Scenes from Word on the Street, Toronto’s book fest

Margaret Atwood, Evan Solomon roam Toronto's streets alongside with independent writers and booksellers

Once a year book lovers gather to rub shoulders with famous authors and score great deals on tape dispensers.

On Sept. 30, over 130,000 people attended the Word on the Street festival, which set up shop along Queen St. W. from University to Spadina Avenues and featured book sellers, author readings, musical performances and writers' workshops.

The festival is mostly about selling books and book-related products. Publishers as diverse as Random House and the socialist independent Between the Lines offered discounted books to passers by.

Everyone at Word on the Street has something to sell, whether it's a self-published book or a two-year magazine subscription. Corporate sponsors also filled some of the 250 exhibitor booths, some more shamelessly than others.

For instance, 3M set up an "Innovation Station for Writers," a flimsy excuse to display Post-It Notes and tape dispensers. Word on the Street is a place where commerce clearly meets art.

But the festival is mainly a forum for independent publishers, like Edo Van Belkom, to sell books.

"I've been writing full time for nine years," he says. "It took me five years before I made any money and three years before I earned a profit."

Belkom is a horror writer and his latest book, Teeth, is about a female serial killer who stalks men in Brampton. "Let's just say her teeth aren't in her mouth."

Next to Belkom's booth is the Citytv main stage. A samba band is playing while MuchMusic's Electric Circus personality Nadine Ramkisson hosts the City of Toronto Book Awards. The music was a strange backdrop for a literary award presentation.

But where else can you run into, and casually chat up, Toronto literati such as Margaret Atwood?

"I'm pleased to see people turn out," Atwood says of the event. "It's always very populous."

Atwood remained in good spirits even though her latest book, The Blind Assassin, was only short-listed for the City of Toronto Book Awards. A.B. McKillop won the award for his book The Spinster & The Prophet.

"I'm more or less B.A. now," Atwood jokes. "That's Beyond Awards."

Far from the award ceremony and its samba band, Chris Pannell's booth displays his independently published poetry collection, Sorry I Spent Your Poem.

Pannell says poetry is not a well-paying art and he must supplement his income by teaching writing workshops.

"It's a brutally competitive marketplace out there," he says. "But I write poetry because it offers release."

Some journalists also made appearances. Evan Solomon spent the day publicizing his show Hot Type on CBC's Newsworld. "I think [Word on the Street] is great because thousands of people buy books here," he says. "Everyone is running a business."

From books to tape dispensers, it's unique to see thousands of book lovers in one place. Where else would you find librarians shouting like carnival barkers, "Step right up! Don't be shy!"?

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About Robert J. Ballantyne

Robert J.Ballantyne is a senior editor at Popjournalism and Creative Director at Artsculture.ca. Previously, he was a journalist at the CBC on a number of news programs including the fifth estate, Marketplace and The National. He also worked as a staff writer at the Toronto Star.

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