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CODEX I: A Personal View

by Georgette Freeman

Will lightning strike twice in Berkeley? Will there be a second CODEX International Bookfair? And should that come to pass (it’s rumored the event could be biennial), can the effect in 2009 be as magical as that which manifested itself at the first CODEX this past February 12th through 15th, 2007, on the UC Berkeley campus?

For me, CODEX I started at Tuesday night’s bookfair preview. Spring was in the air. The rains had just stopped and the sun had been out all day. It was fast becoming short-sleeve weather (though chilly at night), but the large well-lit ballroom was comfortable, filled with tables and knots of people quietly talking amidst the wares.

By CODEX I’s end, I had talked with some sixty people and found myself asking four questions: why CODEX; what had been their expectations coming in; and, as the event progressed, were those expectations being met; and would they come back to a CODEX II?

Most of the exhibitors told me they had little or no expectations coming in, especially as to sales. Nothing like this had been tried before in the Bay Area, so none knew if they would even recoup their $500 table fee. But this seemed to make little difference, especially at the preview. Many (some three-fourths of the exhibitors were from out-of-state) said they were just glad to get away from home, to be in California, and away from freezing temperatures and bad weather. Surprisingly, a number of the exhibitors were there for reasons having little to do with sales.

Besides, most of the exhibitors were among friends. The regulars on the international bookfair circuit had heard about CODEX from its founders, Peter Koch and Susan Filter, years before, and they had had time to put together a good travel package. In addition, many of the regulars told me that CODEX I was a far better venue than elsewhere. (Reportedly, Oak Knoll takes place in a church’s dark basement, Oxford is in a gymnasium, and Frankfurt is huge and houses a more general bookfair.)

Moreover, the regulars were enjoying not paying high prices for food and lodging. Apparently, a room at the CODEX’s suggested hotel cost less than $100 a night. Some even told me they were happily staying with friends and considered this more of a social happening than a business event. For locals, it was beyond great. For many, UCB’s ballroom was just a BART ride away from all the comforts of home with no jet lag or airport security to endure.

And in the ballroom, the multiplicity of wonders awaiting their discovery would be awesome. (Sort of took the gloss off our local Printer’s Fair.) By Thursday, closing day, when I next attended, it was obvious that CODEX I could be on its way to becoming more than a critical success. I was there from the opening remarks at that morning’s symposium, through the full bookfair in the afternoon, then refreshment and mingling afterwards at the Hotel Durant’s bar, and the closing dinner at the Berkeley Faculty Club.

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By Thursday morning, word at the symposium had it that Wednesday’s bookfair had been well attended and, while private collectors had yet to assert themselves, big institutional purchases had been made and others promised. Hope was that the private collectors would greet them when the book fair opened after lunch. I also heard a little grousing from some exhibitors about the bookfair’s layout.

Thursday’s symposium featured Robert Bringhurst, followed by a panel and group discussion of the Fate of the Art. The venue was packed. Bringhurst was Bringhurst at his most sublime: “Spiritual geometry—words are invisible, ideas are clear, nature is living geometry—I hope you like snails.” But I especially enjoyed the discussion on the book’s fate. Really, will books of the mid-21st century be housed in libraries or museums? Read and shelved, or displayed unread?

Back at the bookfair, there were at least 118 tables set up, and 122 exhibitors, including binders, printers, tanners, book artists and their fellow travelers, paper makers, and book sellers. There was more to see and touch here than other people’s books for sale. I found a collection of antique fabric pattern books, as well as people with book ideas looking for publishers, others with bookbinding skills prospecting for projects, and some pure souls sharing their latest ideas. In addition, it seemed that all the centers for the book had sent representatives and literature. (My pile of handouts and samples is huge.)

Exhibitors came from all over, from Israel to Colombia, Australia to Newfoundland, and included many from Canada, Germany, Italy, Russia, and Great Britain. An international bookfair had come to town. Only a quarter of the folks listed in the bookfair and symposium’s directory were from the greater Bay Area (Santa Cruz to Coloma).

By bookfair’s end, many were happy. Market forces had been at work. Institutions had returned, buying more and indicating additional interest. Even private collectors and their friends had also done some buying. Many table fees had possibly been regained. However, some were not. Perhaps better marketing might bring in more private buyers. There didn’t seem to be much cross-over between CODEX I and the antiquarian bookfair later in the week. Moreover, some of the grousing over table layout had developed into theories about table assignment, traffic flows and pinch points, and dark areas versus those near the windows.

That said, the apparent success of the first CODEX was certainly more than good weather, pleasant surroundings, and the economy. Kudos are due Peter Koch and Susan Filter for their efforts on the community’s behalf. CODEX I seemed to have stepped into our lives fully formed and perfect. It will be a hard act to follow.

So here’s to the memory of CODEX I and our expectations for the future. Imagine CODEX II.

Copyright © 2007 by Georgette Freeman.
All rights reserved.