Every Labor Day weekend among the hordes of cosplayers marching in Downtown, among the gay pride flags flying in Piedmont Park, among the roar of NASCAR fans thundering in the Atlanta Motor Speedway, a loyal community gathers in the Decatur Square to celebrate the ancient art of story telling and to indulge in the rabid passion of the written word.
The Decatur Book Festival began as founder Daren Wong left a successful book festival in Columbia, S.C. He wondered why Atlanta, the largest metropolitan area in the Southeast, could host such a variety of summer festivals but not a single book festival.
He answered that query in 2006 with the inaugural Decatur Book Festival which brought together over 100 authors and 50,000 attendees to affirm that Atlanta cared about books.
The Decatur Square proved to be an ideal location for a book festival with Agnes Scott College to the south, Emory only a two mile trek away, a bastion of independent shops at every turn, and a Marta Station forming its center.
The festival expanded to become the largest independent book festival in the nation with over 300 authors, an additional arts festival known as art|DBF, and a keynote address from Congressman and civil rights powerhouse John Lewis highlighting this year’s events.
However, this victory was not won overnight.
The festival’s breakneck success came from the collective struggles of a disparate group of authors who fought for decades to showcase the loyalty of Atlanta’s wordsmiths.
“When I started the bookstore [Outwrite] we heard the same stories that people in Atlanta and the South weren’t gonna read and they weren’t going to support a literary event,” explains Programming Director Philip Rafshoon, “and we’ve proven that this community supports literature and this community supports writers.”
Rafshoon was added as the Programming Director early in January after his famous LGBT bookstore Outwrite closed its doors in 2011.
“It’s great to be able to stay in the book and publishing business and expand what I’m doing and work with amazing authors, publishers and the whole Decatur community,”says Rafshoon.
The staying power of the festival stems from its commitment to diversity in the style and subject matter of its authors. Authors who write on business, civil rights, cooking, parenting, humanities, LGBT issues, music, religion, and any other style imaginable are all represented here.
The book festival is especially relevant for college students who feel too discouraged by their exhausting courseload to explore literature further than the classroom.
“[For students] it’s good to see what the fruit of somebody’s labor is,whether it is in literature, whether it is in science…whether it’s humor, whether it’s sports,” Rafshoon explains, “there’s something here for everybody and it’s something I think everybody from every generation should experience.”
For budding authors with or without an audience, Decatur only makes sense. “[The Decatur Book Festival’s] really grown among writers because the word’s gotten out how wonderful it is and how Decatur really caters to authors. We take care of them from the moment they get here until the moment they leave,”Rafshoon says.
Even for those who dread the scent of a fresh paperback, there are numerous ways to join in the festivities and become enveloped in the atmosphere.
In addition to book signings, Decatur Square is crowded with numerous booths from some of Atlanta’s cultural figureheads such as The High and the Center for Puppetry Arts. Children’s events also play a significant role as kids parades, book-based plays from The Serenbe Playhouse, and a roaming Diary of A Wimpy Kid van populate the festival grounds.
The unifying potential of writing can only be realized from the sound of an author’s enthusiasm dripping off their voice during a reading, or the sight of children delighted to find a favorite author dressed up as a character from their book, or the smell of the local food trucks pouring into the square and the side streets.
This sensory overload overwhelms and invites even the most casual reader.
While books may seem like an inefficient relic in a digital age, the Decatur Book Festival plans on being a permanent fixture of Atlanta’s cultural landscape.
“It’s going be hard to top this year, but we’ll do it by staying relevant to what’s important culturally and staying diverse and staying fresh for our community,”explains Rafshoon.
The Decatur Book Festival succeeds in transporting book fans outside the confines of the printed page and into a weekend where stories become people, authors become friends, and readers become a community.