There is something about Taproots School of the Arts that I can't quite put my finger on. It's something like going to Black Bear Bakery and standing over the display case, thinking the whole time, "That bread's homemade, and those cookies are homemade, and ooh, the granola in little plastic bags is homemade." It's something like walking into the City Museum and seeing a mosaic in progress. In this world of strip malls and subdivisions, where structures and foods are nothing more than a commodity, I walk into Taproots and realize that people actually make things from scratch. A book is a book as Gertrude Stein might say, but it's also the paper, it's also the mechanics of binding, it's also the printing on each page, and more than anything it's the artist's imagination.
This last weekend Taproots had the first of what I'm sure is to be an annual book fair. The $5 price of admission included books on display, workshops, tables where artists could sell their wares, musicians, and of course, a room off to the side with poetry readings. A book fair just wouldn't be a book fair without poetry readings. (For the sake of full disclosure, I organized those poetry readings.)
For me, the center of the show was in the book gallery proper. There were all the formalities expected in any gallery: someone watching to make sure the art isn't damaged, tags with the title, artist, and medium, accented lighting in glass cases. But books are meant to be handled and opened, not just admired. White gloves were available for handling the books to keep smudges from getting on them. I was very pleased when the volunteer who sat in a very formal wooden chair invited me and others to put the gloves on and judge the books by more than their covers. The volunteers may not have used those exact words, but the spirit was there.
The range of books was great, including both older and younger artists. There were accordion books with stars, suns, and other little pointy objects cut into the pages. There were freestanding books that reminded me of frames within frames that I guess were leading me to the back page. There was a book with cloth pages and buttons sewed into each page it came in its own little basket. I think it was called the Button Book. From the title pages, it appears the books from the younger artists were mainly projects from classes they'd taken with Taproots. These books were a little more conventional in content. You know, stories about typical things like a lonely refrigerator box and another one about minotaurs and supercheeses. One of the younger artist books I especially liked was an anthology with three illustrated stories in it. These kids are already prepared for the big time. Collaboration is, after all, the key to success.
Upstairs in the gymnasium, there were booths with homemade books, journals, calligraphy, and cards for sale. One of my favorite tables was hosted by one of the teachers from Taproots. She was selling paper that she had made there at the school. All the sheets were fanned out, each with its own character and coloring. She was also making these little frog-shaped books that actually jumped and little books that sprung open like a surprise. Not exactly what I expect to find at Left Bank or Barnes & Noble, but I wouldn't be at a book fair if I were looking for the usual fare.
Without a doubt the fair was a success, especially for a first year event. Taproots had held more informal book fairs before, exhibiting books by local artists, both young and old. This was the first time they had issued an open invitation to submit. The result was works from across the country. I noticed three submissions from Memphis alone, and the director of Taproots said there were books from many other places as well. But a book fair wouldn't be anything without people. Despite the small budget they had for advertising (in the world of nonprofits I believe this translates to no money for an advertising budget), the fair still attracted a crowd of people, many not previously familiar with Taproots. The small entrance fee not only gave visitors admission to the gallery and the book bazaar upstairs, it also gave them access to workshops on pop-up books and, yes, even the poetry readings that were held on the first floor. More than anything, the $5 introduced them to Taproots School of Arts, where the art of making a book is as essential as reading, writing, and arithmetic.
Kent Shaw, a poet and writer, lives in St. Louis.