On a sweltering Saturday in July 1999, about 800 people braved the hot open plaza of the Harlem State Office building on 125th Street in Manhattan to listen to authors read and to line up for writers' autographs at the first Harlem Book Fair. Four years later, the fair has bloomed from a one-day event into a week-long cultural affair, culminating in a block-party book festival on 135th Street, near the Schomburg Library. More than 18,000 book lovers are expected to attend the fifth annual Harlem Book Fair (www.qbr.com) on Saturday, July 19.
Founded by Max Rodriguez, publisher of QBR: The Black Book Review, the fair, which celebrates books by and about African-Americans, has attracted about 17 corporate sponsors, including AOL Time Warner (an early supporter), AT&T, BET Books, BBC, Nickelodeon, New York Life, WNYC, the New York Times and Black Expressions Book Club, in addition to such publishers as Random House, Perseus and St. Martin's. And this year for the first time, Sony will partner with HBF to host an author reception at Sony's midtown headquarters.
"We started QBR to celebrate black writers," said Rodriguez, "and we started the fair to develop a market for those writers and introduce them to the world." Pittershawn Palmer, associate publisher of QBR, said the fair is also attracting tourists and noted that many East Coast black booksellers organize bus trips to spend the week attending HBF events. Rodriguez added that the Harlem Book Fair is reaching out beyond New York, with a series of Harlem Book Fairs planned in Freeport, Long Island, in September; San Diego in October; and Englewood, N.J., next year.
The fair day itself will kick off with a panel of publishing executives. On Friday, July 18, the Phillis Wheatley Book Awards will be presented to poet Gwendolyn Brooks, author Ishmael Reed and poet/publisher/activist Haki Madhubuti at a gala event at the Schomburg Library.
"We're not there yet," said Rodriguez, "but we would love to become New York Is Black Books Country."