A revival, of sorts, for Novello

For nearly two decades, October in Charlotte has meant the Novello Festival of Reading - a literary extravaganza that brought the city big-name authors full of great stories and provocative ideas.

But this year, on its 20th anniversary, the festival seemed doomed, one more program lost as economic woes forced the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library to slash its budget.

Lucky for book lovers, some fans have refused to let Novello go.

On Friday, volunteers led by book lovers Mark West and Pat Siegfried kick off A Tribute to Novello, a free festival aimed at carrying on the spirit of the original. It continues Saturday and Oct. 9, with more than 30 authors, most from Charlotte. All have agreed to appear at no charge.

For die-hard Novello fans such as Wanda Hubicki, that's welcome news. "I think it's really important to keep alive the idea of Novello," she says.

The library launched Novello in 1991, partly at the urging of Rolfe Neill, now-retired publisher of The Observer.

Neill told Bob Cannon, then library director, to find a way to make reading as fun as sports. Cannon, now head of Florida's Broward County library system, remembers urging his development director, "Come up with something that's fun."

The first program featured Pulitzer Prize-winning author David Halberstam. Over time, the festival grew. Speakers have included Toni Morrison, Maurice Sendak, John Grisham, Kurt Vonnegut and Pat Conroy.

Former President George Bush and first lady Barbara Bush, who spoke in 1999, hold the record for highest fee: $100,000.

Khaled Hosseini, author of "The Kite Runner," set the attendance record, attracting 2,300 people in 2008 and selling out Ovens Auditorium.

Always, Novello offered children's activities and provided Charlotte's schools with countless author appearances.

And always, Novello events were free or inexpensive - $15 to $30 for headlining authors.

In good years, the Novello budget topped $400,000.

The library paid for author appearances with ticket sales, donations, corporate sponsorships and fines - never county money.

Hubicki has attended more Novello events than she can remember.

"My birthday's in October, so I always felt it was a little gift from the library to me."

Meeting authors of books that touched her has held a special significance.

She remembers how ice cream moguls Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield made her laugh and how Isabel Allende, author of "The House of Spirits," spoke from her heart. She discovered North Carolina's Ron Rash, now a favorite author, at a Novello event.

"You want to hear them speak off the page, and have a chance to let them know how they have reached you," she says.

A well of goodwill

When he learned Novello was being cut, West, a UNC Charlotte English professor, began contacting authors to see if they would donate their time for a Novello-like festival.

West sees the festival as a three-way connection. "It connects the library, writers and readers. It adds a creative and, dare I say, intellectual dimension to Charlotte."

Unbeknownst to West, Siegfried was also trying to keep the festival going.

"I just couldn't see it go away," she says. Siegfried, an owner of Black Forest Books and Toys, is the library's former youth services director.

When the library connected the two, they teamed up.

As they contacted authors, asking them to donate their time, both found a well of goodwill, for both the library and Novello.

Asheville's Gloria Houston, author of "The Year of the Perfect Christmas Tree," has been featured at many past Novellos. She's among more than a dozen children's authors appearing this year.

"Good lord, you brought the biggest authors in the world to your city for free or for a minimal cost," she says. "That's an amazing gift."

All sorts of writers

By keeping the Novello spirit alive, fans hope the library can revive the festival when the county's budget fortunes improve.

Library officials have the same hope. But they say the library system, which has laid off staff, cut hours and closed branches, would have to regain significant funding before that could happen.

This year's festival is shorter than many of the past events, which could span weeks. Though there are no big-time celebrities in the bunch, there will be as many or more authors - poets, mystery writers, children's authors, novelists.

Says the library system's Karen Beach: "It's going to be a great couple of days."