Waverly’s National Historic Main Street District sign. Photo by Ed Gunts.

After three years without one, Baltimore is getting a new book festival in 2023, in a different location and with different producers than before.

Missing the annual book festivals put on by Baltimore Office of Promotion & The Arts (BOPA), and eager to promote the book stores in their district, the leaders of a community revitalization group in Waverly are stepping up to fill the void.

Waverly Main Street, a non-profit that works to assist and promote businesses in Historic Waverly, is leading an effort to organize a three-day book festival next spring, according to City Council member Odette Ramos and Waverly Main Street Executive Director Diana Emerson.

Emerson said the event will be called the Waverly Book Festival and will be held the same weekend as Independent Bookstore Day, a national event that always falls on the last Saturday in April. In 2023, Independent Bookstore Day is April 29, making the dates for the Waverly Book Festival April 28 to 30, 2023.

Emerson said programming on Friday and Saturday will be held in various indoor locations around Waverly, including the participating book stores in the area and Peabody Heights Brewery, for author meet-and-greets, panel discussions, a Friday night kick-off event, and more.

On Sunday, the booksellers and other vendors will come together in one outdoor location — the large lot where the 32nd Street Farmers Market takes place, at 32nd and Barclay streets, and nearby Waverly Commons, parallel to Greenmount Avenue. Emerson said Sunday will be “more of the traditional festival component that folks are used to” if they’ve been to past book festivals in Baltimore.

Emerson said the book festival will use the lot on Sunday only, so it won’t interfere with the popular Farmers Market, which takes place from 7 a.m. to noon on Saturdays year round. Activities will be rescheduled in case of bad weather.

Ramos and Emerson said Waverly is an ideal place for a book festival because it has four book stores plus the Waverly branch of the Enoch Pratt Free Library. They’re aiming to make the festival an annual event.

Waverly’s bookstores include: Urban Reads Bookstore, Normal’s Books & Records, Book Thing of Baltimore, and Red Emma’s Bookstore Coffeehouse. Not far away are Busboys and Poets Baltimore, Bird in Hand and Barnes & Noble Johns Hopkins in Charles Village; Atomic Books in Hampden; Greedy Reads in Remington,; the Johns Hopkins University Press offices on North Charles Street; and others.

Last Baltimore Book Festival was in 2019

BOPA, a quasi-public agency designated the city’s “events producer,” didn’t put on a book festival in 2020 or 2021, citing restrictions on crowd gatherings due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Officials disclosed in April that the agency wouldn’t put on a book festival in 2022 or 2023 either but would put on a book festival after that.

Last May, to help fill the void left when BOPA didn’t produce a book festival, Greedy Reads owner Julia Fleischaker organized a literary gathering in Remington called the Lost Weekend Festival, featuring author appearances, poetry, a photography panel, a small press showcase and other free events over three days.

Ramos, whose council district contains at least eight bookstores, said Waverly Main Street is working in conjunction with her office, participating book stores, the Central Baltimore Partnership, and others.

“This is an area where there are a lot of bookstores, and they’re very diverse,” Ramos said. “The advantage we have in Waverly is that we have this concentration, so we can do a festival. We can bring in authors. We can bring in vendors. We can bring in children’s authors. We can bring in a lot of stuff, but we also can include the book stores in the footprint. That’s the beauty of it.”

Ramos and Emerson said Waverly merchants have been talking about holding an annual book festival for some time and the idea has gained strength with the recent opening of Red Emma’s, whose property frames the southern edge of the Farmers Market lot.

“It’s actually an idea that came up last year,” Emerson said. “After COVID, we understand BOPA hasn’t really had the ability or capacity to bring back the book festival, and one of the great things that we have here in Waverly is multiple options for books, now that Red Emma’s is a part of the Main Street makeup.

“But we also have Normal’s. We have Urban Reads. We have the Book Thing, and of course we have the Enoch Pratt library. So we did approach all of the groups last year right as Red Emma’s had just moved into the area, to kind of talk about what if we could bring the festival, or a version of the festival, here to the Waverly community. We have just started working with Peabody’s and Red Emma’s and all of the book sellers, book opportunists, to see how we can pull this festival together for the spring.”

“With Red Emma’s opening, it’s starting to come to fruition,” Ramos said. “Organizing with the book stores is going to be really key.”

A ‘book-rich neighborhood’

Red Emma’s new storefront at 3128 Greenmount Ave. in Waverly is officially opened last month. Photo by Ed Gunts.

Kate Khatib, a co-founder and worker-owner of Red Emma’s, said in an email message that she thinks a Waverly book festival is a good idea as long as the community wants it.

