'You need events like this': Times Festival of Reading draws thousands

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ST. PETERSBURG — It was just after noon Saturday, two hours into the Times Festival of Reading, and already Robert King’s tote bag sagged with the weight of new discoveries.

King, a 58-year-old Tampa resident, said he’d grabbed books from Gilbert King, the nonfiction author he’d just seen speak, and Joyce Maynard, whom he was eager to see later in the afternoon.

Then he reached in the bag and pulled out a hefty, hardback copy of Jack E. Davis’s “The Gulf: The Making of an American Sea.” The book, a recent winner of the Pulitzer Prize for history, wouldn’t normally be something he’d gravitate toward, he said, but he’d seen Davis speak that morning and felt compelled to buy it.

“The fact that I would never (otherwise) read this — that’s what’s great” about the festival, Robert King said.

The 26th annual festival, which ran through Saturday morning and early afternoon on the campus of the University of South Florida St. Petersburg, brought together readers and dozens of authors of poetry, true crime, graphic novels and more, many of them with Florida connections.

Times Book Critic Colette Bancroft, who organized the event, didn’t have an exact attendance count because the festival was free and unticketed, but she said it usually draws around 5,000 people and believes at least that many attended this year.

"I think it brings readers together," she said. "It sort of validates for people that their love of books is something they share with a lot of other people."

Adam Guerin, a 39-year-old Eckerd College history professor, said he came to the festival to support a colleague, short-fiction author Jon Chopan. But it also gave him an opportunity to expose his sons, 6-year-old Jack and 4-year-old Sasha, to books.

“You’re fighting against screens. I think literature has never been more important,” he said. “It feels like it’s a bit of a battle. You need events like this to highlight that books are for everyone.”

Across the plaza, Alsace Walentine and Candice Anderson, co-owners of Tombolo Books, had a moment of calm in between the crowds that gathered around their booth when nearby talks ended. They launched the bookshop — for now a pop-up operation, though they’re raising funds for a brick-and-mortar location — at last year’s festival. Walentine said it’s a crucial opportunity for booksellers to meet authors and build an audience.

“We meet so many people who we wouldn’t otherwise have met,” she said.

After 26 years, Bancroft said, the event has cultivated a supportive fanbase, which seemed to revel in Saturday’s festival.

"I’ve lost count of how many people thanked me and thanked the Times for doing this every year," she said.

Contact Jackson Evans at [email protected] or . Follow @JackHEvans.

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