In the early 1980s, the world of school book fairs was “a highly competitive and very secretive industry,” according to a New York Times article at the time. The fairs numbered in the thousands and spanned the United States. They were put on by a mix of organizers: A few national corporations, about 25 to 30 regional companies, and assorted bookstores.
By the 1990s, one organizer reigned: the Scholastic Corporation. Scholastic, founded in 1920 to publish books and magazines aimed at young readers, had purchased several of its smaller competitors. The company became the largest operator of children’s book fairs in the country, a title it still holds today.
But we’re not here to talk about Scholastic’s business history, and I think you know that. If you’re a young adult who attended elementary school in the United States, I’d guess that when you saw the headline on this story, something deep inside your mind cracked open. With an unmistakable pang of nostalgia, the memory of a Scholastic book fair, with all its concomitant joys, came flooding in.
At the turn of the century, after the availability of dial-up internet but before the widespread use of mobile phones, the euphoria in the weeks before a Scholastic book fair was palpable, like the anticipation before a big holiday. When it was finally time and the doors opened, the drab libraries, auditoriums, and gyms that students moved through every day were transformed, almost as if by magic, into bookstores full of colorful covers, glittery pens and pencils, and cute classroom tchotchkes. Kids were free to roam the fair, to pick up books and sniff their glossy pages, and, if their parents had sent them to school with a few dollar bills, buy them. The thought of selecting a book all by oneself, of exercising a little independence—in such short supply at that age—was delicious.