Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Book festival reaching for a 'new crowd'

For Andy Kahan and Sara Goddard, director and associate director of author events at the Free Library's Central Branch, the second annual Philadelphia Book Festival this weekend will be an upbeat work in progress.

For Andy Kahan and Sara Goddard, director and associate director of author events at the Free Library's Central Branch, the second annual Philadelphia Book Festival this weekend will be an upbeat work in progress.

"One of the things that we've learned is that it has a more populist orientation than we necessarily expected," said Kahan, referring to last year's debut that drew 25,000-plus visitors to the library's Parkway building and scores of booths and sponsor areas around it.

"With the events that we do all year," he said, chatting about the festival, along with Goddard, in a library conference room this week, "we noticed that many of those folks did not show up for the book festival. It was predominantly a brand new crowd for us."

As a result, Kahan explained, he and Goddard have intentionally designed it this year with a more populist focus, "though the literary stuff is still here, as is the poetry."

This Saturday and Sunday, in addition to readings by distinguished poets Jorie Graham, John Hollander and Gerald Stern, panels will take place on the memoir, the Middle East, motherhood, and African American travel.

Quality authors doing their own thing (such as readings and signings) will include Ana Castillo, James McBride, Philip Gourevitch, Colin Harrison, Marisa de los Santos, Allen Hornblum and Mark Bowden. And the festival will also feature famous personalities such as Barbara Walters and Bernadette Peters.

Kahan stressed that the Philadelphia Book Festival was still mainly about books. Even the "personalities" have a book to sell.

"For example," Kahan said, "Bernadette Peters has a book on a lost dog, for a cause that she represents. And she'll sing. Barbara Walters - I don't think most people associate her with literature. But this memoir of hers is a tell-all, and more people have called about her than about anyone else."

Plenty of non-book action will take place too.

"The library is changing," remarked Goddard, also the book festival's operations manager, "into not just a place where you go for books and research, but a place where you go to be with other people, and have more kinds of other activities."

As a result, the festival will offer a gaming gallery, programs for children, street performances, live dance and music, food concessionaires, wi-fi both inside and outside the building, and even a technology demonstration.

The Inquirer, a co-sponsor of the event, is hosting its own outdoor tent, featuring such authors as George Anastasia (

Blood and Honor

), Sam Carchidi (

Standing Tall: The Kevin Everett Story

), Alan Heavens (

Remodeling on the Money

), Paul Siegell (

Poemergency Room

), and Dave Blazek (

Loose Parts


One aspect of the festival that's really taken off this year, said Kahan and Goddard, has been booths rented by independent authors to showcase their work. The festival has sold out its available spaces - more than 40.

"We've been inundated with independent authors who have taken tables," said Kahan. "In fact, we have an extensive waiting list."

All told, according to Goddard, there are "way more" exhibitors than last year, with total booths and sponsor spaces topping 100.

The growing numbers make both frontline dynamos hopeful that the Philadelphia Book Festival will eventually expand in the direction of the Miami International Book Fair and Los Angeles Times Book Fair, the country's two largest events of this kind. Their hundreds of offerings and hundreds of thousands of attendees during multiple days have made them major economic boons to their cities' economies.

One catalyst for the Philadelphia Festival has been a Knight Foundation grant of $450,000, spread over three years. "We're expecting even more people this year," said Kahan, "because the Knight grant gave us the opportunity to do advertising in the tri-state area."

Goddard pointed out that the library's expansion - groundbreaking is expected later this year - will aid growth: "The new building will have conference rooms where we can do workshops, and enclosed areas where we can have antiquarian booksellers, none of which we can do now. . . . "

"Because we don't have the space," chimed in Kahan.

On the whole, both Kahan and Goddard plan to take things one step at a time.

"We're not really comparing ourselves to them," stressed Kahan when asked about Miami and L.A. "We're still in the nascent stages. That's something to strive for. We have to take two, three, four years, figure out what our strengths are, and grow it from there."