The first authors had yet to take the stage at the Central Library or Southwest School of Art Saturday morning when Mayor Julián Castro surveyed the crowd of organizers, writers and community leaders.
“This book festival is exactly what we need in San Antonio. It’s another important piece of the puzzle,” Castro declared.
His statement drew enthusiastic applause from the VIP audience gathered for the morning kickoff at Ocho at the Hotel Havana, his listeners anticipating a new event that was neither heralded nor deeply funded, yet would prove to be an unequivocal success.
Welcome to the Texas Book Festival/San Antonio Edition, last Saturday’s inaugural gathering of more than 50 published authors from across the state and nation whose conversations and book signings drew throngs to the Central Library and the Southwest School of Art.
“There probably haven’t been that many moments when there’s been this much talent in one place,” District One Councilman Diego Bernal told the crowd rich in local and visiting authors. “We should be thinking about next year already.”
Admission was free, and attendance for a first-time event surpassed 4,000, organizers said Wednesday, far exceeding expectations. Frankly, bigger audiences the first year might have overwhelmed organizers and their crack team of 250 volunteers outfitted in enchilada red t-shirts. Now, the City and organizers know they have a hit on their hands and there is time and space to think bigger for next year.
The bookfest’s successful launch was accomplished with only limited resources and a determined team of volunteers, some veterans of the Texas Book Festival in Austin, notably Director Katy Flato and Literary Director Clay Smith, who previously held the same title in Austin and now works for the nationally-recognized Kirkus Reviews.
“It would have been impossible to attract the quality authors who came without Clay’s involvement,” Flato said. “He’s been doing this for years, has great contacts, and knows exactly how to get things done.”
Flato drew plenty of kudos herself.
Texas House Speaker Joe Straus took time from the current session of the Texas Legislature to attend the opening. He praised Flato as a “longtime force for literacy in this city and in Texas.”
The San Antonio expansion of the Texas Book Festival was something no one was particularly expecting: a major new event enlivening downtown San Antonio on an otherwise quiet weekend. Next year, what Mayor Castro called a missing piece of the puzzle should have little trouble attracting greater public and private support. It shouldn’t have any trouble attracting high profile authors, either.
The Mayor’s “puzzle”, of course, is a better educated and culturally rich city with a more magnetic urban core, the San Antonio envisioned in SA2020, Castro’s signature long-term growth and change initiative.
Sometimes change comes at considerable expense and planning. Luminaria, for example. Sometimes it just happens. In the case of the book festival, a handful of talented, dedicated individuals with a long record of volunteerism made something big happen.
The roots of the event, Flato said, reach back to 1995 when Maria Cossio was executive director of the San Antonio Library Foundation and the city was readying for the opening of the new Central Library, the work of celebrated Mexican architect Ricardo Legorreta, who died in 2011, and San Antonio architect Davis Sprinkle. Flato, a former Texas Monthly editor who organized Copyright Texas, said the event in its original form brought in five authors a night for two weeks, for free public readings. After a few years the event evolved into a Library Foundation fundraiser and the free author readings ended.
Last year Texas Book Festival officials in Austin expanded outreach efforts in other parts of the state to bolster their attendance. Their efforts in San Antonio led to a counter-proposal from Flato and Tracey Ramsey Bennett, the current president of the Library Foundation, for a local edition of the book festival. The parties reached quick agreement, something else that doesn’t often happen so easily.
Ramsey Bennett, a 15-year veteran in her job, said the success of the event “totally re-energized our board, and lots of people who attended signed up for new library cards. The whole experience, the teamwork, the outcome, it was fantastic.”
Longtime library advocate Ellen Riojas Clark, who serves as the current chair of the Library Foundation’s L3: Latino Leadership for the Library and helped lead efforts in the ’90s to increase the presence of Latino literature in the library system, helped put a bilingual stamp on the local bookfest.
Riojas Clark, a UTSA professor emeritus of cultural and bilingual studies, credited Sandra Cisneros for recruiting young Latino writers to attend from her Macondo Foundation‘s Young Writers Workshop. Cisneros performed a piece from “Have You Seen Marie?“, her new book, and moderated a panel of young Latino writers.
The biggest draw of the day was Lawrence Wright, the Pulitzer prize-winning author of “The Looming Tower: Al-Queda and the Road to 9/11“. Wright talked about his new book, “Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief.”
I had the pleasure of serving as moderator of Wright’s presentation, and before that, with Ed Whitacre and his book, “American Turnaround: Reinventing AT&T, GM and the Way We Do Business in the USA.” If audience reaction is a good measure, pairing authors with moderators for a casual, unscripted conversation is much preferred to an author reading that leaves little time for audience interaction.
There was plenty at the book festival for children, and not only books. A “Milagros Wall” engaged children to express their dreams and wishes, which will be sent to President Obama at the White House.
The core group of organizers were joined by Ramiro Salazar, director of the San Antonio Public Library, and Paula Owen, president and CEO of the Southwest School of Art. Staging the event at both the school and the Central Library created a festival atmosphere as people moved along the River Walk and from the school’s historic buildings to contemporary architecture and back.
“In light of the planning time we had to put this together, it was a very successful book festival that thousands attended,” Salazar said. “The Central Library is a downtown icon, which made it the ideal place to focus on literature and literacy and the wealth of talent we have in our city and Texas. It will be even bigger next year.
Owen said the festival gave the Southwest School of Art the opportunity to showcase its physical connection with the Central Library as a “downtown cultural community.”
“It begins with a culture of collaboration: we’ve provided our beautiful campus for many such events, but we have a special relationship with the literary community,” Owen said. “We did the Botero exhibition with the San Antonio Museum of Art and the library foundation, and before that the Chihuly exhibition. We’ve partnered with Gemini Ink for poetry events and we have poets and writers on our staff. We have a love here for creative people,and who can turn down Katy Flato? Shes a good friend of the school and the cultural community.”
Flato envisions an expanded event next year, perhaps using the Charline McCombs Empire Theater to showcase national authors who would draw larger audiences than will fit at the Central Library or the Southwest School of Art. By year three, of course, the Tobin Center for Performing Arts, a short walk from the Central Library, will be available.
Flato said the event will be staged on the Saturday before Fiesta each year.
One option organizers might consider now that they’ve established themselves: renaming the event the San Antonio Book Festival. I was struck while listening last week to BBC sports broadcasters excitedly report that Scottish golfer Martin Laird had won the Valero Texas Open. His victory was big news throughout Great Britain, the birthplace of the sport. Yet none of the BBC’s global listeners knew the tournament was staged in San Antonio. The PGA event that San Antonio hosts was named back when it was the only pro golf event in Texas. Now it is one of many, and when it is mentioned, nationally and internationally, it’s simply the Texas Open. The city’s name is omitted.
The book festival here can make sure the same doesn’t befall their event as it grows.
I asked Flato how the event fared financially.
“We squeaked by,” she said. “I think we finished one dime in the black.”