Washington and Baltimore jockey for book lovers on the same weekend

Jose Garcia of the Book Outlet unpacks books for his company's booth as they set up for the Baltimore Book Festival Thursday.
Jose Garcia of the Book Outlet unpacks books for his company's booth as they set up for the Baltimore Book Festival Thursday. (Barbara Haddock Taylor, Baltimore Sun)

Baltimore's book festival got here first.

Organizers of the 16th annual Baltimore Book Festival, which opens Friday, say they aren't fazed that a larger, glitzier, more star-studded event is being held on the exact same weekend just 40 miles to the south.

They aren't concerned that the upstart National Book Festival will feature celebrity authors the likes of actress Julianne Moore, or that the Washington extravaganza is expanding this year from one day to two.

But not everyone is as gracious.

"They copped our weekend," said Judy Cooper, an avid reader who also works as the coordinator of public programs for the Enoch Pratt Free Library.

"We started it. We were the first in the area. And now that they're running for two days instead of just one, it is kind of a problem."

Indeed, book lovers in the Mid-Atlantic region must choose from among a plethora of literary activities crammed into the second half of September.

The Brooklyn Book Festival was held Sunday. The Baltimore Book Festival runs Friday through Sunday, and the National Book Festival operates Saturday and Sunday. Finally, the annual festival run by The New Yorker magazine — arguably the most prestigious literary happening of them all — occurs Sept. 30-Oct. 2.

Organizers say that early fall is an ideal time to throw a book party on the East Coast: The weather usually is nice. The kids are back in school. And it's traditionally the time of year when publishers roll out major releases.

Nonetheless, Cooper can't help wondering why at least one of these galas couldn't debut in, for example, April.

"I'm going to spend most of the day Saturday at the Baltimore Book Festival," she said. "If the festival in Washington were held on a different weekend, I'd go to that one, too, but I have such limited free time. I can't attend both. Just the thought makes me tired."

The Library of Congress, which organizes Washington's 11th annual book fair, hasn't exactly been taking the hint.

Kathy Hornig of the Baltimore Office of Promotion and the Arts said that organizers of both events met after the Library of Congress bumped the 2005 festival back from October, when it traditionally had been held, to late September.

As she put it: "We noticed that the dates of the festivals were the same, and we went to Washington and had a meeting."

The Baltimore group was told that the National Mall was committed for virtually the entire year to hosting other cultural activities. If the Library of Congress wanted to mount a book festival, the organization was limited to the third weekend in September.

"Everybody is always asking us why Baltimore has its book festival on the same weekend as the one in Washington," Hornig said. "In an ideal world, would I want them to be scheduled on the same days? Probably not. But do I see their festival as detracting from ours? No."

Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said Thursday at a news conference kicking off the festival that a 2009 economic impact study found that the Baltimore Book Festival generates about $4.5 million annually for the city.

"I hope everyone comes out this weekend with their wallets in hand," she said.

But Rawlings-Blake added later that she's not concerned that the city could lose out financially because it competes head-on with the Washington fair.

"They're two different markets," she said, "and there are enough literary enthusiasts to go around."

The celebration in the District of Columbia attracts 150,000 visitors annually, compared with the 60,000 who will attend the three-day bash in Mount Vernon Place.

But Bill Gilmore, executive director of the promotions office, said that his group doesn't aspire to put on a national festival.

"Attracting more people isn't necessarily a good thing," he said.

"We've been very successful in getting a broad and diverse collection of very good authors with popular books. We're located in one of the most beautiful parks in the United States, and we offer a more intimate experience that allows readers to engage fully with our authors. Our goal isn't to have a bigger attendance. It's to have a great program and offer a quality experience, whether you're 8 years old or 80 years old."

Though the combined festivals will feature more than 300 authors, just 11 will read at both festivals, according to Jennifer Gavin, project manager of the National Book Festival in Washington.

"I don't see us as being in competition," Gavin said. "I've seen no evidence that we've ever had a tug-of-war over writers."

For instance, Baltimore crime novelist Laura Lippman will read from her newest book, "The Most Dangerous Thing," Saturday on the National Mall and Sunday in Mount Vernon Place.

"I'm not sure I've ever done both in the same weekend before," Lippman, a former reporter for The Sun, wrote in an email.

"I've always loved the scale of the Baltimore Book Festival, and the location.

"The National Book Festival is bigger, but I've always been shown a lot of hometown affection in Baltimore. The writers' tent in D.C. has a lot more stars; I remember Julie Andrews being there in 2003. But, I never have time to talk to anyone else."

Gilmore of the Baltimore promotion office said that he doesn't covet the A-list authors that the Washington festival is able to draw. In addition to Moore and newsman Jim Lehrer, the event will feature exclusive appearances by such famous scribes as Garrison Keillor, David McCullough, Michael Cunningham and Toni Morrison. (Like Lippman, another big-name author, Terry McMillan, will read in both Baltimore and Washington.)

"The Washington festival has always had a huge roster of rock stars, and that's fine if that's the direction they want to go in," Gilmore said.

"The publishers make the decisions for the most part where their authors are going to read, and they're going to choose the festival run by the Library of Congress.

"But this isn't a competition, and I'm not at all envious. I've never been to the festivals in New York or Washington. I don't even look at their website to see which authors they have. That really is of no importance to me."

Perhaps that explains why Leon Fleisher, the world-renowned pianist who makes his home in Baltimore, will be a featured author at the book festival in Washington but not in his hometown.

Fleisher will appear on the Contemporary Life Pavilion on the National Mall and briefly perform on a new Steinway piano being brought in for the occasion. He will talk about and sign copies of his book, "My Nine Lives: A Memoir of Many Careers in Music."

But, though Fleisher might stop by the Mount Vernon Place event to browse the bookstalls — he teaches just around the corner — he won't take the stage.

"They invited me to Washington, and they didn't invite me here," he said. "If they had, I would have come."


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