Selling out a reading isn’t altogether unusual at Flyleaf Books. For years, the Chapel Hill bookstore’s 75-person-capacity space has hosted writers from across the country. But selling out an event in a matter of hours, with enough demand to move it to nearby music venue Cat’s Cradle—where the event also sold out—was a welcome surprise after several years of virtual and hybrid events.
The event was for Tracy Deonn, UNC-Chapel Hill graduate and a New York Times best-selling author, whose latest fantasy series is set in Chapel Hill.
“It only took another, I think, two weeks before we were sold out of the 350 seats,” Flyleaf events manager Maggie Robe says of the move to Cat’s Cradle.
While writing and reading can often be solitary activities, literary readings have long been a way for authors to promote books, for bookstores to generate sales and engagement, and for readers to connect with authors and the literary community. At the onset of the pandemic, readings—often held in small store spaces and dependent on unwieldy author tours—moved online and stayed there for years. These days, though, the event calendars at bookstores around the Triangle, like Flyleaf, Letters Bookshop, Epilogue Books, Rofhiwa Book Café, and Quail Ridge Books, are filling up. (Others, like The Regulator, have been more hesitant to bring back in-person events.)
“Authors are very happy to be back out in the states and meeting with their fans,” Robe says of the return of readings. “If you’ve been putting a book out during the pandemic, you have no idea about the audience response …. You know, authors, they feed off of their fans.”
Last Wednesday, after Deonn’s reading, a crowd waited outside the venue as if waiting for their favorite Broadway star to emerge.
On an even more locally grown level, DIY readings—often poetry, often featuring someone you’ve never heard of—are also thriving, organized independently of a venue. Paradiso, a poetry reading series run by Marta Nuñez and Laura Jaramillo since 2018, has lived at bars around the Triangle for years: first at Nightlight in Chapel Hill, and now at Rubies on Five Points in Durham. In Chapel Hill, the Concern Newsstand often hosts poetry readings out of the artist-run gallery Attic 506. And at Durham’s NorthStar Church of the Arts, organizers Victoria Bouloubasis, Loan Tran, and Dylan Angell recently launched Evenings, a new quarterly event that features writers, musicians, and videographers in collaboration.
Events managers and DIY organizers alike are working to harness the community’s eagerness for connection. Robe began her job at Flyleaf during the pandemic when the shop was struggling to maintain virtual event momentum after having run 340-ish events a year before the pandemic.
“Across all of the independent bookstores that I spoke with, so many colleagues and friends were trying to figure out how to make this work for people, our customers, and community,” Robe says.
The space went fully virtual, hybrid, and back to virtual, and finally opened up for full-attendance events this summer. Today, publishers are consistently in touch with Robe about book tours like they were before the pandemic, asking for larger and larger events.
While it might not be a direct causation, hundreds of new independent bookstores spawned during COVID, and sales have been good in the Triangle. At its spacious new Durham location on Main Street—where it moved last year, from a smaller space just down the street—Letters Bookshop is adjusting to having space to host events. The second floor of the new-to-them space, which was originally a bank, has a stained-glass ceiling and room for chairs. Shop manager William Page says it can seat about 60 people, but they’re keeping it small for now, which fits the events they’re interested in.
“We’re always very interested in working with local authors,” Page says. “This is a space that we want to try to occupy.”
Page and the Letters staff like the way local authors invite their community into the space. At a recent reading featuring Grace MacNair, a New York-based author who grew up in North Carolina and recently released a chapbook through Bull City Press, Page was glad to introduce other local writers to the space.
“It was cool to be able to introduce a new crowd of people to Letters 2.0, as we call the new Letters, and have them potentially begin to think of us as a space that they can look to for events like that,” he says.
Writer Dylan Angell moved back to Durham during the pandemic, and he’s collaborated with organizers of two different readings in the last two years. After living in New York and Mexico City, Angell found himself back in the Triangle, decades after growing up here.
“There are so many writers, and there’s so much going on,” Angell said. “It was way beyond my expectations of what I might find.”
In June 2021, Angell partnered with Orvokki Crosby—the owner of the Concern Newsstand, a shop for zines and small press books—to begin hosting a poetry series on the rooftop of Attic 506. Crosby won a yearlong grant from the Orange County Arts Council to pay poets (unusual in the business), and Angell curated the poets who would read. These rooftop sessions regularly pulled in 50 to 70 attendees from across the Triangle. For Crosby, the literary scene was a new and welcome development in a space dedicated primarily to the visual arts.
