The demise of Borders is not a new story, nor is the recent revitalization of independent book culture in Ann Arbor and across the country. According to the American Booksellers Association, over forty-one independent bookstores opened nationally last year, while larger chain stores continued to close. Three of those stores opened in Washtenaw County: Bookbound and Literati Bookstore in Ann Arbor and Blackstone Bookstore in Ypsilanti.
Through all the changes, the Ann Arbor Book Festival continues to play an important role in the literary community. Their struggles and triumphs over the last ten years mirror the changes, and perhaps the future, of book culture in Ann Arbor. This year’s festival takes place June 19, 20 and 21. In addition to the annual writing conference, the festival will feature a moonlight book crawl and a public street fair.
“For a long time the festival had a lot of support from the University, Shaman Drum, Borders, and the Ann Arbor News,” said Jamie Vander Broek, AABF board member. “And things changed with all of those organizations really fast, all at once, so the festival really had to reinvent itself.” Vander Broek attributes the recent success of the festival to the inventiveness of the programming and to the awareness of the changes in the demands of the community. “We’re experimenting with new ideas like the moonlight book crawl, and we discovering that these ideas are reaching a larger audience.”
Last year’s book crawl saw writers read their work at local venues across town including Bill’s Beer Garden and Nicola’s Books. “We had a good-sized crowd,” said Scott Beal, Pushcart Prize-winning poet who read outside at Babo Market. “At one point someone walking by on the street stopped and interrupted, but then he hung around and listened before heading on his way.” For the organizers, one of their goals for the festival is to reach people where they already are. “I think the informality and pop-up nature of those experiences really does mirror what is happening in town,” said Vander Broek. “For bigger chains the bottom fell out, and these newer things are popping up in their place.”
This year’s book crawl will take place on Thursday night, Friday night and Saturday afternoon and evening with readings and performances from fiction writers as well as award-winning poets. Attendees can look forward to hearing live performances in a number of places around town including Seva, Vault of Midnight, and Arbor Brewing Company.
Expanding the Audience
Organizers have reintroduced a public street fair for years a staple of the festival, on Saturday from 1-6pm on E. Washington St. between Fourth and Fifth Ave. featuring local vendors, readings and spoken word performances providing one-on-one experiences with local authors, booksellers, and small presses. “We are doing a lot of thinking about what we want of our literary culture,” said Vander Broek.
For those interested in developing their own writing skills, the AABF’s writer’s conference, the centerpiece to the two-day event, takes place all day Saturday in the Hatcher Graduate Library. The conference includes lunch and a keynote address by Mardi Jo Link, author of the memoir Bootsrapper: from Broke to Badass on a Northern Michigan Farm.
From her farm in Traverse City, Link expressed her excitement for the festival. “For the keynote I’ll probably talk about the ridiculous way I got published,” said Link, whose memoir was released in paperback in April. “Every writer who has some success has an ‘it’s nuts’ story and I’d like to tell mine. It’s a story that I would have liked to have heard from someone when I was trying to get published.” Link will also lead a workshop on memoir writing. “I want to talk about what it is about someone’s personal story that makes it interesting to a complete stranger” said Link.
“Anne Lamott talks about everyone having their one personal acre. I could write for the rest of my life about my one acre, my one environment here in Michigan,” said Link, when asked about what it means to be a writer in Michigan. As the literary culture in Ann Arbor shades slowly back towards its own little acre, new opportunities arise, new audiences present themselves, and new voices emerge. This year’s Ann Arbor Book Festival offers a way for readers and writers to embrace the rich literary community here in southeast Michigan. “If everyone could do that,” added Link “it might go a long way towards our appreciation of what Michigan means, what our geography really offers us.”
Ann Arbor Book Fair, June 19-21, Events details at aabookfestival.org.