Previously at 1225 Cathedral St., Red Emma’s has been renovating two buildings in Waverly and obtained the final city permits to open the first of them, at 3128 Greenmount Ave., last month. Red Emma’s is aiming to finish construction and open the second building, at 415 E. 32nd St., in January, several months before the spring book festival.

“Folks started asking us if we could do a book festival in Waverly as soon as we announced our move, and I know longtime neighborhood book folks had discussed it before then,” Khatib said. “Historically Waverly has been a pretty book-rich neighborhood, so it definitely makes sense, if the community is excited about it.”

As for Red Emma’s, “I can definitely say that we are huge Book Festival fans, and having been programming partners for the Baltimore Book Festival for a decade before it shut down, we’re super excited about the possibility of bringing that Book Festival energy to our neighborhood, if there is interest,” she said. “We are also excited to say we have also been working with our friends at Peabody Heights to offer some ‘Books & Beers’ collaborations for the fall and winter.”

Series of cancelled festivals

The Baltimore Book Festival is one of several major events that BOPA has historically produced for the City of Baltimore, but BOPA hasn’t done so since 2019 under current CEO Donna Drew Sawyer.

In 2020 and 2021, BOPA didn’t hold an in-person Book Festival, Artscape festival, Light City festival or Inner Harbor fireworks celebrations on the Fourth of July, due to the pandemic and other factors.

During City Council budget hearings in June, Sawyer told City Council members that the Baltimore Book Festival, Artscape and Light City would not be held in 2022, even though the agency was requesting $98,000 in fiscal 2023 to put on festivals.

Alarmed by the cancellations and agency layoffs, the council voted to withhold $196,000 from BOPA’s requested budget for fiscal 2023 until members got more answers about its operations, including how it spent $196,000 previously allocated for festivals that weren’t held during the pandemic.

BOPA officials resumed the Fourth of July Fireworks display at the Inner Harbor in 2022 and announced plans last month to bring back Artscape in 2023.

‘Spreading the literary wealth’

Sawyer, an author herself, also told the council’s Ways and Means Committee members in June that she didn’t intend to have another Book Festival on the Inner Harbor shoreline, where it was held before the pandemic.

The book festival started in the streets and parks around the Washington Monument in Mount Vernon. By the early 2000s it had become so successful that crowds were killing the grass in the parks, and organizers eventually moved it to the promenade around the Inner Harbor. In 2019, it was combined with the Light City festival for the first time and held that November at the Inner Harbor. That was the last book festival BOPA put on.

During the budget hearings in City Hall last June, Sawyer didn’t give council members any specific dates for when the Baltimore Book Festival would return. The agency’s CEO since July 2018, she mused about holding the book festival in various locations around Baltimore, as a way of bringing activity to city neighborhoods and giving local bookstores a greater role in the event. She made it clear she doesn’t envision the book festival occurring in a single location anymore, as long as she heads the agency.

“One of the things that we realize is that reading, literature, takes place everywhere,” she told council members. “And what we would like to do is have a more distributed book festival so that we can partner with libraries, we can partner with CityLit [the CityLit Project is a non-profit that promotes literature with its CityLit Festival], and we’re exploring those opportunities right now, so that when the book festival returns it won’t be a place. It will be a series of events throughout the city, for everyone in the city.”

Baltimore’s Inner Harbor shoreline, the most recent setting for the book festival, likely will be the scene of construction activity that could make it less promising as a setting for large events in the next several years, she added.

“To squeeze it into three days at the harbor, also knowing that we are going to be undergoing construction in that area probably over the next three to five years, we would like to ensure the viability of the book festival by spreading the literary wealth throughout the city,” she said.

Baltimore Office of Promotion & the Arts CEO Donna Drew Sawyer announces details of Artscape 2023. Photo by Ed Gunts.

Sawyer told members of the council’s Ways and Means committee that she’s open to suggestions about possible sites for a reimagined book festival. Ramos, who is not a committee member but attends its meetings, recommended that BOPA consider Waverly due to its concentration of book stores, and council member John Bullock suggested the Coppin State campus in West Baltimore. Sawyer said West Baltimore and Waverly were on her list but otherwise was noncommittal.

Sawyer is listed as earning $159,867 for a 35-hour week, according to city records from more than a year ago. A Bolton Hill resident, she was appointed to her position during the administration of former Mayor Catherine Pugh and has held onto her job under mayors Bernard C. “Jack” Young and Brandon Scott.

BOPA’s recent missteps have included posting an announcement online that indicated Artscape would return in 2022 and then saying it wouldn’t; and announcing Artscape 2023 for dates that would have conflicted with Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and then changing the dates after receiving complaints from members of Baltimore’s large Jewish community. Her agency has also been embroiled in flaps this year involving filming of the Lady in the Lake limited television series and operations of the Baltimore Farmers’ Market.

