Author Sarah Vowell has never actually seen Unity Temple before — at least not on the inside, says author-relations coordinator Bill Young.
“The truth is, Sarah Vowell is a huge fan of architecture. I brought her out here to see the Frank Lloyd Wright Home and Studio,” Young recalls. “We actually tried to sneak into Unity Temple during a wedding last year. They kicked us out and then we went around to the opposite door and got kicked out again! [Unity staff] weren’t mean or anything, just emphatic [that the temple was closed to the public.]”
Young, president of Midwest Media, is the visionary behind the new “Writers at Wright” series at Unity Temple. Vowell will finally be able to see Unity Temple on Wednesday, April 6, when she appears for a free reading of her new book, Unfamiliar Fishes.
Building on the success of last April’s Unity appearance by author Tim O’Brien for the 20th anniversary of his Vietnam memoir The Things They Carried, Young says he’s hoping to build the upscale reading series into something big. “It’s no longer just folding chairs,” Young says. “[Author readings are] on par with a musical performance, like going to Orchestra Hall or the theater.” He eventually envisions desserts, wine and cheese, maybe even classical musicians from the high school.
“Like tucking an octopus in to sleep,” is how Young describes coordinating four different entities to bring national authors to Oak Park for the new reading series. “I’ve had the idea for years, and we’re finally putting it together.” Midwest Media, the Oak Park Public Library, the Book Table and Unity Temple Restoration Foundation have finally achieved synergy and will present three authors this spring: Vowell, Elizabeth Berg and Roy Bount Jr.
“The goal of the series has been bringing in people who are good at speaking as well as good writers,” says Jason Smith, co-owner of the Book Table, 1045 Lake St. “We’re trying to break the mold of the awkward author who stands up and reads from their book, so you might as well just have a signing line. The Unity Temple space deserves more than that kind of event. We want someone who’s incredibly entertaining both in person and on the page.”
Through his author-relations job, Young has been talking up the Unity space at Book Expo in New York and the American Library Association conventions among publishers and authors. “Word gets around. It’s a game of telephone. [They want to know] the best places to showcase their authors. … I’m trying to tell publishers in New York that there are actually more book buyers in the Midwest than on the coast.”
Young describes his career as “a dream job” tooling around town with visiting authors, arranging media interviews, signings and readings. Many authors he considers friends, including novelist Elizabeth Berg, with whom he shares a home. He hopes to bring in other authors, including figures from popular culture, such as America’s Test Kitchen’s Jack Bishop for his cookbook tour, and Tim Gunn, host of “Project Runway.” Walter Isaacson from the Aspen Institute has also shown interest.
The only problem with the temple is the lack of air conditioning in summer. “It’s God-awful hot,” Young says, so he plans programming for the other three seasons.
Smith says he initially didn’t want to bother with author signing events. “When my wife and I opened our store almost eight years ago, we decided to have no author events [and use the store’s space for shelves]. We didn’t want to duplicate other venues. … But then Barbara’s stopped doing author events and closed, Borders began to move their events away from Oak Park. We looked around and realized people are demanding [author events] and there’s no one filling the need.”
The Book Table partners with the Oak Park Public Library to bring authors to town. “We’re getting a reputation for bringing the perfect kind of author, like Lynda J. Barry and Michelle Norris, who have big personalities,” Smith says. “There’s the excitement of seeing someone you’ve always heard on the radio. We never asked for this niche, but we’ve fallen into one.”
Like Smith, Young believes there’s an excitement around authors and books that will pull in a crowd. But he points out that technology has brought changes to the publishing industry.
“I’ve had people show up at author events and had authors sign their Kindles,” he recalls. “Publishers realize that since 1995, everything invented — from the Internet to cable to longer commutes — is an encroachment into reading time. They need a ‘milk mustache’ campaign: ‘Read at a specified time of day. Read for an hour a day instead of watching the Daily Show.'”
For Smith, Unity presents a high-end space that will attract top-notch authors.
“The reaction we’ve had from authors to the space is fantastic,” he says. “They tell their friends and so on. It’s so intimate. Normally if you have 350 people at an event, you can’t see people in the back row. Here, there’s no such thing as a bad seat.”