The Virginia Festival of the Book, once a booklover’s vision, is a mainstay of the Charlottesville literary scene
By Kevin McFadden
The Virginia Festival of the Book—the annual five-day hurrah for books, authors, and reading, now in its twentieth year—is such a landmark in Virginia’s cultural landscape that it’s easy to forget it began with a few booklovers with a dream.
VFH president Rob Vaughan had envisioned such an event for decades. His model was a successful 1980 VFH conference called “The Poet in Society,” organized by poet Gregory Orr and featuring nationally known authors in conversation at a range of venues throughout Charlottesville.
Vaughan invited a community ally in retired paper-manufacturer-turned-book-collector Calvin P. Otto to develop a “small” festival; Otto in turn recruited bookstore owner Paul Collinge and U.Va. director of program development Tom Dowd. Collinge recalls:
Because both Cal and I were businessmen, we talked budget and available money from the very beginning so one of our first moves was to line up this base of support for one or more festivals. So it seemed like it would be relatively easy to get started and it was.
What motivated the early organizers? Collinge remembers it with pleasure:
We thought it would be fun. Cal had just come back from an outdoor street book fair in NYC and we got to talking. I knew most of the ‘name’ local authors because of my business and I had good community contacts because of serving as a board member for local community theater Act One.
They returned to Vaughan and VFH, which they knew were committed to making such a vision come to life. Planning began immediately. VFH hired a part-time director to organize the event, which the host committee imagined would be composed of a dozen panels and a few dozen authors in March 1995. By the time a group of local authors, volunteers, bookstores, and educational organizations put Charlottesville’s many literary connections to work, it was clear in no time that the first festival would offer fifty-five events and one hundred authors.
The audience followed, as did donors who helped expand Festival offerings. Within five years (and with the addition of a Festival staff) more than 10,000 people began coming to Festival programs each year. Within ten years, the audience grew above 20,000—an annual attendance mark in place for the last decade. On average, attendees come from forty states and ten countries. What made it work? Ask fourteen-year veteran Festival director Nancy Damon, and you’ll hear about passionate volunteers.
As a staff, we plan and work for months, and we learn something every year. What never changes is that we simply could not pull it off without volunteers who plan, host, and moderate programs; hand out evaluations; count audiences; and gather information after it’s all done.
Ask nineteen-year veteran volunteer committee chair Evette Lamka what motivates the volunteers and, to her, it’s the same reason that any attendee pays a visit:
Booklovers can’t resist meeting and hearing so many authors. The concentration and diversity of authors/books within a few days draws many people back year after year, while it attracts new people by offering a particular type of program.
More and more people come to the Virginia Festival of the Book, buzzing about the lineup. Past programs boast names like Stephen Ambrose, David Baldacci, Russell Banks, Ann Beattie, Rita Mae Brown, Orson Scott Card, John Casey, Michael Chabon, Rita Dove, Clyde Edgerton, George Garrett, Nikki Giovanni, John Grisham, Alan Gurganus, Kevin Hart, Tami Hoag, Garrison Keillor, Stanley Kunitz, Rep. John Lewis, Paule Marshall, Colum McCann, David McCullough, Alice McDermott, Gregory Orr, Robert Pinsky, Reynolds Price, Pete Seeger, Mary Lee Settle, Charles Simic, Lee Smith, Natasha Trethewey, Colson Whitehead, Charles Wright, and Kevin Young, to name only a few of the thousands of writers who have participated.
The star power has a way of obscuring humbler origins, as do the crowds enjoying Charlottesville after an event. Back in 1995, March was chosen for the Festival because it was still a fallow period for downtown businesses and area hotels. The Festival soon changed all that, becoming a ritual opening of the Downtown Mall’s high season. By 2012, the Charlottesville Albemarle Convention and Visitors Bureau estimated the Festival’s economic impact at $3,900,000.
But the brimming hotel rooms and spikes in book sales and conversations over drinks—welcome as they are for local businesses—are only a small part of the story. At the heart of this literary March madness, as any of its supporters recognize, is a gift made possible by generous people working together. Lamka sees this as the legacy of the Virginia Festival of the Book:
I consider the Festival a gift to the community whose legacy includes young people who discover a love of reading, adult readers whose lives expand, and older readers whose retirement is enriched through Festival of the Book programs.
The Festival is a gift from many booklovers who have made it happen to more and more readers who attend each year.
Kevin McFadden is chief operating officer of the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities. To learn more about the Virginia Festival of the Book, visit vabook.org.