By Brendan Wolfe
Traditionally, twenty-five years marks a silver anniversary, but for the Virginia Festival of the Book every year is a paper anniversary. Since the planning for this annual book event first got underway in 1994, Festival coordinators have remained dedicated to celebrating the written word in all genres and from authors of all backgrounds through programming that is almost entirely free to attend.
“The Festival is, and has always been, for all readers,” says Jane Kulow, director of the Virginia Center for the Book at Virginia Humanities. She also serves as the Festival’s director and was busy planning for the event’s twenty-fifth anniversary when we spoke in her office. “Change is important,” she says, “and we’re always looking to improve. But we also want to keep an eye on what has brought us here in the first place, and that is being accessible to everyone.”
The Festival debuted on March 30, 1995. It was the brainchild of Calvin Otto, a rare book collector who died in 2009. After attending a book festival in New York City, he suggested to Paul Collinge, the owner of Heartwood Books, and Tom Dowd, senior director of program development with the University of Virginia (UVA) Division of Continuing Education, that Charlottesville needed something similar. The three built a steering committee of volunteers, found financial backing from a variety of local sources, and partnered with Virginia Humanities to make the idea a reality. Local literary heavyweights, from Rita Dove to George Garrett and Mary Lee Settle, gave the Festival depth, while the participation of institutions from UVA to the Jefferson-Madison Regional Library gave it breadth.
“It came together as an expression of the fact that the city had a lot going on from a book point of view,” Collinge explains. “The basic concept was that we were going to have partners [to host programs], we were going to do it in spots all over town, and it was going to be free.”
Since then the Festival has expanded from two to five days and attracts hundreds of authors and an average of 20,000 attendees each year. The economic impact in Charlottesville and Albemarle County is estimated at $4 million annually.
Nancy Damon, who served as the Festival director for fourteen years, says, “One of the most important things to me was that we have programs geared to many different kinds of audiences, not just the UVA literary society.”
That has meant, for instance, regularly organizing panels of genre fiction, such as sci-fi, mystery, and romance, as well as events for children. More recent partnerships with organizations including the National Book Foundation, the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards, and the Southern Environmental Law Center have also brought award-winning writers to the Festival to tackle tough topics such as the reexamination of historical narratives, race in America, and climate change.
Kulow, who became the Festival director in 2014, maintains her predecessor’s commitment to accessibility and cultural equity. “Conversations that broaden one’s thinking, that help support empathy, and that welcome all participants are more important to our community—and our nation—than ever,” she said.
“My vision for the Festival is that anyone—any level of reader, any age—will feel welcome and can find a program that appeals to them, with the potential to be engaged or challenged, and will walk away still thinking about the discussion.”
Kevin McFadden served as the Festival’s assistant director for nine years before becoming the chief operating officer of Virginia Humanities. He noted that there are plenty of festivals in Virginia with longer histories than the Virginia Festival of the Book. But they have a different focus. “There are lots of models out there in other book festivals,” he said. “Some are more driven by publishing, some are staged as media events, and we have a bit of that, too. But ours has been primarily a readers’ and authors’ festival since the beginning.”
The Festival’s organizers even seek out non-readers, or, as the event’s assistant director, Sarah Lawson, put it, “people for whom books and reading are not a part of everyday life.” They do this by spreading the event out across town, sending authors to schools and community organizations, and streaming some events on the Internet. Meanwhile, the Festival coordinates with more than 200 regional and state groups to help choose books and authors and to host events.
All this means that virtually anyone can attend the Festival and enjoy the experience. “You don’t have to have read any of the books or know anything about the authors who are speaking,” Lawson said. “You just need to be curious and open to exploring new things.”