By Ramy Habeeb, founder and CEO, Kotobarabia.com
I think one of the most depressing things that a truly committed publisher can see are empty bookshelves. And that certainly was the case at the London Book Fair, where many publishers were unable to shelve their booths with that most precious of commodities, their books. When I first entered the fair, I was a bit nervous — expecting to see down-and-out book aficionados depressed that their mission, the spread of culture through the time honored tradition of reading was crushed because some random volcano in Iceland had decided to erupt. But instead, what I saw was kind of uplifting…
First of all, people had more free time and the usual fast pace of the London Book Fair was replaced by a more subtle, causal perusal of the booths of those that did make it. Publishers, distributors, book-store owners and authors walked around the fairgrounds as if they had all the time in the world, and there were moments when I thought the whole thing would briefly stop for a mid-afternoon siesta. Booth patrons were eager to engage with anyone that passed by, rarely giving the all too familiar look that asks “Is this guy going to waste my time?” Frequent smiles were exchanged amongst us lucky few that had made it –- smiles that carried with them a subtle camaraderie of “we are the chosen few.” And finally the cafes and restaurants and bars were filled with people laughing about stories of “hero fair goers” that, despite a random act of God, fought on in order to not miss the London Book Fair of 2010.
I spent my free moments (of which I had many, given that 11 of my 19 meetings were canceled) gathering some of these stories. One story is that of Claudia Kaiser, interim director of the Cape Town Book Fair, who will come to the fair tomorrow, having finally managed to get a Eurostar ticket. A day late, perhaps… but she’ll make it!
Another story is of Ziv Lewis, an Israeli publisher who took off from Tel Aviv at 7am on Thursday only to have his flight turned around with the explanation, “Iceland has exploded. We no longer can go to England,” given by some pilot for whom English most certainly was his second language. Upon returning to Tel Aviv, he somehow (details are fuzzy here given all the laughter I had to sift through to get this story) found a flight to Frankfurt. From there, a young colleague fought with Eurostar’s overrun Web site by clicking refresh over and over again until the site allowed them to book a ticket. He rode business class to London.
However the best story I heard today was about the Il-Sagitory publishing group that, denied a flight and unable to get a train ticket from Milan to Paris (in order to catch a connecting train to London), bought passes to Disney Europe (who have special trains for Italian for Donald Duck enthusiasts) just to reach Paris.
At the fair, they handed out Mickey Mouse ears as they regaled onlookers with their adventure (or at least one pair of Mickey Mouse ears that was worn by Ros Ramsay as she retold their story).
I have yet to encounter anyone who actually swam the Channel, but I am sure that person might exist if only we weren’t a bunch of people who exercise our minds through reading, rather than our bodies through swimming.
Reporting from a somewhat empty, but joyful London Book Fair… Ramy Habeeb