AJC Decatur Book Fest considering alternatives to Labor Day celebration

About 60,000 people come to each year’s AJC Decatur Book Festival. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC
Caption
About 60,000 people come to each year’s AJC Decatur Book Festival. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC

The coronavirus has imperiled the life of events as well as individuals, and the AJC Decatur Book Festival, the largest independent book festival in the U.S., is trying to adjust.

Since 2006 the festival has brought hundreds of authors and tens of thousands of visitors to the square in downtown Decatur each Labor Day weekend for readings, panels, author signings, cooking demonstrations, parades and music.

But gathering in large crowds may be considered unsafe --  even four months from now.

“We haven’t made any definitive decision,” said Mathwon Howard, president of the festival’s 12-member board. “We’re dealing with the guidance (from health professionals). The coronavirus is changing daily. It doesn’t seem that it’s possible to have a physical festival at this stage, but we  haven’t talked about canceling the festival.”

Instead, the board has discussed how to change the festival to make sure it’s safe, including staging virtual events and livestreamed panels.

Caption
Joy Pope, interim executive director of the AJC Decatur Book Festival, is trying to determine how to stage the event safely in the era of COVID-19. CONTRIBUTED: LYNETTE C. DAVIS

Credit: LYNETTECLARKDAVIS.COM

Joy Pope, interim executive director of the AJC Decatur Book Festival, is trying to determine how to stage the event safely in the era of COVID-19. CONTRIBUTED: LYNETTE C. DAVIS
Caption
Joy Pope, interim executive director of the AJC Decatur Book Festival, is trying to determine how to stage the event safely in the era of COVID-19. CONTRIBUTED: LYNETTE C. DAVIS

Credit: LYNETTECLARKDAVIS.COM

Credit: LYNETTECLARKDAVIS.COM

Anticipating that possibility, interim executive director Joy Pope has already arranged to livestream “Joshilyn Jackson Reads,” a series of 11 conversations between New York Times bestselling author Jackson and an eclectic group of writers.

The series, which will be hosted on the Crowdcast platform, begins Thursday May 7 with local newcomer Ginger Eager, author of “The Nature of Remains.”

Pope said the time is right to re-think the two-day event. Has it grown too large? Does it need to be broken up? If the festival has to switch gears there is still time, she said, since many authors have not yet been secured for the event.

“We hadn’t gotten deeply enough into the programming to have that problem,” said Pope.

The festival has been awarded $19,000 in Paycheck Protection Program money, enough to cover rent and two salaries for two-and-a-half months.

Pope is the second new executive director in two years, and the board planned to launch a search this spring for a permanent leader. "COVID messed that up," said Pope, adding  "I'm not in any hurry to make that change."

Howard said since major league sports are still talking about having games without fans, the board must determine whether a "physical" festival in September is in the best interest of patrons.

“We have a responsibility, certainly from the standpoint of what’s possible and what’s safe for the public and what are people going to be comfortable doing,” he said.

“Even if we get to a point, say August 15, and everything is even more back to normal, are people still going to be comfortable getting together? Certainly if we are not able to gather then we won’t.”

Howard said the board will work with Pope to develop and reimagine festival strategies during the month of May.

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