It was 70 degrees and sunny. Visitors who had walked the 17 minutes from the L train, waited for the free shuttle bus, or avoided public transportation altogether by riding their bikes streamed through the parking lot and into the light-filled, high-ceilinged, formerly industrial brick building that housed this past weekend’s BABZ Fair (formerly the Bushwick Art Book and Zine Fair). In its fifth year, BABZ crossed the borough border to set up at the Knockdown Center in Queens, and though the venue is a bit off the beaten path, it was worth the trek. Organized by Blonde Art Books, the fair featured a range of small presses concentrating primarily on poetry and art, reading spaces, and zinesters, in addition to an ambitious two-day schedule of programming.
We’re living in a moment of high interest in book fairs, especially art book fairs, and it’s not always clear what newer events have to offer. Although I enjoyed past editions of BABZ at its previous location, Bushwick’s SIGNAL gallery, a much smaller venue with little to no natural light, it looks as though the Knockdown Center holds part of the answer. BABZ isn’t alone in emphasizing small presses and independent publishers and makers, but many other book fairs section off their exhibitors; Printed Matter’s NY Art Book Fair, for example, has grown in size so much that it places the zines in an outdoor tent, the small presses in another room, and the vanity presses in yet another. Walking into BABZ, I encountered three established Brooklyn-based literary presses in a row — Ugly Ducking Presse, Litmus Press, and Belladonna Series — followed by #Blkgrlswurld Zine, a women-run zine/Tumblr celebrating metal and Afropunk, and the feminist publication Ginger Magazine. The grouping placed bound poetry collections and letterpress broadsides in conversation with stapled zines, brightly colored risograph posters, and glossy magazines. Due to the size and limitations of space, most fairs don’t allow for such fruitful juxtapositions between exhibitors. The vast openness of the Knockdown Center meant that nothing was really cordoned off from anything else. The programing occurred in a large, open room connected to the main space, with bean-bag chairs scattered across the floor and picnic tables for visitors to eat or work on laptops. There was one room with a closed door where more formal panels took place, but even that maintained the casual community ethos of the entire fair.
Browsing the tables, I thought about what brings people to books and publishing in the first place: community, exchange, and a desire to share, themes that are often overshadowed by the necessary commercialism of retail. This tension was explored in one of the programs I attended (in the closed-door room), about artist-run reading spaces, with presentations by and a dialogue between the organizers of Ulises (Philadelphia), Wendy’s Subway (Brooklyn), Dispersed Holdings (Manhattan), Press Press (Baltimore), and Brown Paper Zine Fair/3 Dot Zine (Brooklyn). Each one, in their own way, articulated the nexus that book spaces present between libraries and stores, by fostering community while still developing a sustainable business model and producing books and other projects for sale (or exchange).
Presumably, the hope of any fair is to be so successful that it must expand, as the NY Art Book Fair and many others have. My hope for BABZ is that, as it grows, it holds fast to the community ethos so strongly present at the Knockdown Center this year — that it remains a space to explore the sociability of books, which is often what draws artists and readers to the form in the first place.
Below are some of the tables, books, prints, and swag that caught my eye at BABZ Fair 2017, reminding me of the wonderful diversity and spunk publishing can have.
The BABZ Fair 2017 took place at the Knockdown Center (52-19 Flushing Avenue, Maspeth, Queens) on June 3–4.