Festival's a page turner Books: The city that reads opens a new chapter on Mount Vernon. The first Baltimore Book Festival celebrates authors and their storytelling.

September 29, 1996|By Diana K. Sugg | Diana K. Sugg,SUN STAFF

From his post at the doorway of the Washington Monument, looking over the rainbow-striped tents and bright balloons, savoring the smell from the grill, and the sexy sound of a saxophone, Douglas Southerland nodded approvingly.

This, the Baltimore native said, is how it should be.

After a few years of slow weekends at the monument on Mount Vernon Place, Southerland found himself busy yesterday as about 15,000 families, students, authors and others gathered for the first Baltimore Book Festival, a day where folks celebrated reading and found themselves rediscovering the beauty of the city.

Some people overheard others talking about the festival around town. Some learned of the festival from their children excited about the storytelling and puppet shows advertised in school. No one knew what to expect as they streamed into the square yesterday morning, pushing strollers, carrying knapsacks or holding hands.

They found everything from authors reading their works, to stacks of books for sale, to handwriting analysis. Editors of journals and owners of small Baltimore presses were on hand to give advice and connect with potential writers. Cooks gave demonstrations. All day, musicians performed, from alternative rock to chamber music. Children could make books, or sit in a tent, dangle their legs over the edge of a chair and listen to someone read to them.

Many had a photo taken. Some typed into a computer why they liked to read.

"My name is Laura Hoffman. I like books because it's like you're actually there," wrote one. Another seemed to hit the nail on the head: "My name is Leslie. I like books because they are magic."

Perhaps the spiritual core of the festival could be found in those tents and sites where authors read their works. Many people left the jazz music and other festival sounds behind for the cool quiet of the Walters Art Gallery.

In the auditorium, Sharon Olds, a world-renowned contemporary poet, stood alone on the stage, her voice the only sound in the room. Her words sped up, then slowed down. In one poem, she told the story of a woman racing to catch a plane to get to her dying father's bedside.

"I used up my legs and heart as if I would gladly use them up for this, to touch him again in this life," she said. The poem's character reaches the plane, weeping as if arriving in heaven, because she will see her father one last time.

Outside, four areas set up on each side of the monument focused on different themes: cooking, children's activities, online games and international exhibits, and food and music.

Against overcast skies streaked by threatening clouds, the area's brick buildings and brownstones seemed showcased. Shiny bubbles, generated by three machines stationed on the monument, floated overhead, carried by occasional breezes.

"I've been driving past these buildings for 12 years, and I've never really had a chance to see Mount Vernon up close," said Dave Wolinsky, 43, a Federal Hill resident. "I'm astonished. It's beautiful here."

Families who live in the city, or Columbia and the suburbs closer to Washington, said they wanted more activities like this in Baltimore. The festival attracted a variety of book-lovers, from intellectuals who read in beautifully lighted conservatories lined with novels, to those who fondly remembered long afternoons as children, getting lost in their books.

City and state officials who sponsored the event thought the idea was a natural for Baltimore because of its nickname, "The City That Reads." Bill Gilmore, executive director of the city's Office of Promotion, came up with the idea last summer while enjoying a book festival in Edinburgh, Scotland. His office began developing the concept for Baltimore and this spring discovered that state officials were planning their own book festival.

So they joined forces. Baltimore's rich literary presence -- past and present -- only enhanced their work.

The former Peabody Bookshop and Beer Stube on Charles Street, north of Read Street, for instance, was a favorite drinking spot of F. Scott Fitzgerald and numerous others. The site of Upton Sinclair's childhood home is at 425 N. Charles St. The Baltimore Sun Co. building, at 501 N. Calvert St., is the site of the old Calvert Street train station, where President Lincoln departed to deliver the Gettysburg Address.

Tours of these and other literary places were given all day by the Baltimore City Life Museums.

Eli Flam, editor of the Potomac Review, one of many groups that had booths at the festival, said the nonprofit "quarterly with a conscience," based in Southern Maryland, is putting together its pTC winter issue about Baltimore and its writers.

David Beaudouin of Tropos Press, an independent literary press in Baltimore that publishes small limited-edition books and the annual journal The Pearl, said he has wanted to put together a festival like this, but never had enough support or interest.

Now, Beaudouin said, the reading public and others will be able to tap into Baltimore's strong subculture of writers and publishers.

Jody Albright, director of special projects in the Maryland Department of Business and Economic Development, one of the sponsoring groups, watched children in the storytelling tent. "Reading paves the way for your entire life to be successful. If you don't read, you don't know what's come before you. You don't have the imagination you need to see the rest of your life."

The festival continues today from noon until 6 p.m. Admission is free.

Pub Date: 9/29/96

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