You know, it’s been 17 years, and only one other time did we have rain, and one other time wind, but not rain and wind,” Carolyn Greer recalled over Zoom, a week after the remnants of Hurricane Ian brought scattered downpours and heavy winds to New York City. The storm forced the Brooklyn Book Festival—the city’s largest free literary festival, which Greer launched with Liz Koch in 2006—to move all of its planned outdoor events for Festival Day, held October 2, indoors. That also meant canceling the festival’s beloved outdoor marketplace.
It was a serious disappointment for both the organizers and the many publishers that had planned to sell their books to Brooklyn crowds, but the show was left with little choice. After all, as Koch put it, “the combination of rain and books for outdoors is a match made in hell.”
This year’s festival also marked the end of an era: it was the last the two will run together. Next year, Greer will take a step back from the festival, with Koch set to organize the event herself. The festival staff is small: just Greer and Koch run it full-time, with the year-round help of a part-time administrative assistant and a handful of summer interns, plus a contracted production crew during the month before and through the festival. (A volunteer literary council is also instrumental in running the festival’s programming.)
To fill out the staff, Koch will look to bring aboard something of a successor to Greer, albeit not a replacement. “We’re not looking to clone Carolyn, because we can’t,” Koch said. “She’s this DNA of the festival that can’t just be found anywhere.”
Before finding a successor, though, the festival’s team must take care of the remaining complications from this year’s rained-out weekend. There was some rain on its Children’s Day, held October 1, but the event went on mostly as planned. “No parent wants to be stuck inside on a rainy day with their kids, and kids love rain, they were out there jumping in puddles and having a great time,” Koch said. “Adults don’t jump around in puddles quite as much.”
By Festival Day, the winds had kicked up, making weathering the weather impossible, so Greer and Koch and their team scrambled to secure wind-blown tents and to bring all the programming that was to be held on the grounds outside of Brooklyn Borough Hall inside several local venues. It was a tough last-minute pivot, but the festival staff and the community that has coalesced around it over nearly two decades pulled it off, moving boxes of books, stacks of programs, and all planned outdoor panels into spaces provided by such partners as Brooklyn Law School, the Brooklyn Public Library’s Center for Brooklyn History, and Borough Hall itself.
“We had to take the main stage and the center stage inside Brooklyn Borough Hall, that historic building, and we were one room short,” Greer said. “They just put out chairs right in the middle of that rotunda, where people are usually circling back and forth. Everybody who knows and loves the festival helped us keep it going.”
The show went on, though moving the events to Borough Hall meant fewer book sales for the authors and publishers attending the fair, due to regulations regarding sales on government property. But the biggest loss for the publishers in attendance was the literary marketplace itself, which many small publishers in particular cherish as a venue to meet attendees face-to-face, selling books to readers old and new alike.
The festival, Greer said, is insured against potential weather issues, and has offered to refund all who paid to run booths at the festival, or to roll over the payments to cover exhibitor fees for next year’s festival. Some presses also opted to donate some or all of their fees to the festival, to help recover from this year’s losses and bolster next year’s programming.
The bad weather also meant that lots of books, as Greer said, “didn’t even get off the trucks,” forcing her and Koch to ship them back box by box.
“We’re learning new skills this year,” Koch said, “with the book shipping.”
Outdoor fairs like the Brooklyn Book Festival are considering how they can better plan for the future, given the less predictable weather patterns caused by climate change. Koch and Greer agreed, though, that the primary goal is to find a way to keep the main event out in the open air. After all, Greer said, “there’s a big difference between having a book festival in a place like the Javits Center and what that feels like, and the kind of spirit of celebration that is in the air when people are outside with 200 publishers under trees on a beautiful day.”