It was a dark and stormy day … and the 12th annual Louisiana Book Festival that ordinarily attracts thousands of visitors to downtown Baton Rouge drew hundreds instead on Saturday.
“Weather-schmeather,” declared Rebecca Hamilton, state librarian, as she waved both hands at the darkening sky just before the rain began in earnest. “Never have we had bad weather before, but — literary lovers — they’re going to be here.”
“We like to think of this as a family event with literacy and learning and a lot of fun,” Hamilton said. “Several years ago, we were named the second-best book festival in the world for an author to attend — you get to meet our authors, and they love that.”
The event was at the State Capitol, State Museum, State Library and nearby environs. The all-time high attendance was 30,000, Hamilton said, and often draws more than 18,000 book lovers.
The long sidewalk from the Museum to the Capitol is usually lined with hundreds of authors’ tables, but Saturday it was vacant. Instead, the vendors had tables under the Museum’s high, covered porch while many more filled the building’s lobby.
Eight large tents of book vendors, public agencies and activities such as cooking and book-binding filled the Fourth Street block from North Boulevard to Spanish Town Road. The CSPAN Election bus and a mobile East Baton Rouge Parish Library Bus offered visitors a haven from the rain.
Attendance varied at the author’s talks, held in the Senate and House Chambers and Capitol conference rooms. The program listed 180 authors available to sign their works.
While the Senate Chamber was filled to standing room only for Louisiana native and nationally known author and TV personality Cokie Roberts’ talk on her latest book, across the lobby, in the half-filled House Chamber, New Orleans author and musician Tom Piazza was presented the 2015 Louisiana Writer Award.
Sponsored by the Louisiana Center for the Book in the State Library, Piazza is the 16th writer to receive the award, Hamilton said in introducing him to the crowd.
He joins a distinguished group of other authors, such as Ernest J. Gaines, James Lee Burke, Christine Wiltz and poet Darrell Bourque, who was present.
Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne, honorary festival chair, told the group that Piazza has written a dozen books, including novels about Hurricane Katrina, “Why New Orleans Matters,” and “Devil Sent The Rain: Music and Writing in Desperate America.” Piazza was a principal writer for the innovative New Orleans-based HBO drama series “Treme.”
In his acceptance speech, Piazza told how as a child growing up in New York City, he was enchanted by stories his mother read to him from the Child Craft Books.
When he began reading by himself, he said, “I was astonished at a very young age at the power of the little marks on the page,” of the Peter Rabbit in the Briar Patch stories.
“It was magic,” Piazza said.
He said it’s been a great privilege for him to “perhaps spread some understanding of and love for this place into the world beyond Lake Pontchartrain.”
Local author and teacher Charles deGravelles and Louisiana’s first Heisman Trophy winner Billy Cannon attracted many for, “Billy Cannon: A Long, Long Run.”
“It is like hanging onto the coattails of a star,” deGravelles said of writing a book that’s proven to be popular with readers. “Billy Cannon is a legend. People really love the man and admire him greatly.”
Nearby, Cannon, wearing an LSU purple-and-white checked dress shirt, signed books for a long line of admirers and patiently listened to their stories.
When asked for his response to the book’s popularity, Cannon replied with a big smile, “Ridiculous! We were in Shreveport last night at a private Christian school, and we sold out.”
He signed a book for Patrick Tate of Zachary and his son, Ty.
“It was incredible to meet him.” Patrick Tate said.
Down the hill at the Museum, visitors were crowding between the long tables of authors, chatting with them and occasionally purchasing a book.
The Rev. Gerrit Dawson, senior pastor of First Presbyterian Church, had a table of faith-based books, including several he’d written.
When asked how sales were going he replied, “we’re not selling them — we’re giving them away.”
Next to Dawson’s table, Devin Guillard displayed “Hood Struggle,” a stark, 270 page novel-memoir of growing up in the crime-ridden neighborhoods of north Baton Rouge.
“I’ve sold a few — not like last year,” Guillard said. “But I’m doin’ alright. I can’t complain at all.”