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Photo: Dorothy Cannell
Dorothy Cannell, respected mystery writer and Peoria resident chats with fans and promotes her latest book, The Trouble with Harriet.
(Photos by Derrol Goldsmith)

The seventh annual Mid-America's Book and Paper Fair, held September 30 in Peoria, Ill., turned out to be a wolf in sheep's clothing -- and that's a good thing.

This year, the Book and Paper Fair suffered from the big-gun competition of the Great Lakes Booksellers Association Trade Show, which draws people from all over the U.S. But attendees at the Peoria event found the smaller crowd and select, high quality exhibitors a plus -- despite its location. The isolated county fairgrounds and deteriorating cement and clapboard exhibit hall, misleadingly labeled Exposition Gardens, all but camouflaged the delights within.

These delights began with free parking and low, $2-per-person admission cost. A greeter with an uninhibited Midwestern smile welcomed visitors. Stepping into a huge Quonset hut-style hall, attendees inhaled the scent of old books and fresh ink, relaxed to the comforting hum of conversations, and greedily eyed the tables piled high with books and ephemera.

Twenty-three exhibits displayed antique and new books touting titles from every genre and topic imaginable. The majority of the exhibits featured collectibles, such as a first edition of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone valued at $1,500. Book binding, paper preservation, old book appraisals, lectures and home-cooked food also flavored the event.

Photo: Lev Raphael
Peoria's Exposition Gardens hosted the 2000 Mid-America's Book and Paper Fair

Marvelous Books of Rosebud, Mo., displayed children's books dating from the turn-of-the-20th century. Jason Gardner of Peoria offered antique history books while Black Bird Books of the Illinois Antique Center in Peoria brought an assortment of rare comic books, aged and crumbling documents and papers. The Mystery Nook of Peoria set out racks of new mystery books. The booth of the Paper Lady, a purveyor of fine and unusual paper products, provided a clue to the paper part of the day's events.

In the back of the building, Peoria's own writers joined others from surrounding cities and states to autograph and sell books while talking with fans. The 26 featured writers supported the Friends of the Cullom-Davis Library, who sponsor this event each year to raise funds for the library located on Bradley University campus. Roughly thirty other writers lent their long-distance support by sending autographed books for the silent auction to benefit the book endowment fund, including Dave Barry, Gay Talese, Barbara Kingsolver, Bill Cosby, Tony Hillerman and the late Steve Allen.

Photo: Lev Raphael
Mystery writers Mary Welk (left) and Marlis Day smile and say cheese at Mid-America's Book and Paper Fair. Tentative plans call for next year's fair to be held the fourth Saturday in September, 2001.

You might expect a book fair in the middle of the prairie to feature Jim Conover's history of central Illinois and Monica Vest Wheeler's Peoria history. Peoria, cinched by the Corn Belt, also seems the logical place to find Bill Haycraft's Caterpillar Tractor history. Though local in scope, the quality of these writers' research and writing raised many an appreciative eyebrow.

But attendees also could pocket a free copy of Steve Burgauer's science fiction novel before meeting Mary Welk, who traveled from Chicago to autograph her Caroline Rhodes mysteries. Marlis Day of southern Indiana leaned in for a quick picture while signing her Margo Brown mystery. Maureen Tan of Champaign, Ill., enthusiastically talked books -- including her espionage thriller AKA Jane.

Even more surprising, however, were two of the authors who drew local book addicts from their warm beds on the last Saturday in September: Dorothy Cannell and Philip Jose Farmer.

Photo: Lev Raphael
Lila Burgess (l) and Debbie Kinate, volunteers and members of the Friends of Peoria Public Library Board, solicit contributions for the current Peoria Is Great (PIG) project. Seeking to raise $175,000 to purchase a bookmobile bus for Peoria's public library, PIG sold life-sized fiberglass pigs (similar to Chicago's cows), T-shirts and pig snout mugs. A Wine, Swine and Dine dinner at the end of October capped this year's fundraising efforts.

A true icon of the mystery genre, Cannell's off-beat heroines inspire and entertain, while her delectably convoluted plots keep her readers guessing. But what was she doing here?

Cannell's smile never wavered. "I live here," she said. "In Peoria."

Dorothy Cannell, who speaks like an English baroness, lives and raises her family in southern Illinois? She's practically a neighbor.

While this reporter closed her sagging mouth, someone whispered, "The author to Dorothy's left, he's a big deal."

Philip Jose Farmer possesses a presence not accounted for by his broad shoulders, weathered good looks and thinning white hair. It may have something to do with his three Hugo Awards and four decades reigning as patriarch of science fiction.

Many Web sites honor Farmer's signature books, and the movies and books written under several pseudonyms. One reading of the first book in his Riverworld series, which earned Farmer one of his Hugo Awards, will tell you the feet of this Peoria native and Bradley alum may stand in Illinois, but his imagination flits far, far away in worlds of his making.

Dawn Goldsmith