Realizing a Book-Filled Dream

How a dedicated, inspired group of people made a festival happen


This May, over 23,000 (thousand!) people converged on the park grounds of Olde Towne Gaithersburg, MD, to revel in books, authors, and more books. In 10 years, Gaithersburg has managed to build a world-class festival.

But this isn’t “Field of Dreams,” and the people didn’t just magically appear. The Gaithersburg Book Festival is the product of the hard work of dozens of organizers and hundreds of volunteers.

The festival started when Jud Ashman was hit by a book-festival lightning bolt in 2008.

He was attending the National Book Festival in Washington, DC. At the time, the future of the festival was unsure. We were just about to have an election, and no one knew if the incoming administration would continue the event (founded by First Lady Laura Bush). Jud watched as the Librarian of Congress came onstage that day, begging everyone in the audience to write to the incoming administration in support of the festival.

Jud says he walked away from that moment thinking, “Wouldn't it be unspeakably horrible if this festival were discontinued?”

As he puts it, “Then the lightning bolt struck. But why couldn't we do one of our own? I'd been elected to the Gaithersburg city council a year earlier, which put me in a position where I could make things happen. Maybe I could make this happen. I remember thinking, there are so many spectacular authors and journalists within an hour's drive of Gaithersburg; they could come speak for an hour, meet some fans, sign some books, and be home for dinner with the family. We could really tap into that base of talent and build on it.”

Once that idea took root, Jud kept thinking about what a festival would mean for Gaithersburg.

“We could grow this huge, amazing, world-class book festival and build our city's brand. We could establish a cultural identity. We could foster generations of readers and add a lot of good to the world. It made perfect sense to me.”

So, Jud pitched the idea to the then-mayor, Sidney Katz, and Jud’s city council colleagues. In 2009, they formed a volunteer planning committee. In 2010, they had their first festival.

Since then, the festival has exceeded Jud’s expectations, including this year’s event.

“It was really dreamy.” (You should know that Jud, now Gaithersburg’s mayor, is a very funny person.)

“First off, it didn't rain. After having significant rain in two of the three previous years, that was huge! We had an amazing lineup of authors. Winners of every major award. Bestsellers left and right. Some terrific up-and-comers. Furthermore, this year's lineup of authors and stories was probably the most diverse we've ever had; many perspectives on race in America, immigrant stories, and the like.

“That was the festival I'd been dreaming of,” he says.

There is a tremendous amount of work that goes into putting the festival together, and Jud says you’d need a scientific calculator with algorithms and calculus in order to figure out all the hours.

I connected with one of the other volunteers who helped plan GBF, and she, likewise, couldn’t estimate how much time she spent. Megan Wessell, who is part of the public relations and marketing team for GBF, as well as one of the voices behind the @gburgbookfest Twitter account, says, “I can't say that I've ever counted up the time that it takes — when you're having fun, it doesn't seem like any time at all!”

Megan echoes Jud’s commitment to bringing literary goodness to the local community.

“I was amazed that I had this phenomenal book festival right in my back yard and I knew I wanted to be involved in it. Being involved in my community has always been incredibly important to me, and the fact that I could do something for my community that included my interest in books and literacy felt perfect,” she says.

Megan and Jud are just two of the fantastic, generous people dedicating their time to improve our literary lives. And they’re already marking the calendar for next year’s event: May 16, 2020. I’m sure that, rain or shine, the Gaithersburg Book Festival will continue to brighten bookish hearts throughout the Maryland-DC-Virginia area.

Carrie Callaghan is a senior editor with the Washington Independent Review of Books. Her debut novel, A Light of Her Own, came out last fall.

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