Read Local: Supporting Rochester Presses and Making Events Fun Again

Although we referenced Read Local in the write up of Josefine Klougart’s tour, I haven’t really explained what it is here, or why I think it could be a really exciting thing for Rochester.

Just to as not to bury the lede, the first Read Local event is Friday, September 23rd at 6pm at Nox Cocktail Lounge. Josefine will be there to talk about One of Us Is Sleeping, which she’ll also be talking about on WXXI Connections at 1pm that same day. (So tune in!). But since most of you aren’t in Rochester, I wanted to explain a bit of the Read Local idea . . .

First off, a bit of an origin story: At the beginning of the summer, Kyle Semmel—author, translator of Naja Marie Aidt’s Rock, Paper, Scissors and many other books—took over as the director of Writers & Books. Writers & Books is the Rochester, NY eqivalent of Minneapolis’s The Loft Literary Center or Bethesda’s The Writer’s Center. Writers & Books is home to dozens of writing classes (for adults, teens, and kids) and hosts a number of literary events, such as an upcoming appearance by David Sedaris, the “Debut Novel Series,” “If All Rochester Reads the Same Book . . . ,” and more. It’s been around for more than forty years, over which time it became the de facto hub of literary activity in Rochester.

I don’t think it’s speaking out of school, or a big secret, to say that one of the things that attracted Kyle to this position was the fact that Open Letter and BOA Editions are located here. It’s easy to shit on Rochester for any number of reasons, but given the size of the city, it’s kind of insane that there are two nationally respected publishing houses based here. Obviously, Minneapolis-St. Paul (home to Coffee House, Graywolf, Milkweed) and Portland, OR (home to Tin House, Future Tense) are more prominent and well-known mid-sized cities with vibrant indie publishing scenes, but both metro areas are 2.5 to 3.5 times the size of Rochester. (Minneapolis-St. Paul is 3.5 million people and Portland almost 2.5, whereas Rochester is just over a million.) The fact that Rochester is home to multiple presses that receive national attention—be it from reviews, awards, or general respect—is something the visitor’s center and local media should be all over.

Unfortunately, that’s not really the case. BOA, which has been around for forty years, has a solid base of local supporters, but their books aren’t ever covered in the local papers, except for the occasional mention of a local poet reading during Jazz Fest. This might be the fault of the local media—which is pretty milquetoast and unimaginative, if I’m being honest—but it’s also related to the problem of being a book publisher: by definition, books aren’t local, and neither are your readers.

That said, there’s no reason that a city like Rochester shouldn’t be celebrating its local publishing houses. Which is why we came up with the idea of Read Local. Like most places in the U.S., there’s a huge emphasis in Rochester on buying local, eating local, shopping at farmer’s markets, locally sourcing goods and services—and although it won’t necessarily disrupt our late capitalist moment in quite as dramatic fashion, or shrink our carbon footprint, why not involve local culture in this as well? The core concept was that every few months, we would have a local book club that would read a book published by a local press. Open Letter and BOA would have at least one slot a year, with the other ones being filled by other publishers in town. (Yes, there are others.)

In terms of specifics, we figured the book club could take place online to start, and culminate in an event with the author. But we didn’t want this to just be a reading . . . Readings are all fine and good, but holy christ, even in a place as small as Rochester, there are a ton of them. What we wanted was more of an interaction between an author and readers. Which lead to these postcards that we’ve been putting up all over town:

There are plenty of examples of reading series that aren’t just reading series—like the Literary Death Match, or Vermin on the Mount or even “Poetry and Pies” here in Rochester—and it’s not like we’re breaking all new ground here, but it is a solid attempt to try and reach readers in a different way than we have been. And to build a program that readers will get excited about and look forward to. (The idea of hanging out with a famous author over a drink is more appealing to me than any normal reading.)

Additionally, we partnered with local businesses—“Hart’s Local Grocers,”:https://hartslocalgrocers.com/ Nox, Three Head Brewing, Greenwood Books, and more soon—to sell the selected books before the event. Our hope is that by encountering the book in non-traditional locations, potential readers will be more likely to pick them up and come to the event. I suspect that most people in Rochester envision a book reading as a staid, dry event taking place in an oak-paneled room in a library. (This concept reaches far beyond Rochester.) So although it’s not revolutionary to hold a raucous literary event in a bar . . . it kind of is.

We have no real idea of how this is going to go on Friday, but hopefully a few dozen people will show up and be charmed by Josefine. Hopefully it will evolve from a short reading into more of a cocktail party with a famous author—something that’s common in places like Brooklyn, but not really here in Rochester. If you happen to be here in Rochester, come on out and grab a drink. If not, wish us luck. It would be great to see Read Local become an established part of the local literary scene—one that connects the great work of local presses with the local reading community.

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