Bookstock literary festival grew too big to manage

Author John Elder, far left, leads a writing workshop at the Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historical Park in Woodstock, Vt., on July 25, 2014, as part of the weekend Boostock event. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) 
Author John Elder, far left, leads a writing workshop at the Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historical Park on Friday as part of the annual Bookstock event, which continues through the weekend in Woodstock.Valley News — Geoff Hansen

Author John Elder, far left, leads a writing workshop at the Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historical Park in Woodstock, Vt., on July 25, 2014, as part of the weekend Boostock event. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Author John Elder, far left, leads a writing workshop at the Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historical Park on Friday as part of the annual Bookstock event, which continues through the weekend in Woodstock.Valley News — Geoff Hansen valley news file — Geoff Hansen

Bruce MacCrellish, of South Woodstock, Vt., does a writing prompt about a childhood nature memory during author John Elder's writing workshop at the Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historical Park in Woodstock, Vt., on July 25, 2014. MacCrellish teaches English at Stevens High School in Claremont, N.H.

Bruce MacCrellish, of South Woodstock, Vt., does a writing prompt about a childhood nature memory during author John Elder's writing workshop at the Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historical Park in Woodstock, Vt., on July 25, 2014. MacCrellish teaches English at Stevens High School in Claremont, N.H. "I wanted to learn some new tricks for my students," he said. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Bruce MacCrellish, of South Woodstock, teaches English at Stevens High School in Claremont. “I wanted to learn some new tricks for my students,” he said of the writing workshop he attended on Friday as part of the annual Bookstock festival.Valley News — Geoff Hansen Geoff Hansen

By ALEX HANSON

Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 05-24-2024 5:32 PM

Modified: 05-25-2024 6:41 PM


WOODSTOCK — Last year, the organizers of Bookstock, the literary festival begun here in 2009, set out a lofty aim.

“Our goal,” they wrote in a funding application to the Woodstock Economic Development Commission, “is to make Bookstock one of the most beloved literary festivals in the country.”

That was written before last year’s Bookstock, which was the biggest and broadest in the festival’s history. In hindsight, people connected to the festival said, it appears to have been too big.

That was what Julie Moncton and Jen Belton discovered when they talked to the festival’s many partners earlier this year. While the 2023 installment was a success that brought hundreds of people to Woodstock, what the two women heard loud and clear was “this was a lot of work, and we’re not sure we can do this again,” Moncton said.

The plan for this year’s festival was just as ambitious, but not as well coordinated. Belton and Moncton recommended to the Bookstock board on April 11, just 18 days after they agreed to manage it, to cancel this year’s festival, which had been slated for June 21-23.

To save Bookstock for the long haul, they had to kill this year’s.

“If we’d put on the festival that was designed and planned for this year, we’d have lost more people in the community,” Moncton said, people whose efforts were essential to Bookstock’s well-being, and that would have made it impossible to hold the festival in future years. They recommended to the festival’s board to cancel.

That meant calling dozens of authors who’d committed to the festival.

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“It was upsetting,” said Chard de Niord, a former Vermont poet laureate who had helped bring in some of the authors. He had to reach out to such celebrated writers as Julia Alvarez and New York Times book critic Dwight Garner.

In Bookstock’s place, de Niord has organized the Woodstock Poetry Festival, to be held on June 21-22. The smaller event will be held almost entirely at the North Chapel, a Universalist church that played a role in Bookstock’s birth.

In the meantime, Bookstock is due for a reckoning that’s already underway.

“I think there’s going to be a lot of serious soul-searching,” de Niord said.

Welcoming writers

Bookstock started when the North Chapel’s annual book sale became too big to manage. A group of Woodstock residents, including Peter Rousmaniere, Michael Stoner, Lynn Peterson, Susan Morgan (the then-owner of Yankee Bookshop) and Belton, who was then the librarian at the town’s Norman Williams Public Library, decided to make the book sale a bigger event and bring writers to town.

From the outset, it was a volunteer effort, with the library and the bookshop, North Chapel, the Thompson Center, the Woodstock History Center and Pentangle Arts forming a core group of organizations that served as venues and as hubs for coordinating the dozens of volunteers necessary for running the festival.

At the time, Partridge Boswell, then the executive director at Pentangle, said the festival was put together over the course of six months by a group of people who met every Friday to work out the details. It was very much a Vermont festival, with Reeve Lindbergh giving the keynote address and such notable Vermonters as Ellen Bryant Voight and Madeleine Kunin reading from their work.

It wasn’t long, though, before Bookstock began to welcome writers from farther afield. Richard Blanco, who read at President Barack Obama’s second inauguration, headlined the 2013 festival.

Bookstock was able to bring in writers at a very low cost, said Rousmaniere, who was chairman of the Bookstock board until last month. The draw of coming to Woodstock, where local inns put up writers for free, and of encountering an appreciative and well-read audience, meant authors would accept fees of $100 to $200, Rousmaniere said.

