Bookshelf: AJC Decatur Book Festival navigates a year of transition

Visitors check out a booth during the 2017 AJC Decatur Book Festival. CONTRIBUTED BY BRANDEN CAMP
Caption
Visitors check out a booth during the 2017 AJC Decatur Book Festival. CONTRIBUTED BY BRANDEN CAMP

Board of directors eyes a return to ‘normal’ in 2022.

For 14 years, The AJC Decatur Book Festival (DBF) has attracted up to 80,000 people to the Decatur Square every Labor Day weekend for author events, cooking demonstrations, live music, parades and exhibitors. It has celebrated the written word with some of the biggest names in the industry: Joyce Carol Oates, Roxane Gay, Jonathan Franzen, Armistead Maupin, Natasha Trethewey, Michael Connelly, Jericho Brown, Alexander Chee. And it has become a place where local up-and-coming authors could get some exposure and connect with potential readers.

Because of the pandemic, the festival transitioned to a month-long series of digital events last year. And unfortunately, despite the fact COVID-19 numbers are down and things are starting to open back up again, fans of the festival are going to have to wait another year to experience the full-blown extravaganza they’ve come to expect from DBF. But have no fear, says Board President Mathwon Howard, the festival will be back in full force in 2022.

“The festival takes a year-plus to plan,” said Howard. “If you go back a year, there was still quite a bit of uncertainty. It was not possible to make the call and say, yes, we’re going to have a three-day physical festival. There was no way to make that determination.”

Mathwon Howard is president of the board of directors for the AJC Decatur Book Festival.
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Mathwon Howard is president of the board of directors for the AJC Decatur Book Festival.

Even now, said Howard, “we can’t be completely certain that something couldn’t change on Sept. 1 or Aug. 1 with the new variant. We’ve just been operating as responsibly as we could.”

There is some good news, though. A mini-festival of sorts has been planned for this year. And unlike last year’s digital event, DBF 2021 will be live and in person. Festivities will include events with five or six authors at First Baptist Church of Decatur on Oct. 2. The lineup, which organizers promise will feature some big names, will be announced July 27.

As for the festival’s permanent move from Labor Day weekend to the first weekend of October, Howard said it was a decision that was a long time coming.

“There were a couple of different reasons,” he said. “One is Labor Day, obviously, is a holiday weekend. There are a lot of people who are out of town. The other thing is, it does conflict with the National Book Festival every year, and that has always created a bit of a challenge because anyone associated with that festival was not available for ours. But the biggest reason is that many authors are touring later in the year, and what we were finding is that we were too early, so we were missing out on opportunities to attract authors when they were out promoting books later in the fall.”

An unexpected benefit of moving the DBF date this year was the domino effect it had on organizers of the city’s other festivals, who decided to hold their events that weekend, too. What started out as one event turned into four events with the unifying moniker of 2021 Festival Weekend. Joining in the fun is the Decatur Arts Festival Oct. 2-3, the Decatur Craft Beer Festival Oct. 2 and the Amplify Decatur Music Festival Oct. 1-2.

The convergence of festivals should result in “a very robust day full of activities that allows (us) to continue the momentum toward what we hope will be a normal festival in 2022,” said Howard.

With an eye toward 2022, the board of directors has put together a planning committee and a transition task force focused on building the festival back to be the kind of event book lovers have come to expect.

Joy Pope is the program director for the 2021 AJC Decatur Book Festival. Contributed by Lynette C. Davis
Caption
Joy Pope is the program director for the 2021 AJC Decatur Book Festival. Contributed by Lynette C. Davis

Credit: LYNETTECLARKDAVIS.COM

Credit: LYNETTECLARKDAVIS.COM

One of the things the board will be looking at is how to staff the festival. Joy Pope, who replaced Executive Director Julie Wilson in January 2020, currently works part time as program director and is the festival’s sole employee. Despite working in a reduced capacity, she managed to secure several significant grants this year from the National Endowment for the Arts, Amazon and the Nora Roberts Foundation. That kind of support is a sign of good things to come.

At a time when so many of our beloved businesses and cultural institutions have struggled to survive, it’s encouraging to see them come out the other side of the pandemic more or less intact.

“We consider the Decatur Book Festival a jewel of the community,” said Howard. “The board is excited about not just (the upcoming) fall events but also continuing to be a big part of the literary arts culture in this area. We’re excited, as everyone lifts out of the haze from this pandemic, for the festival to be one of the things to look forward to.”

Suzanne Van Atten is a book critic and contributing editor to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. svanatten@ajc.com