Ron Johnson’s love of books began in childhood. His parents encouraged him to read early-on. A little later, monthly visits from a community bookmobile held the promise of new adventures. “When they would come by it was the highlight of my month to board the bookmobile and get a new story,” says Ron. “There was so much you could learn.”
Ron went on to study biology, and had a career in animal sciences. Books played an important role in every stage of his life.
While living in northern Wisconsin, Ron put together a small, successful book festival. Now living in Altoona, Ron and a small-but-mighty group of fellow book lovers are creating the first all-ages book festival for the Alleghenies — the Allegheny Regional Festival of Books.
“There isn’t anything like this here at all,” says Shirley Stuby, an officer on the organizing committee. “We have a lot of used book sales, local authors that will speak from time to time, but nothing like a book festival. I thought it was a good thing, plus all of the benefactors will be reading programs, scholarships, libraries; anything we make in excess of our expenses will be turned over to the literary field.”
All proceeds from the festival will support literacy programs for all ages — a growing need everywhere, after years of budget cuts to education and social services.
The vision took shape during monthly meetings of a writing club, which included Ron and Shirley. Shirley’s professional career was in banking, culminating as a branch manager for Somerset Trust. When the festival committee was in its initial stages, Somerset Trust came through with an early sponsorship to get the festival up and running.
The group’s next step was to partner with the Community Foundation for the Alleghenies, an arrangement that left organizers free to focus on the business of fundraising and event-planning, instead of nonprofit accounting and legal work.
“We’re delighted to work with the Allegheny Regional Festival of Books,” says CFA President Mike Kane. “This festival has huge potential. It’s engaging the business community with local authors for a fun, family-friendly event, which can grow into a significant driver for tourism and literacy funding.”
In addition to its mission of fundraising for reading programs, Ron hopes the festival will shine a light on the deep bench of literary talent living in our region.
“I’ve always had a good heart for authors,” explains Ron, who is, himself, writing a book. “I believe they have a tough struggle, so if we can create a venue that’s family-friendly, the authors can come and show what they’ve done, people can come and meet the authors, hear their stories.”
This inaugural event will be held September 14th and 15th in Bedford, then travel over the next two years, first to Somerset, then to Ebensburg. The response so far is enthusiastic. 50 spots for local authors are nearly filled. The Learning Lamp is sponsoring and helping put together a children’s tent, lending ideas and expertise from that organization’s own successful children’s book festival.
Nationally recognized author Ellen Prentiss Campbell will be at the Omni Bedford Springs on the Friday night of the festival. She’ll discuss of her latest novel, “The Bowl with the Gold Seams,” a work of historical fiction set at the Bedford resort.
A creative writing contest for middle and high school students enlists the talents of young authors. Winners receive a monetary prize, and selected entries will be published as a collection.
Festival organizers are also reaching out to local businesses, asking stores and restaurants to host book-related events like poetry readings, author talks, and book discussions. Ron, who has also been a small business owner, wants the business community to feel engaged with the festival, not overwhelmed by it.
“We know what it’s like,” adds Ron. “Some festivals drain businesses, other add to the shops. We want to be one of those where the shop owners feel we’re reaching out to them and we want them to be part of the festival. We not only want festival goers to visit the tents, but go into the shops and really discover what small communities are all about.”
Says Shirley, “I love holding a book. I’m not giving up my book.”
One year at a time, they’re hoping the festival will grow into a first-class destination for authors and book lovers alike.