Vermont Arts Council

First Person: Taking a Page from Bookstock

Browsing used books for sale.
Acadia Klepeis seen from the neck up.
First Person by Acadia Klepeis

The road from Middlebury to Woodstock is long and winding, as the song goes. The more apt reference might be to Vermonter Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken,” but thanks to the huge popularity of Bookstock, on June 23rd, the town’s main thoroughfare was certainly not the one less traveled by. Whether you wax musical or poetic, Woodstock’s festival of all things wordy is unmissable.

Bookstock, a.k.a. the Green Mountain Festival of Words, originated in 2009. After a pause during the Covid-19 pandemic, Bookstock returned in-person in 2022, spearheaded by then Program Director Joni Cole. This year’s theme, Voices on the Village Green, was interpreted literally, with roughly 75 storytellers speaking on or near Woodstock’s central park over a period of four days.

As a first-time visitor to Bookstock, I was thrilled to learn everything I could about the festival. With that aim, I sat down with 2023 Program Director Elizabeth Wilcox. In addition to being a writer herself, Wilcox is also the founder of AuthorPods, a platform specialized in arranging author talks.

This personal experience supporting authors made her an ideal candidate for Program Director, a position she started in January 2023. From that moment, Wilcox had clear goals in mind for the festival.

When asked what drew her to the project, she said, “I [am] a big believer in community, and I really wanted to be a part of something which supported and promoted community as well as reading and literature.”

Prices for the 14,000 books for sale.

More specifically, “​​I wanted almost every talk to have somebody who was [associated] with the state or Upper Valley region,” she explained. This often led her to pair a Vermont resident and an out-of-stater, creating duos like USA Today’s Washington Bureau Chief Susan Page and Vermont Public’s Mikaela LeFrak.

More than geography, however, Wilcox sought to mix up forms of storytelling.

“One [goal] was to really try to integrate storytelling with different types of arts, so we have performing arts and even some visual arts,” she said.

Representing the musical arts, Wilcox continued, “We have KeruBo, who’s [an] Afro-Jazz singer, talking about storytelling through music with one of the founders of Music to Life, which is founded by Liz Stookey [Sunde] and her father Paul Stookey of Peter, Paul and Mary.” As if to prove her point, the drums and vocals of one of the seven different live music performers added a fun aural texture to the background of our conversation.

Other unique presenters included Arrested Development founder and documentary-maker Speech and Mindfulness with Maude author Pamela Cappetta, who led a morning session for children and families. Perhaps most tellingly, this year’s Vermont Literary Inspiration Award was given to the Center for Cartoon Studies in White River Junction, underscoring Bookstock’s inclusive, multidisciplinary understanding of literature.

“I really wanted a diverse representation of voices,” Wilcox emphasized.

In addition to hearing about the festival straight from the horse’s mouth, I set out to discover as much as I could first-hand. Friday marked the first full day of the event, and my calendar was marked with workshops and discussions all over town.

North Chapel, Woodstock.

For a first-time visitor to Woodstock, the integration of community spaces offered a wonderful guide to exploring the village. After a tasty lunch at Mon Vert Cafe, I attended my first scheduled event at North Chapel: a conversation entitled “Nurturing the Art of Poetry.” Participants gathered chairs in a democratic circle to discuss how communities can best nurture poets. The group included several members of The Wednesday Poets, who spoke about the importance of poetry groups. Someone spotlighted an open mic-style poetry event at the local library. A staff member from Yankee Bookshop also shared how independent bookstores can support local authors.

This town-wide cooperative spirit was striking, and certainly stretched beyond that conversation. To pull together a festival of this scale in six months with only two paid staff members, Bookstock relies hugely on its enthusiastic volunteers, like local Leslie Leslie.

“I really love being part of the community and doing what I can to pitch in, and meeting people that are part of this community that I’m so lucky to live in,” said Leslie. Not only is Leslie devoted to perfecting this year’s festival, but she is already thinking of ways to improve it. Regarding the 14,000 used books for sale, she said, “Next year, we have to have several people who not only help sort the books, but that do quality control during the event.”

Volunteers are a huge part of the reason that Bookstock is free to attendees. Author workshops, new this year under Wilcox’s leadership, are the only paying events at Bookstock in order to remunerate the authors’ gift of knowledge while maintaining accessibility. I was thrilled to take part in author Joni Cole’s session “Good Naked: Wit, Wisdom, and a Writing Workshop.”

Attendees gathered around wooden tables in the back of Soulfully Good Cafe, notebooks in hand, excited to glean wisdom about the writing process. Cole prompted the community to put pen to paper with the question “What am I doing here?” and allowed respondents eight minutes of composition time. She emphasized the importance of keeping the pen moving and discouraged the notion of the perfect first draft. Afterwards, participants’ eagerness to share their vibrant, varied stories with strangers was moving.

Used book purchases and coffee from Mon Vert.

Finally, the Bookstock 2023 official kick-off event featured a conversation between political satirist and author Andy Borowitz and Vermont Public reporter Mitch Wertlieb. By 7 p.m., Woodstock’s Town Hall Theater was awash with a sea of pewter heads. The stage was empty save for two chairs, two sunflowers, two bottles of water, and a podium whose insignia proudly declared “WOODSTOCK VERMONT” in all capital letters. By the time Borowitz and Wertlieb took the stage, the energy in the room was palpable. As the journalist-comedians made quips about knowing your worth as an artist (the event was free), Vermont fine dining (CVS and Walgreens were mentioned), and infamous ex-VP Dan Quayle’s blunders (need I say more?), the crowd roared with generous and genuine laughter. Borowitz and Wertlieb were clearly among friends.

However, the audience’s enthusiastic participation was even more striking once the stage was empty. The line to exit the building crawled along — because almost every attendee stopped by the door to make a donation.

“[Bookstock’s] mission is to unite people in the celebration of storytelling and the written word,” said Wilcox, adding, “We also wanted to make this a celebration and to bring people together.” If Friday’s events were any indication, she can rest easy knowing her mission was accomplished.

All photos by Acadia Klepeis.