Have you ever had a place that you pass by quite often, but have never made time to go inside? If so, perhaps you’re like me and you never had a reason to, or, never made the time to, but it’s been in your periphery as “this place exists”, but nothing further was jotted down in your mind. To go a step further, after a number of years of passing by this place, perhaps you’ve begun to make a mental assessment of the building from its exterior, noting the traffic going inside, the state of its cleanliness and silently, unacknowledged, affirm or contradict that original opinion formed about why you have not yet made a point to visit this place of business, until something, or someone, changes your perspective.
Perhaps it was the new banner, brightly proclaiming the name of the hotel, attached to an older, bedraggled awning, or it could have been the lack of bustling traffic outside whenever I happened to pass by, or the boarded up window on the exterior, facing the freeway. Maybe I just chalked it up as an older business having to compete with a number of successful chains along the riverfront. Whatever the reason, I never gave it much thought.
We Missourians, from what I’ve observed, appreciate a good value, and here in the Gateway City especially, there’s a mentality about how much can you save, but admittedly, this may stem more from my middle-class, Midwestern upbringing than be any particular failing of the region. So, I find the idea of paying for the privilege of shopping to be somewhat of a turn-off. In the past few years, it came to my attention that there was some sort of book conference held downtown in the fall, one that consumers were actually paying to attend. What an idea! However, a friend gave me a ticket, as if to insist that I was missing out, and to come check out this book event, tucked away inside this aging hotel, an autumn event called Penned Con.
And so it happened that I found myself entering through the yawning darkness of a valet area, and beyond, a well-lit lobby, already humming with small clusters of guests, all animated in their expressions, some dressed in an 80’s aesthetic of big hair, tight pants, and tees which messages like “Wyld Stallions” or “Save Ferris”. Unable to locate a registration table on the ground floor, I met with my friend and learned that the conference was further tucked away in the ballrooms upstairs. Up, up, up, the elevator we went, stopping on the 13th floor. “Seriously? I thought hotels were superstitious about the 13th floor?” Apparently, this one wasn’t. Eyebrows raised, I wondered, what did my friend sign me up for?
A light well ran the height of the hotel, punctured by glass bridges to connect the two hallways that ran the length of each floor and opened into the various ballrooms where events were taking place. One side was designated primarily for reader panels, the other, the thrumming heartbeat of vendors, swag tables, and lines of shoppers who had already passed through registration with their tickets and were awaiting the doors to open. None of this would be particularly noteworthy, but I found myself surprised by the wagons, wheeled boxes, and even hard-shell luggage beside many, many of the shoppers. Surely, they should drop their luggage off at their rooms first, right?
It took about two hours for my preconceptions to begin crumbling. The ticket sales? Charity. The wait lines? One-on-one time talking with your favorite author, getting their signature or your photo taken, no VIP ticket purchases required (unlike some bigger cons). And the books… there were a LOT of books. I admit to being a bit disappointed here. The vendors seemed to me to be a lot of indie authors and if I had to pin the content down to a single genre, it was definitely science fiction and fantasy — with a heavy emphasis on paranormal romance. There were a few outliers in the mix, but I didn’t find any to take home. Rather, I did spend my fistful of dollars on some of the other booths where the creativity of the vendors really shined. There were candles named after their characters, Steampunk alter-egos with jewelry and masks, reader accessories carved out of wood, and tumblers with writerly sayings.
Those suitcases, wagons and wheeled boxes were quickly filling with books. Talking with a friend, I learned later that some people travel from all over each year just for this one-weekend-long event, and stock up for the entire year. I saw families casually seated on the floor, sharing with one another their treasures, including goodie bags especially designed for the kiddos in mind. It was a family-friendly event all around, and I found myself charmed, if wishing I could find an ATM nearby. And despite it being on the 13th floor, on a full moon, and on a Friday the 13th (yes, I know I left that part out; I didn’t want to scare you off!), the worst thing that happened all day was I discovered when I got home that I’d won a prize from an author and it went unclaimed.
Reflecting back over the experience, would I go back? I’d be interested in the writing-centric workshops that are done on Thursdays (and I missed) and any opportunities to hear pitches from writers looking to go the traditional route. I’d certainly recommend it to friends who I know love paranormal romances, and other spec fiction. I’m not sure that I would go back as a reader, unless I knew of a particular author that I’ve been eager to meet. Exiting back out those glass doors, through the darkness of the cavernous valet area and back into the sunlight, I wondered what my next adventure was likely to be. And then I spotted the gondolas suspended 200 feet atop of the soon-to-be-opened St. Louis Wheel.