A Pittsburgh bibliophile is cooking up a grand plan — a city book festival that is part communion for local readers and part spark to further ignite the region’s literary scene.
Marshall Cohen collects signed first editions of books and has been consumed by reading for years. He grew up in Shadyside, attended Peabody High School, then moved with his family to California, only to return to Shadyside in his retirement. Cohen has attended book festivals around the country and rarely misses the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, a free, public festival and the largest of its kind in the U.S., annually drawing up to 150,000 attendees. (This year, the spring festival was postponed until autumn, due to concerns about COVID-19 and social distancing.)
Recently, Cohen, who retired in 2015 from a career in public affairs and advocacy, started thinking, “Why not Pittsburgh?”
“I’m a reader,” Cohen said proudly. “I don’t publish. I don’t bookbind. I read. And Pittsburgh didn’t have that type of event and that’s something that’s missing here, something Pittsburgh should have. So we said, ‘Let’s see what we can do.’”
The Greater Pittsburgh Book Festival is scheduled to take place in spring 2021. Its organizers are eyeing foundation, corporate and individual support for the free, all-ages event, whose budget for a wide range of programming is $250,000. A location has not been finalized but the group already has administrative backing from the organization New Sun Rising and boasts a contact list of some 400 volunteers, Cohen said.
“I’ve spent my life talking to people about ideas,” said Cohen. “One person would connect me with others — a door would open and a person would say, ‘Here, talk to these six people. And here are their emails.’”
An early supporter of the festival was Pittsburgh Councilwoman Erika Strassburger, who heard Cohen give a presentation on the seed of his idea at a public meeting.
“It makes so much sense for Pittsburgh that I’m surprised it hasn’t been attempted before,” said Strassburger, whose Council district includes Shadyside. “Between our vibrant local bookstore landscape, our wonderful libraries and our local writer talent, Pittsburgh is ripe for this sort of celebration of books.”
Cohen and his idea also have been lauded by Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto.
“The Mayor’s Office sees a tremendous opportunity to connect our great academic institutions, small bookstores, avid readers and engaged residents around the strong literary community in Pittsburgh,” Dan Gilman, Peduto’s chief of staff, told the Chronicle. “Successful festivals in other cities would not just be replicated, but enhanced to take advantage of Pittsburgh’s unique strengths.”
Cohen also has a fan in Seth Glick.
Glick, who lives in Squirrel Hill and is a volunteer and member at Congregation Beth Shalom, started an author series at Rodef Shalom in 2018, which has since migrated to his shul. Cohen and Glick spoke after a February event featuring author Julie Orringer, who has Pittsburgh roots. (Beth Shalom Rabbi Seth Adelson, coincidentally, lives in the house where Orringer’s father lived, Glick said.)
Orringer’s presentation was sponsored by the Jewish Book Council and Classic Lines bookstore. The series was presented by Derekh, a Beth Shalom initiative dedicated to enriching lives through community, lifelong Jewish learning and spiritual growth.
Glick is quick to heap praise on his peers, and spoke highly of other local groups promoting authors and books, including Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures, Bridge Series and the Hemingway Series.
“I think there are already a ton of great series in this town,” Glick said. “But I think what the festival could really do is concentrate it.”
When asked who his dream choice would be for a marquee speaker, Cohen cites authors John Edgar Wideman, David McCullough and Michael Chabon.
Glick didn’t skip a beat.
“Zadie Smith — she’d be my number one choice; it’d be incredible if she came,” he said. “But, to me, I think a festival is more about the depth of the roster, rather than a single all-star.”
Sharon Bruni from Mt. Lebanon Public Library agreed and said the festival would have a ripple effect in strengthening Pittsburgh’s literary clout among publishers and event programmers.
“It develops for us a notion of community for this reading culture we’re all trying to develop,” said Bruni, the library’s associate director for public services. “I really do think it’s a perfect time to bring that energy here for our city.”
Cohen has been highly democratic about developing the idea for the festival. In addition to enlisting civic support, he launched a survey online to gauge interest and collect ideas.
“We want others to give us ideas,” he said. “We want to expose it to more people.”
He recently launched a website for the festival on which he is gathering contact information for those interested in helping or attending. Once stay-at-home orders are lifted, he’s also excited to look into foundation, media and corporate sponsorships.
“Money needs to go other places now — I understand that totally,” Cohen said. “But there’s going to be a reemergence. When that reemergence starts to crystallize … we’ll be there to connect book publishers and authors with readers.” PJC
Justin Vellucci is a freelance writer living in Pittsburgh.