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Dreaming Up a Book Festival
Describing the events leading up to the first AJC Decatur Book Festival is a bit like blindfolding several people and putting them in an enclosure with an elephant. Each will accurately describe what he or she touches, but each description will be different because no one can describe the whole elephant.
When I recall the early meetings that led to the book festival, I see only one part of the event that has in four short years grown into the largest independent book festival in the country. My friends Daren Wang and Tom Bell, the executive director and program director of the festival, recall their early conversations about the festival and the dreams they made come true by a vast infusion of their time and effort.
Each of us on the board recalls when the idea was first broached to us, and how we jumped in, bringing our individual resources to the table.
And every volunteer who has given his or her time so generously during the early years of the festival has a personal memory of making each event the best it could possibly be.
My memory starts with a meeting in 2004 with Paula Rattray, my boss and at the time vice president of strategic marketing for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Paula charged me with finding a way to market the newspaper to people who love books. It seemed like a good idea, since it wasn’t hard to describe readers as an ideal target market for the newspaper.
I started a series of monthly breakfast meetings with Bill Starr, director of the Georgia Center for the Book based in the Decatur location of the DeKalb County Library. Bill, a long-time book editor at the newspaper in Columbia, S.C., knew the publishing business inside out, and had lots of ideas for projects we could do together.
Daren and Tom recall that at about the same time, they began meeting to discuss promoting all things literary. As it turned out, Daren and Tom were meeting regularly for coffee at Java Monkey on Church Street in downtown Decatur at the time Bill and I were meeting for breakfast around the corner on Ponce de Leon at Crescent Moon (now Thumbs Up), all of us trying to come up with ways to promote books, reading and the publishing industry in our community.
Then, in February 2005, on a drive back from the South Carolina Book Festival with Marc Fitten, then editor of the Chattahoochee Review and now a noted novelist, Daren broached the idea of a book festival in Decatur.
When Daren and Tom started looking for partners in their self-proclaimed “hare-brained scheme,” they called Bill, who set up a breakfast meeting for all of us. I brought a commitment from the AJC, Bill provided the credibility and authority of the Georgia Center for the Book, and Daren and Tom delivered the time, energy, creativity and enthusiasm to get the ball rolling.
Daren and Tom brought a wealth of experience to the task. Daren had worked in public radio for 15 years, specializing in programming focused on authors, literature, and the arts. Tom was the book and dance critic for Creative Loafing and had years of experience working with publishers, media, and authors.
Bill added his vast Rolodex of authors to those of Daren and Tom, and they started assembling talent.
We called Linda Harris, my dear friend who has been a brilliant force in marketing for the City of Decatur and who knows even more people in Decatur than I do. Linda had worked with the City developing festivals for years, and anyone who has ever been to the Decatur Arts Festival knows that Decatur knows how to put on a festival.
Linda called Judy Turner, president of Decatur First Bank, whose quiet professionalism keeps us on track financially and who opened scores of sponsorship doors. Daren called Richard Lenz, the president and CEO of Lenz Marketing, Design and Public Relations with offices on East Court Square.
Very quickly, we had a team.
Everyone around the table had a unique skill set and access to a different set of resources. Linda enlisted enthusiastic support from Decatur Mayor Bill Floyd, City Manager Peggy Merriss, the City Commission, and the Decatur Arts Alliance, who helped us solve problems we didn’t even know we had. (Think portable toilets and garbage pickup).
Judy was quickly awarded the role of treasurer, and did a herculean job of guiding us to financial stability. Richard brought the resources of his creative team, and actually wrote a check for the first cash donation to the festival. That seed money proved to everyone that we might actually make this dream come true.
Agnes Scott College joined us as a sponsor and a venue host. Stone Mountain Park was an early supporter, and Daren convinced Target to sponsor our Children’s Stage, which has grown bigger every year. In year two, our friends at DeKalb Medical signed on as presenting sponsor.
The first year we operated under the umbrella of the Decatur Arts Alliance. By year two, we had non-profit status, a board of directors, an executive director, a program director, and a long list of cash and in-kind sponsors.
With almost 20 years experience hosting the Decatur Arts Festival, Arts Alliance, stepped up to help with an infrastructure we could have never developed on our own. Thanks to their hard work, under the leadership of Cheryl Burnette, Mary Flad and Volunteer! Decatur director extraordinaire Lee Ann Harvey, we had an event that ran more smoothly than we ever thought possible.
Everyone jumped in, including bank president Judy, seen wearing rubber gloves to clean the bathrooms at one of the venues.
With 100 authors and packed venues all over Decatur, we celebrated the success of the first festival while watching a fireworks display from the roof of the Lenz Building on the Decatur Square. We made our share of mistakes, but we somehow inspired our city to join us in hosting a world of authors and tens of thousands of book lovers from metro Atlanta and beyond.
Thanks to every volunteer, every business partner, and every sponsor, we are on course to open the fourth festival Friday, Sept. 4, with a keynote address by Sir Harold Evans, former editor of The Times of London, author of The American Century and a knight of the realm.
Throughout the weekend, we’ll have more than 200 featured authors, another 150 emerging authors and poets, and scores of events for readers from 5 to 105.
Now it’s your turn. Mark your calendars, plan your agenda, and get ready for an unforgettable gathering of book lovers. Go to decaturbookfestival.com for a monster of a schedule. It’s even bigger than the elephant I tried to describe earlier.