LAND O'LAKES — Six years ago, some students and staff members at the Land O'Lakes Library decided to host a small free convention for fans of anime and manga.
The idea caught on, and since its inception, attendance at LAMECon (for Library Anime and Manga Enthusiasts) has grown from 50 people to more than 700.
"We now have the largest free con in the state of Florida," said Paul Stonebridge, teen services manager of the Pasco County Library System, who started LAMECon with Karen Correa, head of youth services, and representatives of the Land O'Lakes Library Anime Club.
At this year's LAMECon, running Saturday and Sunday, fans will find that the convention has grown right along with its attendance levels. The event is now being hosted at two Land O'Lakes locations: Saturday's LAMECon dance will take place 7-10 p.m. Saturday at the library, 2818 Collier Parkway, and Convention Day will run 9 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. Sunday at the Land O'Lakes Recreation Complex, 3032 Collier Parkway.
The convention, which has a Summer Festival theme with related games, will be welcoming a celebrity guest, the Geek Comedian Aaron Pabon. There will be an Artist Alley featuring 14 anime artists who specialize in media that include comic art, sketches, original content, polymer clay and digital art. Working robots also will be on display, and in a Cardboard Mech Building Contest guests will get the opportunity to turn their friends into makeshift bots. Event panels will discuss everything from Game of Thrones to Japanese culture, war to magical girl anime, Zelda to Homestuck to Asian horror.
"There's always something going on at the con," Stonebridge said. "If you have an interest, we have a panel for it."
Another new addition is a LAMECon website maintained by Meghan Darby, a Lutz-based anime enthusiast who morphed from a convention guest to a student co-organizer.
"I always loved anime cons and cosplays," said Darby, 20. "I stayed because we're all friends here."
One thing hasn't changed about LAMECon: it's free. The nonprofit convention offers guests free admission, parking and loot bags, as well as the chance to win prizes at a trivia contest and a cosplay contest and achievement badges for completing fun activities. There are small admission fees for additional activities, including a $5 Maid Cafe that features a meal and show, and $2 to compete in a Foam Sword Pit. Vendors are offered free space to sell low-cost foods and anime merchandise. And all are encouraged to bring canned goods for donation to Suncoast Harvest Food Bank.
"We used to hear kids complain that they couldn't begin to afford $50 for admission, plus food at other cons," said Stonebridge. "Here they can spend zero dollars if they want to — we gotcha covered."
Also like last year, guests are encouraged to explore their love of the anime art form.
"A good piece of anime is like a master's oil painting," Stonebridge said. "It's surrealist in theme and has depth."
"I like how happy anime is," said LAMECon student coordinator Mandy Bacon, 19. "It can be upbeat, entertaining and funny."
Phoebe Mitchell, a Land O'Lakes High School sophomore and LAMECon student volunteer/Maid Cafe performer, likes the way anime "uses graphics to make the world seem different than it is."
And although Sunlake High School student and LAMECon decorations coordinator Brittany Jolly, 15, is not an anime artist, she says she is creatively challenged to make fliers, posters and banners for the event.
Stonebridge expects to see many costumed guests at LAMECon, appearing as characters from Pokemon, Dragon Ball, Frozen, DC and Marvel, Doctor Who, My Little Pony, Homestuck, and other popular series.
"Guests might come away learning about new things," Stonebridge said. "And that's really what a library is for — to introduce patrons to new forms of entertainment and education."