“I definitely noticed in 2021 there was this kind of awkwardness and unsureness of how to interact, and I think the readings were a safe place to be around people,” Crosby says. “You didn’t really have to be close, but you’re sharing an experience.”
When that grant ran out, Angell pivoted toward a more interdisciplinary type of reading with co-organizers Bouloubasis and Tran, while Crosby continues to bring in writers to curate more individual readings at Attic 506.
Bouloubasis, Tran, and Angell contributed videography, poetry, and music, respectively, to their first evening at Durham’s NorthStar Church of the Arts and hope to help bridge the area’s often siloed arts scenes.
“The Triangle has a very rich music scene, and it has a very rich writing scene,” Angell said. “But it doesn’t feel like there’s enough overlap.”
Since 2018, meanwhile, Nuñez and Jaramillo have run Paradiso, a poetry series that pairs visiting poets with local writers.
“When we started, there weren’t any other series happening locally, either DIY or really academic stuff, because previous things had ended,” Jaramillo said. “And we felt that there was a little bit of a void in Triangle cultural circles, but particularly literary circles, in terms of things that were tightly curated.”
Nuñez and Jaramillo, who met at a poetry workshop that met on Duke’s campus, began with the venue: They loved the local punk vibes at Nightlight. Nightlight was glad to have them, and thus Paradiso was born.
The pair wants everyone to feel welcome.
“We tend to not assume that people know who we’re talking about when we mention a poet,” Jaramillo says. The pair curates their series by inviting a visiting poet to read alongside a local artist whose work is somehow in conversation with theirs. At one reading, they had Cynthia Arrieu-King, a poet and quilt maker based in Philadelphia, alongside Hillsborough artist Susannah Simpson, who uses textiles and fabrics in their performance art.
“The atmosphere that we met at, at Duke, was very academic,” Nuñez says. “So, it was part of our dream to have a series that was more DIY and more open to the public. It would be a place where you’d walk in and you didn’t know anything about poetry before.”
They hope the project inspires people to write and to create an organic community around writing.
“It’s not an activity mediated by an algorithm or with any economical motives,” Nuñez says. “I think those spaces are very needed right now. People are very isolated.”
Jaramillo sees the act of paying attention to something like poetry as one that could have a greater significance. While spending time on our phones isn’t exactly a moral failure, Jaramillo says, it can lead to bad habits on a community level.
“People don’t necessarily feel a responsibility to pay attention, because they’re so overloaded,” she says. “So to create a context where people feel a responsibility to the people around them and to the readers to actually be present and not look at their phones … it seems like not a big deal, but it’s actually a notable experience.”
With the move from Chapel Hill to Durham, Jaramillo also hopes to inspire a more intentional DIY scene in the midst of a city grappling with gentrification.
“Rent prices have been really outpacing people’s ability to create robust DIY institutions,” she says. “I think we’re at a critical moment. I think we could shift things in a more interesting direction, but I think there has to be both militancy around culture and doing culture in an intentional way.”
Some event organizers, like Emily Cataneo of Redbud Writing Project, found a surge of interest in their offerings through the pandemic. Cataneo and her cofounder Arshia Simkin are both graduates of NC State University’s MFA program, and they started Redbud to offer community writing classes; teachers hold classes across the Triangle as well as online. The online option in particular took off once COVID-19 took off.
“We had one woman who was Zooming in from India,” Cataneo says. “She got up at three in the morning to take our classes, which was crazy, but amazing.”
At the end of each class semester, participants do a reading at a local bookstore. While they may not be reading for hundreds of adoring fans, these students get a first taste of what it means to connect with other writers through their work.
“I think there’s just an energy to being in a room with other writers that people have missed out on over the past almost three years,” Cataneo says. “We’re seeing a lot of enthusiasm about being back in the bookstores, being able to buy books after class, and just having that ineffable advantage of being in a room with other human bodies and talking to them rather than talking online.”
Support independent local journalism. Join the INDY Press Club to help us keep fearless watchdog reporting and essential arts and culture coverage viable in the Triangle.
Comment on this story at email@example.com.