every evening eating our way through Chicago. As a single malt Scotch lover I suggest Fountainhead, a dining establishment with over 250 Scotch selections. It’s not “Do you have Laphraoig, an Island Malt?” but rather “…which of the 15 vintages of Laphraoig going back 25 years would you like?” It was a Scotch lovers heaven. Their beer list had 200 entries…you could drink your way around the world…and they had 35 ciders to choose from.

Enough excitement for this self-proclaimed country bumpkin. In Chicago I slept to the sound of traffic flowing past on an expressway that reminded me of the sound of rushing water. I came home to Comptche, opened my bedroom window, and slept to the sound of a real stream flowing by. Good to be back.

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