Homecoming for Book Fest 

Premier cultural event will return to Nashville permanently

The Southern Festival of Books is coming home—permanently.
The Southern Festival of Books is coming home—permanently. After alternating between Nashville and Memphis since 2004, the Humanities Tennessee board, which produces the festival, voted Saturday to bring the festival back to Nashville, where it was born in 1989.

According to Humanities Tennessee president Robert Cheatham, the board’s decision was based on two factors: the cost of travel expenses and housing for Nashville-based staff when the book festival was in Memphis, and the fact that the festival’s quarters in Nashville “work better urbanistically” because the reading venues, performance stages, sales sites and author signing areas are fully integrated. “Last year we went back to our roots on Legislative Plaza and everybody was crossing paths. There was an intensity like the kind of street life Jane Jacobs celebrates.”

Cheatham explains that the festival’s site in Memphis—the convention center and Federal Plaza—“was too spread out. People tended to go into the convention center and stay there. That’s where all the book sales and signings were. So people didn’t have to go outside, and that destroyed the magic.”

Cheatham notes that while Memphis was better for festival fundraising, “it ultimately was a wash because our expenses were higher there. Not only were our staff expenses much greater, but we had to pay for the convention center. In Nashville, most of our facilities—Legislative Plaza and the state Capitol—are free. We only pay for War Memorial.”

The festival first moved to Memphis in 2004 because Legislative Plaza was under renovation. The plaza itself—home to the book stalls and food vendors—was torn up to replace the waterproof membrane that had been leaking badly into the rooms beneath.

“Our original idea was to move the festival to Memphis for just that one year, and we probably should have stuck with that,” Cheatham says. “But Memphis didn’t want to commit the dollars to it unless we committed to more than one year. And the National Endowment for the Humanities”—which supplies Humanities Tennessee with much of its funding—“had been urging us to consider rotating locations because we’re a statewide agency.”But last year’s book festival demonstrated the need to bring the festival home for good. It was born on Legislative Plaza because “we had an urban community event in mind from the beginning,” Cheatham says. “We wanted to bring the humanities into the public square. And that’s what happens when it’s in Nashville—it’s really of the community. In Memphis it’s just a traveling show.”

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