Once upon a time, before we were afraid of gathering in groups of larger than one, the Powers That Were noticed that our little book binge was bringing a lot of people into the Newberry. And the Powers said to the Book Fair, “It’s very sad about all these people you’re bringing into the building.”
“If this is about that fellow who tried to flush a whole roll of toilet paper at once in the men’s room,” we said, “We’re going to have him watched next year.”
“It’s no one in particular,” said the Powers, “It’s that these people aren’t really doing us any good.”
“They’re spending money to buy us light bulbs and toilet paper,” we said.
We were met with a pitying headshake. “Studies show that people who come and buy things at institutions don’t actually ever do anything else. They never become major donors or supporters.”
“Well, if they spend money, aren’t they helping support us? And, by the way, that fellow who bought all that opera in our audiovisual section….”
“They see nothing but what they’re buying,” we were told, with another headshake. “They never look around and see what the Newberry is really about. That’s not the same as being a regular donor.”
“There’s that fellow who comes every year to buy cassette players and movie projectors, and always rounds his tally up to the nearest dollar.”
“Not the same,” we were told. “We need a way to connect with the people.”
So from time to time, they developed glorious plans for the people attending the Book Fair. One year it was a lecture on one of Chicago’s favorite Trials Of The Century, the Leopold and Loeb case. They scheduled this on the second floor at the same time as our Associates’ Preview Night. “Be sure to leave enough room in the lobby for the people lining up to come upstairs,” we were told. “This will provide an educational opportunity, so the people who don’t want to buy books can have a good time, too.”
I’m afraid I said something along the lines of “Verb the people who don’t want to buy books,” but I promised not to let our untidy merchandise get in the way of the crowds.
There weren’t crowds. Those attending the Preview Night apparently knew the Newberry well enough to realize that great lectures are available year round but the Book Fairs are few and far between. Even for such a popular topic, the audience was small. I didn’t look in on it myself, but I was told later that the lecture was quick: the speaker wanted to finish up and get downstairs to buy books on true crime.
We have tried informational posters along the walls, and educational bookmarks. A frequently-made suggestion that curators hang out in the general area of books in their area of expertise, to engage customers in earnest discussions of topics of interest in history, genealogy, or music never seems to fly. The curators are afraid of numerous elbows to the stomach if they get between a customer and that book on the history of socket bayonets, and there are some fears of what would happen if our Trustees (many of whom shop at the Book Fair) would be troubled at the sight of our Newberry brain trust being paid to hang out at a Book Fair. (THEY might want a stipend to browse among the Jorrocks novels.
You can usually count on at least one of the Powers to cry out, “An exhibit! We should have an exhibit for them to attend!”
“That takes up space we can use for selling books,” we murmur.
This always draws another shake of the head. “What’s really important here: making money or educating the public?”
This idea has cooled in recent years, now that we have an exhibit hall with room enough for our checkout line, allowing people to study exhibits and learn what the Newberry is all about while someone tallies their stack of magazines dealing with Chinese snuff bottles. I THINK there are still a few people who wonder why we can’t have a video monitor on the wall explaining the finer points of getting a Reader’s Card. The reason is we’d sell it.