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Reading the Room: The First Annual Waverly Book Festival

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Waverly Book Festival’s opening night event, the eponymous writers salon featuring intermedia artist and writer Rahne Alexander, gave me distinct Baltimore house show vibes. It was set in an unfinished room inside Peabody Heights, a working brewery, taproom, and occasional performance venue housed in a former industrial space.

A few simple details helped create the warm atmosphere: the soft glow of Edison bulbs in the chandelier, a colorful rug spread out on the concrete floor, a single but sizeable Ficus gracing the random corner, and a slim gray cat with a white-tipped tail that zoomed in and out between the chairs a couple of times that night. Familiar sounds of the city buzzing with its usual Friday night energy drifted in through the open beer garden doors, providing a backdrop for the Baltimore-centric evening.

The audience settled under the collection of historic Baltimore baseball teams’ pennants arranged on the walls (the brewery was the site of Terrapin Park in the first half of the 20th century), sipping beer out of clear plastic cups, and chatting with each other while they waited for the salon to begin. At one point, Odyssey’s “Our Lives Are Shaped by What We Love” came on the speakers.

Although I attended the event alone, I felt at home in more ways than I could count: a writer at a lit reading, a reader at a book festival, and a Baltimore transplant in the city I have called home longer than any other place on earth.

 

Plot Driven brewed by Peabody Heights Brewery for the Waverly Book Festival
The first annual Waverly Book Festival was created, in part, to fill the gap left by the Baltimore Book Festival, last held in 2019, but also to draw attention to the historic city district.

“We are all lucky to be here,” remarked Alexander once the room had filled out and the murmur had quieted down, and I felt it, too. There was joy in coming together, the pandemic and long months of isolation still dragging behind our heels. She took to the mic, ceremoniously opening the salon by unfurling a scroll with a flick of the wrist and reading an invocation, a stream-of-consciousness piece about being, creating, transforming, and becoming, in Waverly and beyond, in the world of this moment in time.

The salon readers—Nino McQuown, Fiona Chamness, and Freda Mohr—all exuded love and care for this city, this neighborhood, and this community, reflecting on it either directly in their work or in a statement that prefaced it.

Later, I had a chance to ask Alexander about the role of hyperlocal festivals in Baltimore.

“Festivals are my favorite kind of public art, and the neighborhood festivals are part of what really made me fall in love with Baltimore in the first place,” she reflected. “I think any festival of any size is about community building, both inter-community and intra-community. It’s good to connect with your direct neighbors, to get out of the house and see each other. It’s also good to showcase the neighborhood for everyone in the city.”

The first annual Waverly Book Festival was created, in part, to fill the gap left by the Baltimore Book Festival, last held in 2019, but also to draw attention to the historic city district (coincidentally named for Sir Walter Scott’s novel, Waverly).

“My initial hope was to bring people to Waverly, highlighting the fact that we have tons of authors, creatives, writers, and book vendors right here in the community,” Diana Emerson, the executive director of Waverly Main Street and one of the festival’s organizers, said. “The book festival weekend showcased all these hidden gems… shining a light on our favorite places, like the Enoch Pratt Library Waverly Branch, The Book Thing, Urban Reads, Normal’s, Red Emma’s, and Baltimore Read Aloud, and our neighborhood brewery, Peabody Heights.”

 

Illuminated Press, an independent publisher that crafts books by hand.
Charm City Books, an independent, family owned bookstore located in historic Pigtown
The Maryland Book Bank’s Bookmobile and Executive Director Mark Feiring
Snug Books, an independent bookstore in Baltimore’s Hamilton neighborhood

“Neighborhood festivals are also important because it’s so hard to get around in Baltimore,” Alexander commented. “I don’t think folks realize how many people in the city are carless. I don’t think people viscerally understand how hard it is to navigate the city without access to a car… Neighborhood festivals bring the party to the people, and that’s important. I love a festival I can walk to.”

I did my fair share of walking over the weekend, traversing Barclay Street and Greenmount Avenue, my raincoat buttoned against the spring rain that alternately pattered and poured. On Saturday—Independent Bookstore Day—I visited the festival’s micropress fair at Peabody Heights, featuring local writers, publishers, and bookmakers representing genres as diverse as children’s lit, horror, zines, comic books (some set in Baltimore), poetry, mystery, music, and anarchism. I also made time to get lost in the labyrinthine stacks of Normal’s Books & Records (where I saw, while browsing, a copy of Munro Leaf’s classic Ferdinand the Bull in Latin). Each place was hopping with people.

