Manhattan’s Goddard Riverside Community Center and New York publishers have a long history together—30 years long. And on October 26, at the annual Goddard Riverside Book Fair Gala, the community center and the industry that has so long supported it will celebrate their relationship while sending off one of that relationship’s greatest proponents, Goddard Riverside executive director Stephan Russo.
This is the first time Goddard Riverside’s Book Fair Committee, which consists of representatives from publishers and booksellers, has chosen an honoree from outside the book industry at the gala, an event founded to honor the long-lasting relationship between the community center and publishing, which is most visible in the form of Goddard Riverside’s annual book fair. (Past honorees have typically been from the book industry, such as Len Riggio, who was honored in 2014.) But Russo, who will retire this December after nearly 20 years as executive director of the community center, was the natural choice. Hired by the Upper West Side–based Goddard Riverside to perform youth-outreach work in 1976, he has spent the bulk of his career with the organization. And after leaving in the early 1990s to assist New York City in setting up the Department of Homeless Services, he returned in 1997 and was named executive director a year later.
“I’ve watched the agency grow from a small agency in the 1970s with a budget of $600,000–$700,000 to an agency with a budget of over $40 million and involved in everything from youth programs to housing to outreach to the homeless,” Russo said. “[But] it’s not about the agency growth. It’s about the thousands of lives that we’ve impacted in this neighborhood and the city—the lives of people who are marginalized or don’t have access to the same kinds of resources as others. It’s not been a job, it’s been a vocation.”
The publishing connection to Goddard Riverside dates back to 1987, when the first Goddard Riverside Book Fair was held, a time during which New York’s mentally ill population was dealing with deinstitutionalization and a consequent rise of homelessness. The writer Don Porter, who served on the Goddard Riverside board, reached out to Carl Apollonio, then v-p at Crown, in the hopes that the publisher could help support the center’s outreach.
Publishers donated books to sell at marked-down prices, all to benefit Goddard Riverside. In its first year, the Goddard Riverside Book Fair brought in $40,000. Soon, publishing leaders including Alan Merkin, Peter Workman, Susan Richman, and J.P. Leventhal came aboard, bringing their publishing companies with them. Now Russo estimates that the publishing industry helps Goddard bring in upward of $700,000 annually.
“That first year, publishers donated a whole bunch of books,” Russo recalled. “I remember packing and pricing books—we were pricing books at, like, $4.25, and making change—but the industry came through with books. I think there was a good fit between the publishing industry, which I would say is very concerned with certain issues, particularly literacy and education, and what Goddard Riverside was doing.”
Russo added: “If you take a look at the 30 years, the amount of money that the publishing industry has raised for Goddard Riverside Community Center is about $15 million, at least. It’s really significant.”
Supporting partners are numerous, including Barnes & Noble, Hachette Book Group, HarperCollins, Penguin Random House, Scholastic, and Simon & Schuster. Writers as diverse as Maya Angelou, Robert Caro, Mary Higgins Clark, and Jeffrey Toobin have taken part in readings and private fund-raising dinners hosted by publishers in conjunction with the book fair, with all proceeds sent to Goddard Riverside.
“I hadn’t been involved until the last few years, after Peter Workman called me and asked me if I would go for a tour of some of the buildings at Goddard to see some of the work they were doing, and I was just amazed by what they do—especially with respect to homeless men and women in the city,” said Mary Ellen Keating, B&N senior v-p of corporate communications. “Over the years, the publishing industry and Goddard have shared many of the same values, and it’s become a tremendous community partnership.”
Atria president and publisher Judith Curr, who serves on the Goddard Riverside Book Fair committee on behalf of Simon & Schuster, concurred—and like Keating, Curr was brought into the fold by Workman. “Goddard looks after the hungry and homeless, and education for people who don’t have access,” she said. “It seems fitting that we’re involved with an organization that provides for people who don’t have as much fortune as we do. The city feeds and houses us, so if in turn we can do the same for other people, that seems like good karma.”
Curr added that she and the rest of the committee hope the relationship between publishing and Goddard Riverside will continue for years to come—and that means getting a younger publishing generation involved. As such, each of the 40 honorees and five finalists this year for PW’s Star Watch program, including Superstar Andrew Harwell of HarperCollins Children’s Books, have been invited to this year’s gala.
As for Russo, this is the best send-off he could imagine—and sees it as far bigger than himself. “I’m humbled by the fact that this is the 30th year that the industry has done this [Book Fair], and also that they would honor someone on the staff of Goddard,” he said. “Even though there’s some leadership transition here, the bonds between publishing and Goddard Riverside transcend myself or any individual leader and will absolutely continue in the future. We’re honoring me, but we’re also honoring the industry.”