Where Did School Book Fairs Come From?

Like this, but, you know, in a school. (Language may vary.) Credit: Biswarup Ganguly (CC).

Note: in preparing the next episode of my podcast, I had a surprising amount of supplemental material that was kind of off-topic and that I didn’t have time to talk about, so I decided to save it for the blog. This is the first of two companion posts to the upcoming Episode 44: The Children’s Sci-Fi Renaissance.

If you’re American and under the age of 40, then you probably remember the Scholastic Book Fairs. (And I suppose a lot of the rest of you if you have kids under the age of 40.) If you’re not familiar, book fairs are book sales that are done in schools (usually primary schools) where kids can browse new books and buy them—of course in this case mainly books published by the Scholastic Corporation. Book fairs are a longstanding effort to get children reading (and of course get their parents paying) by allowing them to sample new books when might not have the interest or opportunity otherwise. The school also gets a portion of the revenue in exchange for hosting the fair.

Book fairs are big business. Scholastic hosts 120,000 of them across the country every year and has even done virtual book fairs during the pandemic. They’re also where Harry Potter got his American debut. But the thing is, Scholastic didn’t invent them—and that’s not surprising, but what is surprising…is that I can’t for the life of me figure out who did.

The Scholastic Corporation was founded in 1920 as a publisher of youth magazines. The Scholastic book clubs—those monthly flyers your teacher gave you that you could order books from—started all the way back in the 1940s, but the in-school fairs where kids can sample the titles directly are a bigger business today.

Scholastic began hosting book fairs when it bought the California School Book Fairs chain in either 1981 or 1982—which itself is a bit of a puzzle. Scholastic’s website says 1981, but a New York Times article from 1984 (so, pretty close to the event) says 1982, and I’ve seen both dates quoted elsewhere. Regardless, Scholastic moved fast. According to the New York Times, in just two or three years, they went from zero to one of the “big three” companies in the book fair market, and by the 90s, they had pretty much taken over the market entirely.

Yet there is shockingly little information readily available (at least online) about what that market was like before 1981. There had to have been a market for Scholastic to buy up. In fact, it seems to have been a large and well-established market because multiple Baby Boomers I talked had no trouble remembering going to book fairs when they were kids, twenty years before Scholastic got in on the game. But when did they start? Were they run differently back then? I don’t know. When you search for the history of book fairs, all of the articles simply begin with Scholastic buying California School Book Fairs in 1981.

If I had the time and resources, I’d like to do a deep dive and investigate this properly because it just seems so strange to me, but here is what I was able to find quickly. If you Google “book fair” or “school book fair” together with a year, you can find a handful of newspaper articles, catalogs, reminiscing social media posts, and other artifacts talking about book fairs before Scholastic. Here’s one from 1979. And another from 1975. And one from 1967. That led me to Getty Images, which has rich catalog of digitized newspaper photos that let me trace it back further. The oldest one I could find was this book fair/book signing in Denver on November 19, 1952. (They also have this one of Zora Neale Hurston circa 1937, but it’s not clear if that’s a school book fair.)

So, what happened? The best I can figure is that before Scholastic, book fairs were local or regional events and were much less remarked-upon. They didn’t have the national reach, publicity, and corporate backing that they have today. (And after all, how often do you hear about book fairs on the national news as it is?) I could be wrong, and I welcome being corrected by an actual historian, or even just someone with more experience than I have. I still don’t really know how school book fairs got started, so if anyone knows something about that, leave a comment below.

About Alex R. Howe

I'm a full-time astrophysicist and a part-time science fiction writer.
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