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Publishers and media companies throughout the world came galloping into town on their respective horses to become players in the Frankfurt International Book Fair. With a long lasting tradition that goes back more than five hundred years, it’s a veritable pissing contest between publishing companies. It’s all about deals, deals, deals. One particular newspaper article quoted a literary agent as saying: “No writer should ever go to Frankfurt. It’s soul-destroying. You see writers being traded like pork bellies.” I’m not sure where the general public’s attendance at the fair fits into the whole equation—some people may buy a book or two—but I do know that it’s one big literary marketplace jam packed into the enormous exhibition halls of Frankfurt Messe.

“What’s at the book fair besides books? At least at the car show we got to see cars.” I was amazed at some of the profound statements that came out of my wife’s mouth. This one really made me think. What was at this year’s biggest literary event? Damned if I knew. We both like to read, and she certainly breezes through more novels than I care to know about.

“This is the biggest book fair in the world. Are you kidding? 'What’s there?' What’s the difference? Why would we not go?” I said. (I’m the idealist in the relationship.) That was all the motivation she needed. My enthusiastic sentiment was duly noted and a mental fist pump presumably befell. Game on.

On Sundays in Germany at that time, retail stores and supermarkets closed down and the entire country hid in a corner. With that in mind, we expected nothing less than an uneventful ride on the train to the already-in-progress Frankfurt book fair. Things were running pretty smoothly, too, until the “smoking onion guy” took the seat behind us.

“Do you smell that? It smells weird, like dog shit or something,” I said to Kathleen.

“Yeah, I think it’s the guy behind you,” she said. It was a distinct yet rancid cigarette smell. We both curled and flared our nostrils, discreetly taking in the foreign stench. It was disgusting, which I knew, but I just couldn’t put my finger on it. What’s this guy’s scent? “I’m usually good with this kind of stuff,” I thought.

“Oh my God. That same guy was sitting next to me on the train the other morning. It's onions!” Kathleen abruptly whispered to me.

“Ah, no it’s not,” I whispered back. “It’s cigarettes.” Then, we both suddenly turned and looked at one another in shock. It was like a cognitive revolution, and it was positively, mathematically, and theoretically absolute. This was a classic case of the cigarette-onion combo, for sure. We found the smoking gun. Case closed.

The last hours on the last day, that’s our style.

“Let’s go, hurry up.” Kathleen practically jumped from her seat and lunged at the door as the train came to a stop.

“You ready?” I said, lagging behind like an elderly man struggling to make his way through a crowd. It was quarter of three in the afternoon and we were fashionably late. I felt like we had just flipped to the end of a novel to read the last page. Like we had already missed the entire build-up, the guts, yet we would still be left with the satisfaction of knowing how it ends.

When we got to the fair’s first exhibition hall, it was evident that the masses of people were not going anywhere. It was entirely too crowded for my taste, but we shuffled from hall to hall anyway, without a strategy, system, or plan in mind. And of the eighty-six countries that were represented there, I cannot say which culture intrigued me the most. But I did make one gripping discovery: the book fair was a snooze fest. Kathleen was right. It was dull. Until, of course, we got to hall number eight, with good ole North America camped out there, and some UK, Ireland, Australia, etc., thrown in the mix.

Now this was my style. I was really pretty excited by the presence of some major US publishers. Many of them were there but had already started packing up. “Why are they all leaving?” Kathleen asked, frowning.

“Um, ‘cause it’s the end. Maybe they have to catch a flight outta here tonight. Who knows?” I was certain of one thing, though: this was a prime opportunity to get some free books. So off I went, immediately making the transformation into full dork mode. I canvassed the hall area as quickly as I could, jumping from station to station in the most haphazard of manners, with Kathleen occasionally yelling for me to wait up! This was no time to lollygag, though. We had some books to collect.

In the end, we did some schmoozing, made a couple of small purchases, and mostly scooped up all the free books we could get our hands on: children’s books, travel books, newspapers, brochures, novellas, and unrevised original works. It was a clever move by two latecomers with a sudden fascination for book collecting. And it was all in a (half) day’s work at the Frankfurt International Book Fair.


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