Sawyer did not respond to a request for comment about Waverly Main Street’s plan to hold a book festival next spring and whether BOPA might play any sort of role. BOPA’s director of marketing and communications, Lauren Green Bolling, sent an email message saying that Sawyer is not to be contacted.

“I have to tell you that it is inappropriate to reach out to Donna directly,” Green Bolling said in her message. “To answer your question, BOPA is not currently involved in the Waverly Book Festival. As such, we do not have a comment.”

Not waiting for BOPA

After BOPA laid off its festival staff during the pandemic and said it wouldn’t bring back Artscape or Light City in 2022, other organizations launched festivals without BOPA’s involvement, including the Waterfront Partnership’s Baltimore by Baltimore series, which concludes its inaugural season at the Inner Harbor with a festival this weekend. At least one event, Maryland Fleet Week and Flyover Baltimore 2022, employed former BOPA staffers, including former COO and Festivals Director Kathy Hornig and former communications director Tracy Baskerville

In September, Scott’s office engaged a separate producer to organize a new festival called Charm City Live on War Memorial Plaza. The city also paid a separate producer last summer to put on the 2022 AFRAM festival in Druid Hill Park, without BOPA’s involvement.

Founded in 2000, Waverly Main Street is a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization dedicated to the commercial revitalization of the Greenmount Avenue corridor. Headed by Emerson and board president Eric Lee, it’s an original member of the Baltimore Main Streets program, an accredited Main Street organization with a focus on ensuring the success of the Historic Waverly community.

According to its website. Waverly Main Street provides assistance to local businesses through planning, designing and managing of the built environment – specifically, vacant buildings, streetscapes, public facilities and open spaces. It also promotes the district as a shopping, dining and leisure destination to neighboring communities and the city at large.

Emerson said Waverly Main Street’s decision to hold a book festival isn’t a sign of frustration with BOPA or a commentary on the way it operates. She said she sees it as an opportunity to mount an event that will showcase Waverly and draw people to the area — part of Waverly Main Street’s mission.

“I truly miss the book festival,” she said. “It has saddened me over the years that we haven’t had that opportunity and then we haven’t had Artscape, so we’ve just had a lack of these traditions…that I think Baltimoreans look for every year. So for us, I looked at it, especially with Red Emma’s now being here, that, wow, we have a lot of books [in Waverly]. And when I looked at all of our other Main Streets, no one has the same amount of books that we have…We know the drive is here, that people will come, because they’re already going to all of these different great booksellers here.”

(Left to right) Muralist Gaia, Baltimore City Council Member Odette Ramos, the Oriole Bird, Baltimore Main Streets DIrector Sean Stinnett, and Waverly Main Street Executive Director Diana Emerson pose for a photo in Waverly. Photo by Ed Gunts.

“We’re doing this because it makes sense for our neighborhood and our district,” Ramos said.

Emerson said she and others have reached out to BOPA to tell the agency about the Waverly festival and see if its experts in promotion and the arts would be available to participate or assist in any way, even if it’s providing insight from putting on past book festivals.

“We’re actively reaching out to BOPA for any support or guidance that they want to lend as we put this event on,” she said, “because we do hope that it becomes an annual tradition here, that it’s one of those things that you know of in the city that people show up to.”

Asked how BOPA might participate based on that initial outreach, Emerson said: “we’re still working through what that’ll look like moving forward.” She said Waverly Main Street plans to provide more details about the festival later this month.

Asked who controls the rights to put on a Baltimore Book Festival, Ramos acknowledged that it has been produced by BOPA in the past, but she said there’s nothing to prevent Waverly Main Street from organizing a Waverly Book Festival.

A Main Street organization “can do whatever they want in the main street,” she said.

Ramos said Waverly Main Street would be pleased if BOPA wanted to play a role in putting on the Waverly Book Festival, but Waverly’s event isn’t contingent on obtaining assistance or permission from the agency.

“I have asked BOPA directly about where they’re having the book festival” in the future and suggested “that they should do it in Waverly,” Ramos said. “The head of BOPA…said ‘we are very much looking at Waverly but we’re also looking at Coppin and a couple of other places,’ so it could end up being a partnership. But either way, we’re doing our own. And if it grows enough to be the Baltimore Book Festival, I’m not going to object.”

Editor’s note: A previous version of this article incorrectly identified Baltimore City Council member Odette Ramos as a member of the council’s Ways and Means committee. Ramos is not a committee member but attends its hearings. The article has been updated.

Ed Gunts is a local freelance writer and the former architecture critic for The Baltimore Sun.

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