It's no secret that Durham loves the local: The city's enthusiasm for homegrown food, beer and business proves it.
This weekend, local writers, booksellers and publishers try to build on that trend at the inaugural Read Local Book Festival, designed to celebrate and strengthen the Triangle's literary scene.
The festival ranges out from the epicenter of Durham Central Park Pavilion, into libraries, restaurants and other venues. It kicks off Friday with a Cookbook Rodeo at Belt Line Station featuring cooking demonstrations by Lionel Vatinet of Cary's La Farm Bakery and Jay Pierce of Charlotte's Rocksalt, and tastings from a variety of local chefs and cookbook authors.
Other events include a "Buffet of Authors," where diners share genre-based, four-course dinners with a rotating cast of writers at downtown restaurants; a massive book fair in Central Park; author panels on how to write about topics such as music and social change; and a workshop about children's publishing.
Festival chair Elizabeth Turnbull says the idea for Read Local came from her desire to forge more connections with the area's literary community. Turnbull is a senior editor at Light Messages Publishing, a small, family-run press, but even though she works with books and authors daily, she was feeling increasingly detached from others who do the same.
"It's so easy, when you have a computer-based job, to have tunnel vision," she says. "We specialize in meaningful books by emerging authors, but it's hard to get them into bookstores and get them plugged in—and it's hard for us to help them if we're not plugged in. But instead of getting frustrated, we decided to throw a party."
Approximately 90 writers from the Triangle (and a few from beyond) are participating in Read Local, alongside about 20 booksellers, publishers, publicists and others connected to the book world.
"If you've got a role in the literary ecosystem, you've got a place at the festival," Turnbull says.
Rather than being sharply curated and exclusive, the festival favors a big-tent approach in its bookings. You'll find everything from romance novels and YA fiction to academic nonfiction and cookbooks. The mix allows attendees to meet a wide variety of writers, and also gives the writers the opportunity to mingle with each other.
"It's a chance for beginning writers to meet and ask questions of writers who are more experienced, and for readers to ask questions of authors whose books they've read," says Monica Byrne, author of bestseller The Girl in the Road, who is participating in the Buffet of Authors and a panel on writing about sex. "I hope I have fun."
Turnbull says the organizers reached out to more than 250 writers directly, in addition to putting out an open call for Saturday's book fair. The participants range from emerging and self-publishing authors to prominent ones published by major houses. The former seem more prevalent, perhaps because established writers who work in academia tend to travel in the summer, and they may not feel the same need to sign on for a new, untested festival to promote their works. Turnbull says graduation season and other travel conflicts prevented many writers from participating this year, but hopes Read Local will become an annual event and expand over time.
All money raised from ticketed events and donations will go to the Durham Library Foundation because, as Turnbull says, the library is "where all the pieces of the ecosystem come together." The festival hopes to raise $20,000 this year.
"Library staff have volunteered to help with this event because the mission is such a good one. We're all about local and community at the library," says Tammy Baggett, director of the Durham County Library. "The [Durham Library] Foundation funds programs, materials for the collection, services and capital purchases that we couldn't otherwise afford. The funds from Read Local will be put to good use enhancing them."
The organizers are already looking ahead to consider supporting library systems outside of Durham County with funds raised from future festivals.
"We are very ambitious for our first year, but it's the only way Durham knows how to do things," says Turnbull, who also owns, with her husband, the Old Havana Sandwich Shop in downtown Durham.
She praises the Triangle as an environment that values creativity, naturally drawing writers to the area and making this the perfect place to host this kind of festival.
"I think Read Local is a sign of Durham's growth," says Land Arnold, owner of Letters Bookshop, one of the four bookstores participating in the festival. "It's like a literary food truck rodeo; I think it will continue to grow and get more attention each year, and the exciting thing about having an annual event is that you get to see what works and what doesn't and constantly improve."
Turnbull hopes that the festival will allow writers and readers to forge the connections she felt were missing in her own life and career—and that it will help strengthen the overall literary network in an area where many writers stick to their niche. She also wants readers to get to know writers from their own backyards.
"My hope would be that everyone would walk away with one new book to read that they didn't know about before," she says.
The festivities conclude Sunday with Duke it Out: Writers in the Ring [disclosure: this event was organized by INDY contributor Chris Vitiello], a boxing-inspired live writing competition where six authors will be given prompts to write about on the spot. Their responses will be projected on a screen for spectators to cheer for—or jeer at—to determine the winner. It's a rare, light-hearted instance of pitting writers against each other in a festival that mostly finds them working together.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Brain food."