Book Lovers Unite: Previewing The Greater Pittsburgh Festival of Books
Plans are underway to celebrate all things books in one of the nation's ‘most literate cities.’
It’s the missing piece for a literate city,” says Marshall Cohen.
It’s an unusually balmy morning in December at Redstart Roasters in East Liberty, and Cohen and Laurie Moser are excitedly discussing the upcoming inaugural Greater Pittsburgh Festival of Books, scheduled for Saturday, May 14.
It’s a giant undertaking. The festival is scheduled to feature more than 40 authors — all with ties to the ’Burgh — readings, discussions, an all-day poetry tent, vendors, activities for kids, a jazz concert and even a puppet show.
As one of the country’s most literate cities, according to a study done by Central Connecticut State University in 2018, our lack of an annual celebration of all things bookish is something of a glaring absence. The idea for the festival started percolating in Cohen’s mind not long after moving back to Pittsburgh in 2018. After a career in public affairs, Cohen, who grew up in Shadyside, moved back to the city to enjoy his retirement. Now he lives “10 blocks from where I grew up.”
A voracious reader and a collector of signed first editions, Cohen warmly recalls the pure enjoyment of reading the backs of cereal boxes and comic books as a kid. It wasn’t until a school librarian handed him a book on spelunking, though, that the reading bug really hit him.
Throughout the years, he has attended book festivals all around the country. He points to the Boston Book Festival and the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books as models for the Pittsburgh event. It was imperative that, like those well-known happenings, the Greater Pittsburgh Festival of Books be free to the public. With that in mind, he began organizing funding and a team to bring his dream to fruition.
Moser is one of the founders of the Pittsburgh Race for the Cure; she also launched the StoryWalk event in Frick Park and Biggest Bedtime Story Ever event at the Petersen Events Center. For years, Moser had wanted to create a local children’s book festival. When she heard that Cohen was trying to organize the Greater Pittsburgh Festival of Books, she says, “I called up Marshall and signed on!”
Former Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Book Editor Bob Hoover had signed on as well. Book festivals “are exciting events to attend,” says Hoover. “Especially for book lovers who can see their favorite authors in person, buy a book and get it autographed.”
Hoover, who directed the popular quarterly Post-Gazette Book and Author dinners while at the newspaper, tried to launch a book festival years ago. However, his “attempts to get one started [were] met with indifference” from the local organizations and foundations whose support was necessary to make the festival a reality. He also cites the closing of many bookstores, mounting local costs and the financial problems of many publishers as factors.
So why, then, is a book festival more feasible now? “Times have changed,” says Hoover. “More authors with local ties have emerged, independent bookstores are returning, publishing activity has increased, and several local foundations are now showing an interest in books and reading.”
The festival was originally planned for the spring of 2021, but the coronavirus pandemic threw a very large and dangerous wrench into the works. The uncertainty of the foreseeable future required a reset on the part of the organizers. Venues needed to be reconsidered as some places changed their event policies and others closed their doors for good.
At the same time, this gave the founders a chance to build a larger team — and focus on building excitement for the big day.
A large part of the mission of the festival is “to build excitement around reading — the joy of it all,” says Moser. She stresses just how important it is to the festival organizers that the Greater Pittsburgh Festival of Books is “not only one day committed to literacy.” They intend to “continue the energy of the festival throughout the year.”
To that end, festival organizers began in May 2021 to sponsor smaller events as a yearlong lead up to the main attraction. These have included a virtual evening with author John Edgar Wideman in July, partnering with Reading Is FUNdamental to distribute more than 1,000 children’s books across the city, partnering with Pittsburgh Cares on a book drive, and sponsoring a day in Homewood of building book bins — then, of course, filling those bins with books for kids.
The founders understand that the chances of turning this into an annual event depend mightily on how well they pull off the inaugural event. “The festival has to prove itself,” admits Cohen. “There’s people [writers, publishers, booksellers] we’ll miss. If we can’t fit it in year one then we’ll fit it in year two.”
All of the festival activities will be hosted at six sites in East Liberty: the Carnegie Library, East Liberty Presbyterian Church, duolingo, the Kelly Strayhorn Theater, The Maverick by Kasa hotel and Bakery Square. Boasting the theme of “Pittsburgh Through the Pages,” the festival features an impressive roster of authors with local connections, including Stewart O’Nan, Clare Beams, Nathaniel Philbrick, Jan Beatty, Sharon Flake, Marcel Walker, Celeste Gainey and many more.
The festival announced on March 23 that Billy Porter, Pittsburgh’s Emmy-, Tony- and Grammy-winning performer, director and writer, will discuss his memoir “Unprotected” at noon at the Kelly Strayhorn Theater during the May 14 festival. Registration for the festival’s individual programs open April 1.
Pittsburgh author Brian Broome, winner of the 2021 Kirkus Prize in nonfiction, presented a virtual pop-up event in partnership with City of Asylum on March 7.
After years of effort, the venues are set and the authors are lined up.
“It’s going to happen!” Cohen exclaims, with a giant smile. “And it’s going to be so cool!”
Greater Pittsburgh Festival of Books
Full schedule of events: pittsburghbookfestival.org