The 17th annual Celebration of Black Writing took place February 16—17 in downtown Philadelphia, attracting hundreds of professional writers, aspiring writers and book lovers. Sadness mingled with good cheer when attendees discovered that this would be the final Celebration to be directed by Larry Robin—owner of Robin's Book Store, in Philadelphia—who originated the event in 1984.

"It has been frustrating trying to raise the money to keep the celebration a free event," Robin said. "I will continue as a consultant to this great event, but its running will be in other, perhaps abler hands."

Considering the work it takes to put on this show, it has clearly been a labor of love for Robin. For 17 years, the free two-day schedule has been filled with workshops and panels on writing and publishing, book signings, a "Meet the Authors" book fair with more than 50 authors a year, performances, storytelling and a reception where a lifetime achievement award is presented to a local author.

The authors at this year's event included Sharne Algottson (African Style: Down to the Details , Clarkson Potter), Allen B. Ballard (Where I'm Bound , S&S), Toi Derricotte (Natural Birth , Firebrand), Tom Feelings (Soul Looks Back in Wonder , Puffin), Kristin Hunter Lattany (Do Unto Others , One World), Haki Madhubuti (Black Men: Obsolete, Single, Dangerous? , Third World) and Max Rodriguez, publisher of QBR: The Black Book Review .

Once you examine everything on Larry Robin's plate, the question is less "Why is he giving up the reins of the celebration he founded?" and more "How did he manage to pull it off for 17 years?" In addition to being the third-generation owner of Robin's Book Store, operating it for 40 years, he is director of Moonstone Inc., a local nonprofit educational organization that focuses on the arts; a sculptor; a local activist; and board member of several other literature-based arts councils. He was an early board member of the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression and, until 1998, had spent 14 years as executive director of the New Atlantic Independent Booksellers Association and its predecessor organization in the mid-Atlantic region. Still, his most important role is supporter of local talent.

Where It All Began

The Celebration of Black Writing started in 1984 as a Sunday afternoon party at Robin's bookstore to celebrate the richness of black writing in Philadelphia. At that party, someone commented that writers and readers should get together on happy occasions instead of funerals. The celebration became an annual event, with "black writing" including not just African-American writing, but according to Robin, "writing from Africa and all the African diaspora—any place black people live and write to bemoan, brag about or simply explore what it means to exist with a black identity."

"After 17 years, doing the celebration was automatic," Robin told PW . "I'm used to being able to do this by the seat of my pants. But it also takes the goodwill of a lot of people." The bulk of the funding for the event comes from grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, the Philadelphia Foundation and the William Penn Foundation, but supplemental support, from volunteers on up, comes from the entire community.

After the first two years, the celebration outgrew the bookstore, and over the years attendance has grown to between 1,000 and 1,200 people. The multiple venues now include the Free Library of Philadelphia, the Community College of Philadelphia and, sometimes, Robin's Book Store.

Although it's had three addresses in 60 years, Robin's Book Store has always been located in the Center City section of Philadelphia, and the locations, averaging 20 years at each, have been within four blocks of each other. Larry's grandfather David Robin opened the store in 1936, and was later joined by his sons Herman (Larry's father) and Morris. In 1960, Larry began working there fresh out of high school.

In the '60s and '70s, the store became a center for the counterculture, supporting the civil rights struggle, antiwar sentiment, the women's movement and experimental literature. "We had the books that others would not carry, from books by black authors to the Beat poets," said Robin. "We were open 14 hours a day. You could always find someone to argue politics or literature with."

Robin's interest in black writing and connections with black authors came through his civil rights activism. "I began carrying civil rights literature and pamphlets—it was one of the few places in Philadelphia where you could get civil rights literature. And then I began reading it. I came to the literature through the politics, and since I carried it, I met local writers."

Author events at the store, Robin said, have ranged from hundreds of people turning out for Maya Angelou to one person coming to meet Terry McMillan—"when her first book came out and nobody knew her," amends Robin.

The World According to Larry

The store, a two-story space of approximately 5,000 square feet, is owned by Larry and his daughter Rebecca. "My analysis from reading ABA reports was that if you want to survive, you need to own your property," said Robin. "We bought this building when we moved here."

Naturally, he has noticed significant literary changes over these 40 years. "One of the reasons that black writing was so significant was that the truth was embedded in it. Then corporate publishing began to publish writers who weren't good. It used to be so hard to get published that you had to be really good! But the marketplace is turning this around," he laments. "The industry destroys important stuff by publishing inferior work."

Perhaps that's how he arrived at his recipe for determining how many copies to stock: "If you are publishing 10 copies, I'll buy all 10. If you publish a million, I'll buy two."

For authors of the good stuff, the Celebration of Black Writing is where Moonstone presents its Lifetime Achievement Award. Recipients have included Eloise Greenfield, John Henrik Clarke, Kristin Hunter Lattany, Amiri Baraka, June Jordan, Sonia Sanchez, Genevieve and Michel Fabre and poets Samuel Allen and Ted Joans. This year's recipient was Charles L. Blockson, author and curator of the Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection at Temple University in Philadelphia.

Last year was the celebration's most ambitious program yet. "I have to admit, I'm insane," said Robin. The grueling five-day event took its toll, and at 58, Robin decided that this year's event, trimmed back to two days, would be the last he would direct.

In the future, the celebration will be presented by the Art Sanctuary, a three-year-old literary program founded by local author Lorene Cary (Black Ice ). According to Robin, the celebration will now be the centerpiece of the Art Sanctuary's program. But he has every intention of continuing as consultant to the event. After all, "I have been promoting black writing for 40 years—and I don't plan on stopping now."