Readers of substance and style mix it up at L.A. book festival

Times Staff Writer

A line of hundreds snaked from the canopy-covered booth Saturday where Tim Gunn, former fashion design school honcho made famous by his role on the TV show “Project Runway,” sat signing his book, “Tim Gunn: A Guide to Quality, Taste & Style.”

“It’s really touching,” said Gunn -- the show’s mentor to aspiring designers -- pausing mid-signature, about the crowd waiting for him. “I can get emotional about this.”

Just two booths away PETA activist and author Dan Mathews autographed books for about a dozen folks, then looked up to find zero people in line.

“I don’t have a reality show,” laughed Mathews. To be fair, just an hour earlier Mathews had attracted a couple of hundred people who watched actress Pamela Anderson, clad in a white mini-dress and heels, introduce the author. He then read from his book, “Committed: A Rabble-Rouser’s Memoir.”


“I’ve never really done this before,” said Mathews, 42, vice president of PETA. “I’m delighted there are four people!” Mathews, attired in his signature bunny costume (something of a suit of armor for him when he goes out on “nerve-racking” animal rights actions), wandered over to greet Gunn, who was wearing his signature costume -- a crisp suit and tie. They grinned and posed for pictures. Turns out they know each other.

“I adore this guy,” Gunn, who called himself a “huge” PETA supporter, said of Mathews. “He could wear anything -- or nothing.”

Let’s see, if you can find books, children’s entertainers, hot dogs, Pamela Anderson and Gore Vidal at the same event, it must be that the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books is back for its annual weekend on the UCLA campus in Westwood. The festival, which continues today, attracted an estimated 65,000 on its opening day and offered a profusion of book booths, panel discussions with authors and activities to amuse children.

And lest you bemoan the hundreds of people waiting almost an hour in line for a signed copy of a fashion guy’s book as evidence of the decline of the state of literature, consider that hundreds filled Royce Hall to hear Gore Vidal. A few hours later, a crowd listened raptly as novelist Walter Mosley talked about writing. Others on the schedule included Pulitzer Prize-winning author Frank McCourt.

As usual, the festival is a mix of serious authors, celebrities and throngs of people shuffling through the carnival of it all, stopping to peruse a book booth, waiting in line for a panel discussion, hearing a snatch of an author’s comments at an outdoor stage or booth as they move along.

Retired Los Angeles Police Officer Mike Simonsen attracted a crowd as he moved through a meadow with his gold and blue macaw, Byrd, which stretched its wings but never flew from its perch. “I use PoliGrip,” Simonsen deadpanned.

“We’ve been together 30 years,” said Simonsen, 56, who uses the bird in presentations to children on personal safety issues and has written a book, “The Adventures of Officer Byrd.” Simonsen instructs his bird to give a visitor a gentle peck on the lips. “Hey, he likes you!” Simonsen said. “He gets off at 5.”

Paul Schnebelen of Oxnard read Neal Gabler’s biography of Walt Disney to pass the time as he waited in a standby line of hundreds hoping to get into a hall to hear Lee Iacocca, former head of Chrysler. “I love books,” said Schnebelen, 38, who visits each year, “and this is one of the few occasions where you get together with other people who do.”


There was some depressing talk about the state of independent book publishing, plus criticism of the shrinking of newspaper book review sections and publishers’ shabby treatment of their lesser-selling but critically acclaimed authors, for instance.

Yet, on a panel tackling these issues, some independent publishers insisted they were flourishing, even after being acquired by larger houses. And others reminded the audience that great books and great authors struggled for exposure even before publishers became part of giant corporations.

“The history of publishing is filled with amazingly successful books which were neglected in their time. This is not due to our age,” said Robert Weil, executive editor of W.W. Norton & Co. “Melville died totally impoverished. No one read ‘Moby Dick.’ It took until 1920 for Melville to be discovered.” The classic tale by Herman Melville was first published in 1851.

There was a brief demonstration outside the KABC-TV Channel 7 booth by more than a dozen chanting protesters calling for the ouster of KABC-AM (790) radio host Doug McIntyre for “his rants against immigrants,” according to UCLA history professor Juan Gomez, who addressed the curious bystanders near the booth. Staff at the booth would not comment on the protest.