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Madrid’s Book Fair is back: hustle and bustle, loudspeakers, and bright colours

“Book Week has come to an end. Seven days that have filled our Paseo de Recoletos with noise, loudspeakers and colour…”. This is how one of  the chronicles of the newspaper La Libertad described  the first Madrid Book Fair. Held between 23 and 29 April 1933, a date that would be postponed from its second edition onwards to avoid it coinciding with Book Day, that first edition was already born with a clear popular vocation. “Thanks to this first Fair, people who knew nothing about books will now read for the first time”, the chronicle later celebrated.

Located near the Parque de El Retiro, the place that, from 1967, was to take over until it became known as we know it today, the presence of the public was, right from the start, a clear sign of identity with respect to other fairs such as the Frankfurt Book Fair or the International Book Fair, aimed particularly at professionals in the sector. “The aim was to popularise and disseminate the book because bookshops did not display publications sufficiently and advertising was scarce. In addition, they had something of an enclosed area where only specialists, intellectuals and professionals attended”, says Ana Martínez Rus in the book 80 años de Feria del Libro de Madrid, edited by Pilar Eusamio and published by the Fair itself last year on the occasion of such an important anniversary.

Likewise, they tried to respond to the social groups that frequented the kiosks, the carts and street stalls or the antiquarian bookshops because they were more accessible and cheaper. The great innovation and interest of the fair lay in the fact that most of the works presented by the publishers were novelties and books that remained in the daily bookshop trade, and were also cheaper,” says the author.

The Retiro, an incomparable setting

From ten in the morning to midnight, in its early years, this literary event boasted of offering “the most complete panorama of publishing production in Spanish”. But after the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War and in the early post-war period, the loudspeakers, the hullabaloo and the colours were interrupted. It could not be held again until 28 May 1944, when 76 booths were again set up on the Paseo de Recoletos and it was renamed the National Book Fair.

By 1967, the event had grown so much that it needed to find a new location. And the stands, the books and the readers found a perfect enclave in El Retiro, to the point that today it is difficult to imagine the Madrid Book Fair without the trees and the surroundings of the central Madrid park. The symbiosis between the atmosphere and the books worked so well that, in just two years, book sales had already exceeded 33 million pesetas. Since then, it has only left when it moved to the Casa de Campo in 1979 with a resounding failure of attendance.

As for the writers, since the first authors to speak at the microphone in front of the church of San Pascual on the Paseo de Recoletos, over the course of its more than 80 years of existence, names such as José Saramago have passed through its stands, names such as José Saramago, Carmen Martín Gaite, Ricardo Piglia, Gloria Fuertes, Tatiana Tibuleac, Camila Läckberg, Francisco Umbral, Antonio Buero Vallejo, Raúl Zurita, Manuel Vázquez Montalbán, Gregorio Marañón, Mario Vargas Llosa, Rafael Alberti or J. M. Coetze.

A new year of records

All in all, despite the complicated times, such as the Civil War, the economic crisis of 2007 or the pandemic, which forced the Fair to adapt to digital environments in 2020 – with 500,000 people following the virtual activities -, as well as the peculiarities of 2021, such as the limited capacity, the literary event has never lost its essence in these 81 editions.

There have been experiments, as told in 80 years of Feria del Libro de Madrid, such as when in 1971 two cars were raffled or when in 1956, “the brilliant idea of interspersing the book stalls with those selling flowers and birds” was had, which meant that this and the following edition were remembered “as the noisiest of all those held”; as well as changes of name – the current name began to be used in 1992 – and of location. But it has always defended the spirit with which it was inaugurated in 1933.

A year in which, yes, it started with only 20 publishers from Madrid. From those first stands, painted in different colours, to the current uniforms, today this literary event will bring together a total of 22 official organisations, 14 distributors, 50 general bookshops, 57 specialised bookshops, 165 publishers from Madrid and 109 from other provinces in what, according to its current director, Eva Orúe, the first woman to hold this position in the history of the event, is a record number of participants. With a total of 378 stalls, this event, which will last until 12 June, recovers its traditional extension from the Puerta de Madrid to the Rosaleda, with no capacity restrictions. A beautiful tradition for strolling alone, with friends or with the family.

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