Greensboro Bound: A Literary Festival to unleash the lasting power of books

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Greensboro Bound planners held a series of community events leading up to the literary festival in May 2018.
Greensboro Bound planners held a series of community events leading up to the literary festival in May 2018.

There’s a lot of energy wrapped up in Greensboro Bound, a literary festival coming to North Carolina in May. The dual meaning of “bound” itself is worthy of a critical analysis. But it’s the effortless grace of the word that captures the spirit of the event that will take place in venues across the Gate City from May 18-20.

Nikki Giovanni, Lee Smith, John T. Edge, Kevin Powers and Carmen Mario Machado lead the list of 70 authors slated to attend the festival. The Greensboro Cultural Center at 200 N. Davie St. will serve as the festival’s central location, but events will take place across a revitalized Downtown Greensboro.

The city is known as the childhood home of O. Henry and has a solid MFA program at UNC-Greensboro that lists a significant talent pool of graduates. Until recent years, however, outsiders would know very little of the scene beyond Tate Street and the salons and living rooms in nearby College Hill. That all changed when a bookstore opened on the main drag in Downtown Greensboro in a once dormant building remodeled by a civic leader.

Writers Brian Lampkin and Steve Mitchell lead an ownership team that launched Scuppernong Books in a building on Elm Street revitalized by city council member Nancy Hoffman in late 2013. The store was an instant success; its storefront cafe a popular meeting spot that seemed to free a creative urge beneath the city’s stodgy veneer.

It’s fitting then that the idea for Greensboro Bound: A Literary Festival should spring forth from the mind of an outsider.

Steve Colyer moved to the Greensboro area in June 2016 and found his way to Scuppernong Books. It was there at an event for celebrity chef Vivian Howard in November that he says the idea for Greensboro Bound arose. The Howard event, days before that year’s presidential election, attracted some 300 people. He was impressed with the attendance. Bookseller Shannon Jones mentioned to him that most said it was their first time in the store.

Colyer had reason to be impressed. He’d moved to the area from Miami, where he’d volunteered for seven years with the Miami Book Fair, an event that attracts 100,000 people and is considered one of the largest literary events in the country.

“It showed that even in Greensboro you can get a lot of people to come to the right kind of programming,” Colyer said. He had a vision for more; to bring some of what he’d seen in Miami to life in his new home. He served on the Miami Book Fair’s operations committee.

“The energy is incredible. The things you learn are incredible,” he said. “To have 100,000 people in Miami all wanting to listen to authors, all wanting to buy books, it’s just a really cool thing.”

Colyer soon proposed the idea to Mitchell and a planning group was convened after the holidays. Colyer is quick to minimize his role over the last 18 months, though others are quick to note what a driving force he’s been.

Greensboro Bound: A Literary Festival will take place in Downtown Greensboro, N.C. from May 18-20, 2018.
Greensboro Bound: A Literary Festival will take place in Downtown Greensboro, N.C. from May 18-20, 2018.

The Impact of an Idea

But literary festivals aren’t about the story behind the scenes. They are about the energy of the event and what lasting impact, if any, remains. For the folks at Greensboro Bound, hopes are high.

“From the beginning, our mission was to create as diverse a festival as possible,” said Scuppernong’s Steve Mitchell. “We wanted to make events free and accessible to all, and to center it in Downtown Greensboro, with a walkable footprint that showcases the city and the amazing things the city has to offer.

“We want to use books and authors to engage questions that are important in the city and the state. And we want to have fun as well: there will be puppet shows, arm wrestling, music, opera and llamas!”

Colyer said event planners wanted to focus on the “wow factor”, in addition to providing real value to authors, attendees, and community sponsors and partners. So far, about 30 of the most meaningful organizations in the city have backed the festival. Event planners used a survey distributed via email to help gauge interest and develop programming. With an assist from community partners, some 1,400 surveys were completed.

Lee Smith and Ann Patchett kept rising to the top of the survey, Colyer said. Scuppernong’s Brian Lampkin reached out to Smith, who agreed to attend. The survey also sussed out ideas for topical programming. There appeared a desire to learn more about self-publishing—Greensboro is a writer’s city after all—and how to deal with small presses. Mitchell helped organize a series of panel discussions on these topics and literary citizenship, which culminated with an event this week at the bookstore.

With the event looming some 45-days away, an outsider might think the festival came together with a sense of predestination.

“Everything is harder behind the scenes than it appears but, that said, the difficulties were simply the kind to be expected of any new, developing organization,” Mitchell said. “The way the Festival came together, the number of people involved, the breadth of the festival, and the amount of money raised has all exceeded my expectations. I would not have imagined our first year would look like it does, with so many diverse panels and so many fantastic authors.”

Both Colyer and Mitchell emphasized the festival’s diversity goals, and the year-round programming component, as aspects setting Greensboro Bound apart.

Carmen Maria Machado photo by Art Streiber via carmenmariamachado.com
Carmen Maria Machado photo by Art Streiber via carmenmariamachado.com

“We really want to be a place where minority communities can tell their story and where people who face challenges can tell their story,” Colyer said. “We all believe that the more you learn about other people, the more you realize how close you are rather than how far apart you are.”

Mitchell noted that the festival will include more female authors than male, with about one-thirds being non-white.

“We’ll be featuring panels on Latinx authors, Muslim authors, Undocumented poets, women authors, LGBTQ authors and transgender/gender fluid authors,” Mitchell said.