Used books for sale on West 135th Street.
(Matt MacVey photos) (82386)

People came together Saturday to celebrate literature in Harlem, debating writing and identity at panel discussions and meeting with authors and publishers at kiosks on the street. The 15th annual Harlem Book Fair brought readers and books together at an outdoor marketplace along West 135th Street between Frederick Douglass Boulevard and Malcolm X Boulevard from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Readings and panel discussions took place all day at the nearby Schomburg Center, Countee Cullen Library and the Harlem YMCA. People also came to discuss James Baldwin at the first annual Harlem Book Fair Fiction Festival, hosted on the Columbia University campus Friday.

The street was closed off, so pedestrians had room to peruse the more than 100 booths lining the street selling clothing, seafood, halal food and books. Readers saw the breadth of the literary scene, and some found new books to take home. Aarin Williams came from Newark, N.J., for the fair and appreciated that it draws a much larger crowd than some other literary events. Williams picked up a used copy of a W. E. B. Du Bois reader for $3. “I like the smell of old books,” said Williams.

Sherman Toppin, there to promote his first book, was only able to get a booth as a last-minute addition after another author failed to show up. Toppin was glad to meet readers and other authors. “Each author has tips for you,” he said. “I learned a lot of grassroots things.” He is promoting his motivational book, “Finishing on Top,” through giveaways on “Everyone I talked to was a reader,” he continued. “They want a human being, not a sales pitcher.”

Many exhibitors have made the book fair a tradition. This year was author Michel Moore’s ( sixth year at the fair. Moore’s family made the trip with her from Detroit to help out at the booth. Moore’s daughter T. C. Littles ( is also an author, and both mother and daughter have been on the Essence magazine bestseller list. Moore believes it is important to have readers put a face to a name, even with an increasing number of them shopping for books online. “You still got to show up,” said Moore.

This year, the book fair added the Fiction Festival for the first time. The festival was held all day Friday in conjunction with faculty from the Columbia University School of the Arts on the Columbia University campus. One panel brought together authors from the African

diaspora in the Caribbean, and many focused on the work of James Baldwin. Those discussions were part of the “Year of Baldwin” that will commemorate and reflect upon the author through many events across New York City. Rich Blint, a professor at Columbia, played a big part in organizing the “Year of Baldwin” and the Fiction Festival. “The singular urgency and clarity of Baldwin’s decades-long insistence on identifying and holding up for analysis all the ways in which we court our own devastation makes him particularly relevant now,” said Blint.

Author talks were presented all day at the Countee Cullen Library and the Harlem YMCA. Devotees of K’wan Foye ( filled a conference room on the third floor of the Countee Cullen Library late in the afternoon for a chance to meet the author. Foye writes crime fiction that is known for interweaving a wide variety of characters and for its gritty realism. Many readers in attendance were still struggling to accept the fates of their favorite characters.

“I cried real tears when I blew his brains out,” said Foye in response to one such question.

“Me too,” was the quick reply from the audience.

Catherine Reedus was visiting from Indianapolis for the chance to meet Foye. Reedus often buys Foye’s books in print, as e-books and as audiobooks. “They leave you wanting more,” said Reedus.

The struggles and opportunities of self-publishing came up frequently at the Harlem Book Fair. Many authors found that self-publishing allowed them access to broader audiences than publishers had imagined for them. Cerece Rennie Murphy (, speaking at a panel on Afrofuturism and science fiction, said that after sending out 20 query letters to publishers for her first book, “Order of the Seers,” she decided to self-publish. “I realized I didn’t need someone’s permission to tell my stories,” said Murphy. She was the only woman selling her own speculative fiction at the New York York Comic Con in 2012. She now has a list of women and minority authors working in the genre that she hands out at conventions and book fairs.

Marc Delsoin has been a fan of Murphy’s books since he first read them with his family on Long Island during Hurricane Sandy. Delsoin has been coming to the book fair for years to find other people who share his passion for reading. “It’s sort of like coming home,” said Delsoin.

Sonia Sanchez and Abiodun Oyewole, two poets and luminaries of the Black Arts Movement, the cultural movement started by Amiri Baraka in the late 1960s that led to the start of Black studies departments in universities, capped off the evening at the Schomburg Center. Sanchez still finds a lack of diversity in publishing. “There should be no Black writer not on the bestseller list, if they’re putting in the work,” said Sanchez.

Oyewole and Sanchez paid respects to cultural and political leaders who have passed this year: Donald Byrd, Amiri Baraka, Ronny Jordan, Chokwe Lumumba, Jayne Cortez, Ruby Dee and Maya Angelou, among others. After each name, they said, with the crowd, “Àshe” (pronounced AH-shay), a Yoruba word that recognizes the importance of life with thanks.

Sanchez said that God must be getting lonely to have called up all of these great artists and that he needs to leave some here on Earth. But, after such an abundant book fair, there are plenty of people ready to fill our bags with books and our minds with ideas.