In 1987 Stuart Ross and Nicholas Power issued a printed announcement headed “Underground presses come to surface in daring daylight raid!”, giving details of the book fair to be held in Toronto in connection with that year’s National Book Festival. Over forty alternative presses and magazines were scheduled to participate in the fair, to be held at the University of Toronto’s Innis College on 2 May 1987. Since 1985, organizers Power and Ross had coordinated a series called Meet the Presses, which offered monthly readings and displays by small press publishers. Nick Power, whose Proper Tales Press began publishing in 1980, remarked that the idea for Meet the Presses grew out of the need for alternative publishers to have a way to reach their audience: “The idea came out of the frustrations we both felt as publishers attempting to reach an audience for our kind of publications—offbeat chapbooks, postcards, leaflets and magazines …” Distribution was a huge problem for these publishers, as they had few resources, and usually no access to the grant system for Canadian publishing, which favoured medium and large scale production. There were few bookstores, with the exception of Nicky Drumbolis’s Letters Bookshop in Toronto, which were willing to stock the products of these presses. The Toronto fair was seen as a potentially useful means of distribution, as well as a way for those involved to network with each other, and to have the sort of personal contact with their audience that was a hallmark of the small press movement.
In the twelve-page photocopied catalogue of the first fair, bpNichol contributed a preliminary essay, “So what is small press?”, in which he characterized the movement as “the guardian of literary culture and of free speech,” and made the case that “supporting small presses is supporting literature on the cutting edge.” Forty-three presses are listed as participating in this first fair, and another ten are included in the publishers’ directory. Mark Laba contributed illustrations and cover art, and Stuart Ross did the design and paste-up. In addition to publishers’ displays, there was an open house at Coach House Press, just down the alley from Innis College, as well as door prizes and live music.
The association of the fair with the National Book Festival continued for the first four years, and then the fairs became stand-alone events. Funding from one or both of the Toronto Arts Council and the Ontario Arts Council has been awarded for most fairs from 1990 to the present. Beginning in 1991 there were two fairs each year, spring and fall, and the venue was usually Trinity St. Paul’s Church on Bloor Street, although occasionally different locations were used, including Victoria College at the University of Toronto, Club 360, and the Victory Cafe. In 2009, for the first time, the spring fair was held at the main downtown branch of the Toronto Public Library. Funding and organization have always been problematic, as there has never been a formal infrastructure with paid staff. For most of its history, a fairly fluid group of publishers, calling itself the Toronto Small Press Group, has been responsible for the overall operation. Organizers, in addition to Nick Power and Stuart Ross, have included Kevin Connolly, Daniel Jones, Glenn Gustafson, Kath Chan, Clint Burnham, Victor Coleman, Nicky Drumbolis, Marshall Hryciuk, Maggie Helwig, Maria Erskine, Christiana Clemens, Beth Follett, Lindsay Zier-Vogel, Halli Villegas, Myna Walling, Veronica Garza Flores, and Colin Carberry. The number has increased continually, and by the end of 2000, over 400 presses were represented since the first fair in 1987. Most of them are Ontario-based, but exhibitors have occasionally come from as far afield as British Columbia, Nova Scotia, and the United States. Included in this roster are well known and established presses such as Coach House Press, but also many presses or magazines that have lasted only a short time, producing an imprint or two, or a couple of issues of a zine.
An interesting feature of the 1987 fair, and many subsequent fairs, was the production and distribution of the “Instant Anthology.” This was a real, live exercise in do-it-yourself bookmaking. One-page contributions of text and/or image were solicited from participating presses on the morning of the fair, reviewed by an editorial team, and put together in a booklet format for distribution and sales during the same afternoon. The "Instant Anthology" appeared in 1987, 1988, 1991, 1992, and was re-introduced in 1998 after a hiatus. Author readings have also been a feature of many of the fairs, usually taking place at a separate venue during the evening.
The published catalogues of the TSPBF, which list all the presses exhibiting at each fair, and give names of proprietors, founding dates, location, submission policies, and other information along with a list of titles, are therefore one of the best sources of information documenting the existence and activities of this vibrant and dynamic publishing scene.