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One for the Books

35,000 Turn Out for 1st L.A. Festival Bringing Readers, Authors Together

April 21, 1996|PETER Y. HONG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

For much of Saturday it looked like everyone in Los Angeles was at the UCLA campus, sampling the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books on what was a near perfect day. Old folks, young folks, readers, writers, sellers and strollers--in all sizes, shapes and colors--were milling as far as the eye could see, finding books and sharing a moment with their favorite authors.

Of course not everyone was there, but with nearly twice the expected crowd, it surely felt that way for the event's organizers. Panel discussions with authors were filled to capacity even before their scheduled starting times, leaving hundreds out in the sun and a few peering in through windows. Thousands of others thronged the promenade of tents set up by booksellers. The full house at one forum on political writing prompted panelist Harold Meyerson to poke fun at a current UCLA controversy over favoritism in admissions. "Did you all get here without the assistance of a regent?" he asked, drawing a roar of laughter from the audience.

Because the festival is the first of its kind in Los Angeles, planners expected about 20,000 to show up, slightly less than the number that attend similar, established festivals in cities such as San Francisco and Seattle. Few really knew what to expect, however, and some worried that only a small number would turn out.

But any doubts about the bookishness of locals disappeared by 9:30 a.m., when the first parking-shuttle buses quickly filled, leaving many waiting. Those in the book business have long been aware of a well-kept secret--Los Angeles County readers last year spent more on books than their counterparts in New York. That secret was out Saturday.

Although no official crowd count was taken, UCLA vendors estimated that at least 35,000 attended the festival's first day. The free, two-day event at UCLA's Dickson Plaza concludes today.

Throughout the day, parking lots were packed and food vendors worked furiously to keep up with the demand for burgers, burritos and Chinese food.

It was a field day for the booksellers who set up tents along the plaza. "We didn't know what to expect today, since it's the first year. But we're really happy. We're mobbed," said Stan Hynds, between ringing up sales for Vroman's, the 100-year-old Pasadena bookstore, which was among more than 150 exhibitors at the fair.

Douglas Dutton, of Dutton's Bookstore in Brentwood, said his strong sales showed how hungry Los Angeles residents are for good books: "I'm sold out of Graham Swift's 'Last Orders,' a very dense novel."

The festival's organizers said one of their goals was to showcase the literary community of Los Angeles. "Not everybody understands what fertile ground Los Angeles is [for authors and readers]," said Stephanie Sandberg, a Los Angeles Times marketing executive who helped plan the event.

The 50 panels, many featuring local authors, underscored that point. There seemed to be something on the program for seemingly every type of person who lives in Los Angeles--seminars for just-published authors, examinations of multicultural manners with Abigail "Dear Abby" Van Buren and a group of gardening writers who spoke to the green-thumbed. Nearly all were oversubscribed.

"It's a problem that comes with success," said Times Editor Shelby Coffey III, adding that the popularity of the event this first year probably will prompt the Times to sponsor a repeat.

Some of the events were tailor-made for children, down to a special appearance by Spider-Man, readings by children's book authors at an outdoor storytelling stage, and the opportunity to have a face-to-face encounter with their favorite characters.

Recent UCLA graduate David Avery, 25, said the sessions, including the etiquette discussion with Dear Abby, were more fun than college.

"I really enjoyed it," he said after attending one panel. "It was the same type of thing we did in our college classes but we got to hear comments from people in the audience who were in school 20, 30 or 40 years ago."

The book exhibits were as diverse as the panels and their participants.

In addition to old-line independents like Vroman's, chain stores such as Barnes & Noble put up tents, and local libraries set up displays.

The Dianetics Foundation manned a booth, as did the Krishnas. The Elysium Growth Press, a Topanga Canyon group that describes itself as "the nation's only clothing-optional bookstore," may have been the boldest exhibitor (figuratively speaking), while map maker Thomas Bros. was perhaps the most staid.

"This is wonderful, fantastic!" said Brentwood resident Georgette O'Connor, as she waited in a snaking line to attend a panel on the future of Asian American literature. But O'Connor, who moved to Los Angeles from New Caledonia 25 years ago, said she had hoped French writers and literature would have been featured in the festival.

Narda Zacchino, Times associate editor, who was a leader in organizing the festival, said O'Connor may get her wish in the future. The hope, she said, is to include non-English books and authors, if there is a demand.

Zacchino said no fee is being charged for admission into the festival to open it to as many people as possible. Although parking on campus is $5, a free lot is available at the nearby Federal Building on Wilshire.

Like other organizers, Zacchino said the huge attendance came as a surprise.

"It's always hard to anticipate what the demands will be during the first year," she said.

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