Independent School Book Fairs in the Age of Amazon and Marie Kondo

This year our school’s Book Fair theme was “Reading Opens the World.” Our Assistant Director of Development designed a gorgeous logo with a rainbow. The vinyl stickers we created to market the Fair were a huge hit and there has been non-stop requests for kid and teacher-sized t-shirts (which are usually only ordered for the core Book Fair team).

We held two all school assemblies celebrating books that had opened individual doors to the love of reading. The first group to share were faculty and staff. The second assembly featured student volunteers– we finally had to halt the flood of volunteers because so many students felt called to share their favorite books.

We hosted a free wine (delicious and pricey) and cheese party with our local independent bookstore partner to cap off the first day of the Fair. The store stayed open beyond their normal hours to host our families. Out of 200 families, perhaps 20 families showed up.

We held a one-day, pop-up bookstore in the Main Library of our school with copies of forty thoughtfully curated children’s books, picture books, early elementary selections and middle grade fiction. Again it was a small showing of parents and students.

The structure of Fair has evolved since I started working at St. Thomas School, it went from a five day in-school, two day in-store Fair to in-store and on-line (no in-school options that year) to its current iteration, three days online, one day in-store. The changes have been in keeping with our booksellers’ preferences largely driven by economic imperatives. Invested in supporting local bookstores and a range of publishers, we have not partnered with Scholastic.

It is unclear to me that we will make more than $1000.00 when all is said and done. This is separate from the $500 we (the library and parent association team) spent on marketing materials for an event that is popular with less than 1/8 of our families. When I asked my Friends of the Library chair, “Why do you think that some of our families are not interested in coming to our in-school or in-store Fair?” She said, “They don’t want any more clutter in their houses.”

I understand the need for a tidy house filled with items that bring you joy—thank you, Marie Kondo. However as a librarian, I do not consider books clutter. Even though my own house is small, around 1100 square feet (with two adolescent boys, a dog and a husband) there is always room for another book. The majority of books, especially childrens’ books, are filled with wonder and possibility. Reading truly opens the world, splitting it wide enough for readers to explore, observe, and often understand.

The “books as clutter” concept models a world of limited information and circumscribed knowledge. Parents who tell their children that there isn’t room in the house for books are sending the message that reading itself is wasted time. As teachers we know that one of the single most important activities related to academic success is to encourage a young person to read independently. As parents we know that reading together at home, collaboratively and in parallel, promotes long-term connection and empathy.

In our current moment, we must tackle a two-pronged problem: the desire for the immediate, inexpensive, and personalized selections (Amazon) and the desire for a tidy house (Kondo). The School Book Fair as it has existed in past years may continue to evolve, but the importance of having numerous print books in one’s house will remain increasingly critical.

2 thoughts on “Independent School Book Fairs in the Age of Amazon and Marie Kondo

  1. Thank you for this post. I am at an independent K-8 school. We have a very successful book fair each year, hosted at an independent bookstore near to our school. Here are a few things that we do that I think make it successful. We hold the book fair at the beginning of December, to capitalize on the upcoming holidays and gift-buying. The store donates 20% of sales for the entire day to our library. Our school has the tradition of a book exchange on the morning of the last day of school before the winter break (every student and staff member is paired with someone to buy a book for); we facilitate this book exchange by finding out what books everyone would like, asking the bookstore to purchase those books, and organizing those books on a cart at the book fair to make shopping extremely easy for everyone. We also have a cart of wish list books which families can purchase and donate to the library and put their name inside on a bookplate (we use the proceeds from the book fair to purchase the remainder of the books that are not donated). We have library volunteers working shifts throughout the day of the book fair to provide free wrapping, help people find books, entertain the little ones at a crafts table, and bring food and drink for everyone. Finally, we advertise on the cheap, with flyers going home with students after library class (stuck in their books), student-decorated posters around the school, and electronic notices out to the school community and neighborhood mailing lists. One more thing, we give an opportunity near the end of the school for everyone to exercise their Marie Kondo skills and bring their unwanted children’s books in to the school for a free book swap event — students get to choose free books to take home (and anything left over gets donated to local charities).

  2. I’m sorry that your bookfairs haven’t been as successful as they should be! We run ours on a different model that works for us; a local independent store brings the books to us, and we run the fair in-school for two days, with English teachers bringing their classes in for a half block so that all kids at least get the chance to see and browse books, even if they don’t choose to buy or their parents have told them not to buy (we make sure the parents know well in advance so they can let the kids know how much, if anything, they may spend). For me, that’s the main reason to have the fair–to expose kids to books and show them that we value books. Of course I hope we sell enough to keep the bookstore interested, and we have switched stores a couple of times. We don’t advertise the fair beyond some flyers at school and the notifications to the parents and requests for volunteers, so there’s no cost involved there. We don’t make a lot of money from the fair, but we are fortunate enough that we don’t need to–we donate the profits to our school in Cambodia. Email me if you want more detail.

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