Thomas Bell is a co-founder of the AJC Decatur Book Festival and was the festival’s founding Program Director. Today he is co-founder and a managing partner of Chronicle (www.thisischronicle.com), a brand narrative firm. He is also a writer, journalist, modern dancer, choreographer, and aerialist.
It was Saturday morning of the first AJC Decatur Book Festival when I first knew, really knew, that this festival was going to succeed. Indisputable proof came toward me led by the Cat in the Hat and then-Mayor Bill Floyd in a miniature fire truck, followed by hundreds of kids and their parents.
We’d put in about 18 months planning the first festival. In the early days, it was just this crazy scheme that only a few of us talked about. If we had dropped the idea then, almost no one would have noticed. It would have been that wild whim we’d had while hopped up on too much coffee, discarded in the returning sanity of the caffeine crash.
But as the effort gained momentum and as Labor Day weekend 2006 approached, more and more people took notice. The people of Decatur were eager to host the event. The media was paying attention. And fellow book nerds from all over the South (and, as it turned out, beyond) were making plans to attend. If we didn’t pull this thing off, a whole lot of people were going to be disappointed.
We’d never done this before. Oh, we had the help of quite a few people who knew what they were doing: the City of Decatur and the Decatur Arts Alliance, with all their festival-planning expertise, the Georgia Center for the Book with all its literary connections, Lenz Marketing, which gave the festival the verisimilitude of a mature event, and many more. But executive director Daren Wang and myself… we were wise mostly in fully apprehending our inexperience.
But that Saturday morning, I walked up to the staging area for the first Children’s Parade, which we’d planned as a participatory parade, as a parade in which all could join. (I don’t remember who’s idea this was, but I suspect it was that of Diane Capriola, co-owner of Little Shop of Stories and director of the Children’s Stage.) I found a mob of children, many dressed up as various Dr. Seuss characters. I remember a Thing One and Thing Two, and some pint-sized Cats in Hats. There were little girls in tutus and tiaras. There was a little boy in a Spiderman costume, because, you know, Spiderman. Hundreds of these children, along with their parents.
Mayor Floyd sounded the siren and rang the bell on his mini-fire truck, and the parade began. I had a walkie-talkie. I announced to all listening, “The parade is starting!” And I told them they would not believe how many children were on the way. The parade stretched out for blocks. I jogged along the route, pausing here and there to give breathless updates into my walkie-talkie. At one point, I was standing alongside the parade somewhere in its middle, and I could no longer see either the beginning or the end of it.
This was the summer when the Roy A. Blount Plaza and the MARTA station were renovated, and by Labor Day weekend the plaza area was still a giant pile of dirt. We’d placed the Children’s Stage over near the DeKalb County Courthouse, under a tent with about 50 chairs. 50 kids and parents, we’d thought: that seems like about as big as we’d need. Well, as the parade completed its journey near the pile of dirt and beside that little tent, the chairs were quickly filled. Hundreds more stood behind and around the edges of the tent, ready for the first reading to begin. Street Festival Coordinator Mary Flad put in a call for more chairs. And Mayor Floyd and City Commissioner Kecia Cunningham took the stage to give a reading of Dr. Seuss’ “Green Eggs and Ham.”
The festival grounds were full and the first full day under way. And the biggest complaint we heard all weekend: the venues were too small for all the people who’d come out. We made plenty of mistakes that first year, but as soon as I saw that parade, I knew beyond a doubt that this crazy little festival was going to succeed.