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Photograph by Leilani Clark
PAGE TURNERS: Melissa Kelley, second from left, and volunteers at the festival.

A Love of Reading

Sonoma County Book Festival a haven for authors, readers alike

By Leilani Clark

On a recent Saturday afternoon with fall in the air, the Sonoma County Book Festival set up in downtown Santa Rosa. Transformed into an open-air market and piled with books and authors, Fourth Street became a utopia for bibliophiles, where engaged discussions about words and ideas are the norm—rather than geeky anomalies in screen-entranced world. If the buzz around this annual festival is any indication, a community of book lovers is still very much alive and well in Sonoma County.

"It's joyful, a really uplifting experience," says Executive Director Melissa Kelley, still buzzing two days after the 2011 book fest had drawn to a close. "It helps create community. People who love books can come together and say, 'This is a special place for me and people like me.'"

For 12 years, the book festival, under the umbrella of the Literary Arts Guild—a nonprofit organization that recently adopted the Sonoma County Bookmobile—has provided a place where authors and readers from all over the Bay Area can immerse themselves in the literary arts. For this dedication, we are pleased to award the Sonoma County Book Festival a 2011 Boho Award.

The origins for the festival lie in a vision for a literary festival first proposed by Dana Gioia, former chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, and Jack Stuppin, a Sonoma County landscape painter, explains Kelley. Years later, the festival has become a highly anticipated event in the North Bay literary community—a feat of wonder for an almost entirely volunteer-run event.

Kelley has led the Sonoma County Book Festival for two years. She is the only paid staff. A crew of dedicated volunteers is responsible for the book fest's functioning, one this year that included expanded teen programming, storytelling at Corrick's, a vibrant children's area and writer Maxine Hong Kingston at La Rosa Tequileria and Grille.

Armando Garcia-Davila is one of those many volunteers. Every year ("He's been doing it as long as I know," says Kelley), the dedicated logistics committee member heads down to Courthouse Square on the eve of the festival to tape off sections and start prepping for the next day. He returns at 5am to give directions to rental crews. . . all on his own time.

"We have people involved throughout the entire year that are actually putting the festival together," says Kelley. Volunteers spearhead the various committees: publicity, poetry, author committees, children's committees, logistics and a general steering committee. A coordinator works to make sure the 70 to 80 volunteers that show up on the day of the festival know exactly where to go and what to do.

But really, why all the hard work for no pay in an era when the demise of the book is predicted on a daily basis, thanks to the Kindle and e-readers? Kelley says it's all about giving readers a chance to interact with their favorite literary folk, and giving authors the chance to get out from under their computer keyboards and into the world.

"People who are just beginning to enter the world of writing have the opportunity to rent a booth and have people stop by and talk to them about being an author," explains Kelley. "It gives them validation they might not have otherwise."

Furthermore, on a whole, seasoned authors, self-publishing companies, booksellers and publishing houses have a limited opportunity to reach audiences in person, says Kelley. "They really enjoy the opportunity to be face to face with readers," she adds.

Heavily dependent on donations for support, the Sonoma County Book Festival continues to thrive. If the large amount of families in attendance is any indication, new audiences amongst rising generations will proudly wear the badge of "book lover"—and the Sonoma County Book Festival will be there to provide a space for them.

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