“It’s usually easy to recognize when an event is really engaging the community it aims to serve, and when it doesn’t,” Alexander told me. “If festival organizers are in touch with the people in their communities, it shows.”

The Waverly Book Festival’s programming was an amplified extension of the types of events the neighborhood’s independent bookstores already offer. This authenticity brought out the crowds despite the weather, which stayed fickle over the weekend. But the savvy organizers quickly found ways to adapt. Instead of the outdoor festival stage, Sunday’s author events were held inside Red Emma’s relatively new Greenmount Avenue and 32nd Street space.

The conversations took place under the bookstore’s old signage bearing its name in hand-painted red and black lettering with a portrait of writer and political activist Emma Goldman in the center. And while the speakers addressed topics that mattered in Baltimore and elsewhere, the atmosphere was decidedly casual, infused with spontaneous bursts of laughter, off-the-mic asides between the authors and audience members, and the general hum of people ordering coffee, drinks, and vegan food, and coming and going throughout the day.

 

Devin Allen in conversation with Baynard Woods at Red Emma’s
Vanessa A. Bee in conversation with Osita Nwenevu at Red Emma’s

I caught the tail end of Lyle Jeremy Rubin’s talk with Tarak Barkawi, which revolved around modern-day empires, and found an empty seat in time for Vanessa A. Bee’s discussion of her experimental memoir, Home Bound: An Uprooted Daughter’s Reflections on Belonging, with Osita Nwanevu.

Bee is a consumer protection lawyer, a writer, and an immigrant whose upbringing took her over three continents, and her book is an engaging and thoughtful reflection on what makes a place feel like a home. As an immigrant, I was especially interested in her exploration of the social structures functioning beneath the surface in the places we call home and how different or alike they can be across countries and cultures.

Personal stories like these render us at once vulnerable and courageous, but they also offer abundant opportunities for fostering connection.

And the connections within Baltimore’s arts community were also on display at the festival. At Peabody, I ran into Angel King and Destinii Williams of Silent Books Publishing, a Baltimore publisher whose goal is to help nonwhite writers self-publish their books. Around the same time at Red Emma’s, one of their clients, Baltimore artist Shae McCoy, was referencing her self-published book and photographic story, West Baltimore Ruins, in a conversation with Teri Henderson.

“Baltimore artists’ community is close-knit and supportive of each other,” King, who is also a writer, told me when I pointed out this interconnectedness. “We understand the hardships and stereotypes associated with being from this city, so we stand on each other’s shoulders to reach our goals… I’m happy to be a part of such a talented community.”

The authors took questions at the end of their talks, and many revolved around the road to publication. As a lifelong bookworm, the thought of this multigenerational audience wanting to tell their stories and share their passions in writing excited me to no end. I was grateful, too, for the opportunity to hear Ruha Benjamin, a Princeton professor and author of Viral Justice: How We Grow the World We Want, who gave an inspiring talk using poetry, visuals, and a cadence that not only called to action but provided me with some much-needed hope for the future. She was in conversation with Alanah Nichole Davis.

 

Author Shae McCoy
Ruha Benjamin’s talk with Alanah Nichole Davis at Red Emma’s

After its conclusion, I asked Emerson to share her impressions of the festival. She told me that she enjoyed seeing all the after-effects, like the enormous hauls of books purchased or a signed copy of a new book people showed off on social media.

“Two additional things exceeded my expectation,” she added. “We already know Peabody Heights Brewery makes great beer; however, Plot Driven is now probably my new favorite,” Emerson said, alluding to the German pilsner that the brewery rolled out for the festival.

“Lastly, our book festival designs came out really well, thanks to Devin Watson.” Watson, also known as Eyeball Fortress, is a Baltimore-based illustrator and designer. “I think it showcased a little bit of classic Baltimore Charm, which allowed for the book festival theme to be shown in various forms, such as the four-foot cake by Charm City Cakes, Plot Driven and Ghostwriter beer labels, and the Waverly Book Festival bookmarks.”

 

Ruha Benjamin
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