Last year’s festival featured a mix of writers with ties to the Upper Valley and the Twin States, and writers who came in for the weekend. Among the visitors were the historian Joseph Ellis and poet Carolyn Forché. The festival also expanded from books to include performing and visual arts.

’Everything costs more’

The festival shut down, along with the arts in general, during the coronavirus pandemic. When it re-emerged, in 2022, it was as a big festival with 60 authors and panelists. That number was roughly the same for 2023 and this year.

The festival’s budget also grew. In most years, it cost around $15,000 to put the festival together, which came from foundations and donations, Rousmaniere said.

“Money was never very much a problem,” he said.

In recent years, the festival has run on a budget of around $70,000, Rousmaniere said.

The higher budget is a sign of the growing ambition behind the festival. The application to the Economic Development Commission gets at the balance the festival was trying to strike: “We want to mobilize turnout while ensuring we have a manageable crowd size that doesn’t overwhelm local infrastructure capacity.”

Because the festival is spread among multiple venues, it can be hard to assess how many people attend. Organizers tried to make a careful count in 2022, Rousmaniere said, and estimated attendances at 1,250 to 1,500 people.

Last year, Stoner volunteered at the festival and was directing traffic in the library’s lobby. “There were a lot of people coming through that door,” he said.

Some of the festival’s partners had been asking Bookstock’s leaders to cut back. Post-pandemic, organizations have had to focus on their own work.

“It was a lot to ask of a lot of the organizations in town,” said Clare McFarland, director of the Norman Williams Public Library.

The mission of the library and its staff is to operate the library, McFarland said. Bookstock, as a standalone organization, has a job of its own: “It is their mission to run a literary festival,” she said.

Pentangle was ready to participate this year by continuing to host readings at Town Hall, the village’s largest public space. But it couldn’t continue to give up a weekend’s worth of movie ticket and concession sales, Alita Wilson, a Woodstock native who has served as Pentangle’s executive director for the past decade, said. No one from Bookstock reached out to negotiate terms, she said.

“I look at the numbers and that’s not fiscally responsible” for Pentangle, Wilson said. A weekend’s film screenings can bring in $5,000 in revenue.

Bookstock’s own infrastructure has not grown in step with the festival, supporters said. Since its incorporation, Bookstock has had up to seven people on its board, but was down to only four, and not all of them are full-time Woodstock residents. Rousmaniere spoke to the Valley News from London and his primary address is in Boston.

“We were definitely in a rebuilding mode of the board,” Rousmaniere said. Two board members who were active in 2023 had departed, including one who completed his term and opted not to renew it. The board was under pressure, Rousmaniere said, because the organization had grown so quickly.

Bookstock also lacks a year-round director to raise money and keep the festival moving in the off-season. Regular posts on the Woodstock Listserv seeking board members and administrative help did not inspire confidence among the festival’s partners.

“I think it became clear to the board that they just didn’t have the infrastructure they needed,” said Stoner, who’s been acting as a consultant to Bookstock since last year.

Wilson noted that the festival had hired a manager, Michele Nilsson, for this year’s festival, but she departed this winter.

Belton and Moncton thought the festival seemed manageable when they started in late March. But then they received the list of authors and interviewers in the first week of April.

“When we looked at it, we were like, holy moly, this is a lot,” Moncton said.

They tried to cut it back, but not everyone agreed with that idea.

“Everyone’s picture of what they were trying to do was different,” Moncton said. “We couldn’t make it be the right picture for everyone.”

The cancellation took the partner organizations by surprise. Now that they’ve had time to think about it, it looks less like a failure and more like a confluence of unfortunate circumstances.

“I don’t think it falls on any one person,” Wilson said. “I think it just falls on where we are today.”

The world is more expensive, and arts organizations are still recovering from the pandemic and getting their feet under them, she said. “We have to have better communication, and realize that everything costs more,” Wilson said.

‘Solid foundation’

Whether the festival can continue, and at what scale, is now up for consideration. Its longtime supporters are optimistic. Their aim is to create a model that’s sustainable, so Bookstock will have a long run.

Even before the cancellation, Bookstock’s backers were planning to cut the festival down for 2025. Belton, Moncton and Stoner were all part of that effort. Rousmaniere said that for 2025 the festival would have been around two-thirds the size of the 2023 festival, with 15 to 20 author events instead of 30 to 35, most likely spread over two days, rather than three.

“What really is necessary is a conversation among some of the key stakeholders about what can happen and whether we’re going to have support for it from the community,” Stoner said.

Belton, Moncton and Stoner met with Jon Spector, chair of the Woodstock Economic Development Commission, this week. Stoner said he thinks there’s “a solid foundation for the festival to continue.”

Organizers are hopeful for Bookstock’s future, noting that Woodstock residents have built up a lot of expertise in running a successful literary festival, and that the Upper Valley ought to have one. Bookstock brings people into the area, but it also has a strong local following.

The demand is there, Rousmaniere said. For readers, “it’s difficult to find writers,” he said. “A literary festival delivers them.”

For the first time, delivering the festival is its own challenge.

Alex Hanson can be reached at ahanson@vnews.com or 603-727-3207.