On small presses, reading, writing and determination

Written by Ryan Tuozzolo

Posted on September 26, 2022

Filed Under: Blog

Bookseller Maritza Montañez consults with a Bookmobile visitor, offering guidance on selections

The Bookmobile at Small Press Flea, 2022

On Saturday, August 20th, the Bookmobile rolled up onto the concourse of the Grand Army branch of the Brooklyn Public Library for the annual Small Press Flea (SPF). Throughout the day, hundreds of book lovers of all stripes mingled with the regular patrons of the weekly farmer’s market happening across the street.

The SPF debuted nine years ago, a collaboration between a dozen or so independent publishers. Since then, the event has grown exponentially, drawing over 30 vendors, including independent publishers, magazines, and presses, such as One Story, n+1, and A Public Space. It attracts Brooklyn’s literari from all boroughs. It was no coincidence that SpeakEasy staffers kept seeing familiar faces from editors at Reckless Books and Archipelago pass by.

Unlike the majority of our bookmobile deployments, where we distribute brand new free books to communities in need, the SPF presented a rare opportunity for us to sell books., A portion of the proceeds go directly to support our year-round outreach programs, embodied by the Bookmobile itself.. We partnered with Greenlight Books who provided us books at bargain rates for the bookworm on a budget.

This year, we featured titles from authors who had recently performed at SpeakEasy’s Seriously Entertaining shows at Joe’s Pub in the East Village. These included Greenland by David Santos Donaldson’s, Smile and Love Poems in Quarantine by Sarah Ruhl, The Other Black Girl by Zakiya Dalila Harris, as well as other authors we have featured on stage and in schools, such as the graphic memoir Good Talk by Mira Jacob, who spoke at Joe’s in January 2020.

I was struck by visitors’ reactions’ to the various books on display. In terms of fiction, particularly popular was Xochitl Gonzalez’s Olga Dies Dreaming, which follows a 30-something wedding planner and her brother against the backdrop of the 2017 Hurricane Maria in their family’s native Puerto Rico. I was thrilled to see Braiding Sweetgrass (by Robin Wall Kimmerer) on the truck’s shelves, and equally excited that the memoir Please Miss: A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Penis by Grace Lavery was out as well; Grace performed for Seriously Entertaining earlier earlier this year (and was a professor at my alma mater).

After making their rounds with independent publishers tabling at the event, visitors were able to visit our truck, learn about our outreach efforts, and pick up a book of their own if they so-pleased.

At one point during the day, I got to speak with art historian and literary critic Jan Castro, who reviewed Maaza Mengiste’s The Shadow King, also on display, for the American Book Review. She’d read it favorably, and shared the piece with me afterwards. The novel follows Mussolini’s 1935 invasion of Ethiopia via a friendship of two Ethiopian women: Hirut and Aster. Of the two, Jan writes, “They somehow rise from their respective positions in a culture dominated by family traditions, class, and male hierarchies of military and political leadership. The choruses, photos, and classic myths in the novel all suggest metaphorically that not only has their time come, but ours as well — if we can gain the skills, tools, and resources to rise up.”

The theme of “rising up,” as one might expect at a festival celebrating small, New York-based presses, came up repeatedly in my conversations. I also chatted with Bruce McPherson, founder of McPherson & Co. of Kingston, NY. I asked him what he would, of the offerings on the table, recommend. He pointed me towards two 20th century female writers, both hidden gems (under-recognized giant is an oxymoron) in their fields: French writer and New Yorker Ursule Molinaro and English modernist Mary Butts. He praised the former’s reinvention of tragic Greek tropes of femininity, and her contemporary cultural analyses drawn from them. He called the latter a classical myth-handler in her own right. I left with a copy of Butts’ The Taverner Novels.

For all the bustle of the day, the event wound down gradually, with crowds thinning at dusk. As we packed up the remaining titles, several friendly publishers stopped to say goodbye and offer their support. Verso Books even donated a box of books, which took a dedicated place on our shelves for the next couple of events.

We were thankful for the donation, a testament to our shared commitment to the importance of free distribution of knowledge.

Ryan Tuozzolo is a writer living in Crown Heights. You can contact her at [email protected].

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