Readers, authors converge for Baltimore Book Festival

Robbi Behr, 37, and Matthew Swanson, 38, specialize in what they call "odd, commercially nonviable picture books for adults."

The married couple quit their office jobs seven years ago to operate Idiots'books, a small, indie publishing house based out of their barn on the Eastern Shore. There, they write and illustrate their series of satirical, subscription-based novels, which they proudly displayed Friday at the Baltimore Book Festival in Mount Vernon.

"Festivals like these are the best way to meet new readers," Swanson said.

They are among the 200-plus authors, publishing houses, booksellers, workshop leaders and creative types represented at the 18th annual festival. This year's fest features best-selling writers such as Meg Cabot, James McBride and Mary Kay Andrews; celebrity authors, including Kate Gosselin and Brian Boitano; and themed attractions like the Children's Bookstore Stage and the Radical Bookfair Pavilion, featuring alternative books and authors.

On Friday, book vendors set up shop around the square, offering new and used titles for children and adults, attracting thousands of readers from the Baltimore area.

Rich Dinetz, a 26-year-old youth director from Fells Point, happened upon the festival on his way back from a yoga class. Flipping through nonfiction titles in the open-air tents, the avid reader said he is "always looking for something I can learn from, like sociology or self-help books."

This year, the festival has expanded to include its first-ever Charm City Comic Book Pavilion. Matt Coppage, a 26-year-old clerk at Third Eye Comics in Annapolis, said he was thrilled to be a part of this year's event.

"Comics have become so mainstream at this point that they're not just for nerds anymore," said Coppage, who added that the store has been seeking new ways to reach potential readers. The titles sold at his booth ranged from "civilian-friendly" crowd pleasers like superhero comics, to contemporary boundary-pushers like "Saga," Brian K. Vaughn and Fiona Staples' popular sci-fi thriller.

Mystery writer Courtney Hines, 25, of Owings Mills, was attending her first festival as an author.

"I'm not looking for huge sales," Hines said. "Rather, I'm looking for ways to network and get my name out there."

Besides authors, nonprofits were represented as well, including Book Bank, a Baltimore-based program that donates books to 43,000 children a year to promote home library building and lifelong literacy.

"We're here to get people to understand the program and help the most amount of people possible," said Mark Fiering, 48, of Towson, the director of the program. "We're working with seven schools right now, giving five books to each second-grader, and trying to go statewide."

Newcomers to the festival were pleasantly surprised by the lively atmosphere.

Katie O'Malley, a 24-year-old nanny from Mount Vernon, and her friends Jessica Peterson, 26, and Elizabeth Fierman, 24, from Boston were excited to have stumbled upon the festival this year. They stopped at each tent to check out the offerings.

"We're out-of-towners and were attracted by all the music," Fierman said. "And look how great our day turned out."

The Baltimore Book Festival continues through Sunday.

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