Festival spotlights Belfast’s emergence as book mecca

Posted July 24, 2012, at 5:10 p.m.

BELFAST, Maine — When the town of Belfast began to become crowded with bookstores, the booksellers got together and saw the opportunity to take advantage of their unique position by creating a festival of books.

This year’s Belfast Bound Book Festival runs from Friday-Sunday, July 27-29, throughout the town.

The festival, now in its second year, is being orchestrated by local bookstores, which are hosting events and workshops. The entire town is getting in on the action, with art galleries, museums and stores all planning activities for festival goers. But the emphasis will be on Belfast’s somewhat unique place as the destination for books on the midcoast.

The town of 6,000 boasts five bookstores in the downtown area alone, but that’s selling the town short, according to Nanette Gionfriddo, owner of the store Beyond the Sea and one of the organizers of the event.

“As many as 15 stores in town carry books,” Gionfriddo said. “So it’s not just the bookstores; we want to involve all the other stores as well.”

Belfast has lost lost two bookstores in the space of a year. First, FertileMind closed with the retirement of its owner, and then Mr. Paperback, once a cornerstone of Maine bookstores, closed its doors. In 2011 Gionfriddo learned that two new bookstores would be moving in between her shop and another, Old Professor Books. She realized that, instead of engaging in competition, she and the other booksellers could turn their collection of bookstores into an advantage.

“I wanted to get the word out beyond Belfast that we had five bookstores,” Gionfriddo said, “We are kind of like Hay-on-Wye.”

Hay-on-Wye is a city in Wales known worldwide for its bookstores, over 30 in a population of 1,500. Hay-on-Wye is also the location of the annual Hay festival, a book festival that attracts over 80,000 visitors from all over the world.

In the winter of 2011 Gionfriddo got together with George Siscoe, owner of Old Professor Books, and Craig Olson, who had recently opened Artisan Books and Bindery, to discuss how to bring attention to the local booksellers. It was Siscoe who brought up the option of a festival.

“George said, ‘I have an idea, let’s have a book festival,’” Gionfriddo said. “The three of us, we were sort of the founders.”

Belfast was behind the plan, and former town official Dorothy Havey played a large role in bringing the first festival together. “It’s really all-inclusive, townwide,” said Gionfriddo. “We’re trying to bring people in.”

Last year the festival was so popular that some events had to move to larger locations in order to accommodate all the visitors, and this year even more are expected. The festival has been covered by magazines and newspapers from all over the country, including one as far away as San Diego.

Gionfriddo expects that this year’s festival will attract more out-of-state visitors.

Visitors can expect events at all the local bookstores, including a book signing by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Richard Russo, a presentation on climate change by Dr. Daniel Dixon from the Climate Change Institute, as well as many Maine authors and illustrators who will be reading from their works. Other events include whoopie pie and Moxie tastings, book care and collecting seminars and plenty of children’s activities all over town.

Coinciding with the festival is “Please, Be Seated,” Belfast’s public art show, at which artist-designed benches are placed around town. Throughout the Bound Book Festival the benches will be the sight of readings from important authors. There will also be volunteers walking the town reading passages at various points of the town in an event known as “Random Acts of Reading,” which Gionfriddo says could happen anywhere at any time.

Coincidentally, the town of Belfast shares more than its name with Belfast, Ireland. The Irish city also hosts a book festival, a fact that required a bit of a work-around for Gionfriddo and her co-organizers.

“We had to call it the ‘Bound’ Book Festival because when you Google ‘Belfast’ and ‘Book Festival’ the Irish one is the first to come up.” Gionfriddo joked. “There are no plans to cooperate yet, but that’s a great idea. Maybe we can exchange authors or booksellers.”

A complete calendar of events can be found at www.belfastboundbookfestival.com.

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