This weekend more than 100,000 folks are expected to pack the University of Arizona Mall for the Tucson Festival of Books. The two-day festival, now in its ninth year, will present about 400 authors, as well as presentations, panel discussions and hands-on activities.
It’s a book lover’s dream, giving people the opportunity to hear from their favorite authors or discover new ones, see them up close, maybe say hello and to walk away contented with an armload of books.
But do Tucsonans really read that much?
Yeah, we do read a lot, said several people who make their living from reading and books.
Trudy Mills, who has been in the book-selling business for three decades, is bullish on Tucson’s love of books.
“The store’s doing better than it ever did,” said Mills, who along with Kate Randall, co-owns Antigone Books at 411 N. Fourth Ave., home to six book clubs.
While their well-established store, and other indie book stores, have faced fierce pressure from large-box chain stores, online book sellers and electronic books, Mills said independent book sellers are holding their own. Reading a book on a tablet or ordering books from the Amazon giant are practical to some people, but nothing replaces walking into a book store, perusing the shelves, thumbing the pages and feeling a sense of place of belonging.
And Mills’ optimism is bolstered by more young readers who ditch their electronic devices to look for something good to read.
Across the street and two blocks down at The Book Stop, 214 N. Fourth Ave., Claire Fellows, who with her business partner Tina Bailey has co-owned the used book store since the 1990s, has the same observation about young readers.
Like Mills and Randall, Fellows has witnessed the changing habits of Tucson book buyers for years. Fellows has worked at The Book Stop for 40 years. But she doesn’t see book selling solely through rose-colored glasses.
“I think people are reading. I don’t think they’re reading books. People are Googling,” she said.
Still, enough people do walk into her store to find a dog-eared copy of a book they’ve been wanting to read. And many of them are steady customers.
“And that’s enough for me,” said Fellows.
From an outsider’s perspective, Tucson has a healthy appetite for books, said Patricia Nelson, who represents various college presses — Princeton, Yale and Massachusetts Institute of Technology — in the western states. Nelson, who lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico, was at Antigone Books the late afternoon that I stopped by.
Nelson has represented publishers for 40 years. From her vantage point, visiting some of the top independent book stores, more people are reading books because of their interest in the current political theater.
Book lovers are a passionate bunch. They talk books. They cringe if a book store closes or is under pressure to close. They’ll suggest to their non-reading friends a book to read. They fill the UA Mall and they visit the public libraries.
“Tucson is a very well-read population,” said Susannah Connor, a librarian at the Dusenberry-River Library at 5605 E. River Road.
One sign is the foot traffic at the library, she said. Another sign is the popularity of reading clubs which meet regularly at the library. In the past two years, the number of groups grew by two to a total of five.
Sure, that’s not a huge number but it shows growth. Like Mills and Fellows, Connor said what’s feeding book clubs and keeping book stores alive are people who are looking for common bonds.
“People are hungry to connect over books,” said Connor, who coordinates adult programs and serves on the Health and Seed Library Teams, and who was recently honored with the 2016 Outstanding Library Service Award from the Arizona State Library Association.
Connecting. That’s what book stores, libraries and reading clubs do. They connect people to books filled with stories or ideas and perspectives, and to cultures and places.
And the biggest connecting show is this weekend at the Tucson Festival of Books, which has become one of the largest in the country. Because Tucson reads.