Walking through the doors of the rarely used Annex space at 830 Filbert Street, once the rear of the original Strawbridge & Clothier department store, your eyes are immediately met with a sea of tables piled with organized paper and ink. More than 60 artists, photographers, printmakers, and art book publishers stand among stacks of tasty, visual literature ready for page-flipping.
Now in its sixth year, and bigger than ever, the Philadelphia Art Book Fair (PABF), a collaboration between Philadelphia Photo Arts Center and The Print Center, began with just 15 art book publishers. Last year it moved from the Crane Arts Building to its new home in Center City with the help of Franklin Flea founder Mark Vevle, whose seasonal vintage market occupies the south side of the Market Street building.
In a world where most media are consumed online, and for free, you might wonder whether such a paper-heavy event is sustainable. “The reproduction of a work of art will not produce the same feeling as seeing the work in person,” explains Josh Brilliant, one of the Philadelphia organizers and education coordinator at the Philadelphia Photo Arts Center. “The book as an object is the work of art. The intimacy of paging through a book can never be virtually replicated.” Originators like the L.A. Art Book Fair and New York Art Book Fair have proven, the demand has only grown. Last year New York's three-day event at MoMA PS1 pulled a crowd of over 35,000, beating the fair's previous record of around 27,000.
Philadelphia is smaller and younger, but there's still a big draw.
"The artists that have made the books are usually the ones manning the tables,” says Brilliant. People come for reasons beyond stocking up on art books. Such fairs are rare opportunities to meet the people behind the works. Programs throughout the weekend include book signings with artists like John Gossage and Phyllis Galembo and a keynote lecture by American portrait photographer Doug DuBois, whose newest photo book, My Last Day at Seventeen, which was featured by TIME, takes a fascinating look at a group of teens from the working-class Russell Heights community in the town of Cobh, County Cork, on the southwest coast of Ireland.
There's something for every taste, from Xeroxed zines to decadent, professionally bound compositions, but navigating PABF does require a strategy. "I start with the smaller presses," says Brilliant. "The bigger ones, I know what's going to be there. I want to save my money for the smaller things, to see what's going to surprise and excite me." With plenty to discover, the fair is small enough so visitors can visit each table and loop back through to see if one more thing might catch the eye.
Noon-8 p.m. Friday and noon-6 p.m. Saturday at The Annex on Filbert, 830 Filbert St. This event is free and open to the public.