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Booked for the day: Greater Pittsburgh Festival of Books debuts

Marshall Cohen is back living in Shadyside, where he grew up more than 60 years ago. But he’s not overly interested in reliving the past. In fact, after he returned here in 2018, his big retirement project was to give Pittsburgh something new: its first-ever large-scale, general-interest book fair.

After a series of pandemic-related delays, the Greater Pittsburgh Festival of Books will debut Sat., May 14. The free, all-day event will feature about 30 mostly local authors and poets at multiple venues in East Liberty and displays by more than 20 booksellers, publishers and other vendors. Speakers include Pittsburgh native and stage-and-screen star Billy Porter, historian Nathaniel Philbrick, novelist Stewart O’Nan and young-adult novelist Sharon Flake.

The festival marks a full circle of sorts for Cohen, 77, who said he grew up “reading comic books and the backs of cereal boxes.” He remembers being inspired when a teacher at Liberty School — located less than a mile from the festival sites — gave him a book about spelunking, a word he didn’t yet know.

“I learned it was about cave-exploring. What I like to say is that I never became a cave explorer, I became a reader,” he said.

Turning the page
After high school, Cohen moved with his family to California. He eventually built a career in lobbying and communications and worked all over the country.

In the 1970s, he lobbied for Pine Tree Legal Services, which provided legal aid to low-income people in Maine. He says he helped persuade that state’s legislature to pass one of the nation’s first protection-from-abuse laws for victims of domestic violence. Later, he worked in the energy industry. In 2006, in New Mexico, he helped the European nuclear-energy consortium, now known as URENCO, acquire the first license in the country for a commercial uranium-enrichment facility.

Laurie Moser is the festival's co-chair
Greater Pittsburgh Festival of Books
Laurie Moser is the festival's co-chair

In the 2010s, in Virginia, he wound down his career as vice president for government affairs and communications for global energy firm Babcock & Wilcox Co. and as executive director of the Virginia Nuclear Energy Consortium, a trade group.

“I’m an advocate,” he said in a recent interview. “I do advocacy. I like to talk to people, and I like to make things happen.”

All along, his other passion was books — reading and collecting them. “I read a lot of history, a lot of thrillers and shoot-’em-ups and mysteries. And I try to read good fiction, and I just love to read. I love to learn like that.” His collection – carted with him around the U.S. for decades – now numbers 3,500 books, about 1,500 of them signed first editions. “I have a signed Truman Capote,” he said. “I have all four of John Updike’s ‘Rabbit’ novels, signed first editions, which I think is kind of unique.”

He’s also an inveterate book-festival-goer. Events from Los Angeles to New York and Boston are standard vacation destinations. “I love seeing, hearing authors talk about their books,” he said. “That’s just what I like to do.”

After he and his wife moved back to Shadyside — blocks, in fact, from Liberty School — he decided he wanted to bring the book-festival experience to Pittsburgh. His first stops included the City-County Building, where a short address to Pittsburgh City Council earned him a letter of support for the fest from his city councilor, Erika Strassburger.

Other early boosters included online literary hub Littsburgh. “You have to be single-minded in your determination to pull something like this off, and I think Marshall is definitely that,” said Littsburgh co-founder Nick Courage.

Over the next couple of years, Cohen assembled a team including festival co-chair Laurie Moser, the local mover and shaker who co-founded Pittsburgh’s Race for the Cure and children’s-literacy events like Storywalk. Former Pittsburgh Post-Gazette books editor Bob Hoover was the key link to the local literary community and booked most of the authors.

The festival has a budget of about $200,000, Cohen said. It boasts an impressive list of corporate sponsors, including KDKA TV, Google and Lamar Advertising.

Another sponsor is online language-learning company Duolingo, whose East Liberty headquarters will serve as one festival venue. “Our mission is around making education universally accessible and available. And books and reading and literacy are also important to us. So we thought it definitely aligned with our mission,” said Kendra Ross, the company’s head of social impact.

The Heinz Endowments became a co-sponsor largely because of the festival’s focus on child literacy, which includes a kids’ storytime and a program for authors of young-adult fiction. “It just fits really well with our commitment to young children and their families and school readiness and just investing in our kids and letting them have an opportunity to learn and play and read,” said Michelle Figlar, the foundation’s vice president of learning.

A first edition
Pittsburgh has had small book festivals before but never anything approaching this scope, attempting to unite the local literary community and connect it to a public that doesn’t necessarily go to literary readings.

“The literary community has each other, and there are lots of ways for the literary community to connect with each other. And so the big tent broadens that,” said Stephanie Flom, who heads Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures. “The big tent is going to bring us all together in one spot. And I think that’s very exciting.”

Acclaimed poet Toi Derricotte is reading at the festival. “I am really excited about it, and I love that people think this is a good city to do this in,” she said. “I think there’s an opportunity to open up in an area where people know they’re coming to listen to ideas. They’re kind of meeting their family.”

The festival’s footprint includes Bakery Square, where the atrium will serve as an exhibit hall for publishers, booksellers and more. The grounds will also include the storytime tent, a tent for literary readings and a stage for readings, live music and sets by DJ Arie Cole.

Other readings, workshops and more will take place at East Liberty’s Carnegie Library, the Kelly-Strayhorn Theater, East Liberty Presbyterian Church, Duolingo and The Maverick Hotel.

A free shuttle will provide transportation between Bakery Square and central East Liberty, where five of the venues are clustered.

Billy Porter’s talk discussing his new memoir, “Unprotected,” sold out quickly. But in addition to O’Nan, Flake (“The Skin I’m In”) and Pittsburgh native Philbrick, the festival includes, among others: novelists Jennifer Haigh, Kathleen George, Clare Beams, Tom Sweterlitsch and Ken Gormley; memoirists Jan Beatty and Neema Avashia; poets Lori Jakiela, Cameron Barnett, Michael Wurster and Lynn Emmanuel; and nonfiction authors Eliza Griswold (“Amity and Prosperity”), Kris Maher (“Desperate: An Epic Battle for Clean Water and Justice in Appalachia”), Katie Booth (“The Invention of Miracles”), Lee Gutkind, and Maxwell King and Louise Lippincott (“American Workman: The Life and Art of John Kane"). There are also programs on comics, children’s literature and literature in translation.

The festival runs 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Sat., May 14. A complete schedule is here.

Bill is a long-time Pittsburgh-based journalist specializing in the arts and the environment. Previous to working at WESA, he spent 21 years at the weekly Pittsburgh City Paper, the last 14 as Arts & Entertainment editor. He is a graduate of Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism and in 30-plus years as a journalist has freelanced for publications including In Pittsburgh, The Nation, E: The Environmental Magazine, American Theatre, and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Bill has earned numerous Golden Quill awards from the Press Club of Western Pennsylvania. He lives in the neighborhood of Manchester, and he once milked a goat. Email: