Joe Flaherty founded Rochester's community-based literary organization Writers & Books in 1980, and has since served as its only director. But he's retiring in June, and Writers & Books is in the midst of a nation-wide search for a replacement who will guide the organization into the future.
Before Writers & Books was established as a storefront in 1980, Flaherty traveled the East Coast and Midwest states in a bus filled with books, promoting and selling the work of contemporary authors. This adventure was born from a lifelong love of literature.
"I was a really avid reader," Flaherty says. "Books were everything to me when I was growing up."
Flaherty spent his youth until 12th grade in an orphanage. "I just read, constantly, everything I could get ahold of," he says.
When he was in the ninth grade, Flaherty came across J.D. Salinger's book, "The Catcher in the Rye." He was a baseball fan, and mistook the title for a book about the game. The story resonated powerfully with him, but his teacher told him he was too young to be reading it.
"I remember thinking, 'this is the most important book I've ever read,'" Flaherty says, his expression turning incredulous at the recollection. It became clear to him at that tender age that books would be his most powerful teachers.
Following a natural progression, Flaherty studied English in college, and enjoyed conversing about literature with fellow students outside of the classroom. He took a photography course in his senior year, and was hooked. He came to Rochester to study at Visual Studies Workshop, where he earned an MFA in Photography.
He left Rochester after finishing to work for the publisher Aperture Magazine and Books in Millerton, New York. Aperture was part of a consortium of other small publishers, and Flaherty spent time browsing the warehouse of books on lunch breaks.
"I discovered all of these fantastic writers I'd never heard of," even as an English major, he says. "But so much of English, especially at that point, was looking backwards at 19th and early-20th century writers, as though nothing past the 1920's was of any value."
With a new interest on contemporary writers, Flaherty in 1975 established the Book Bus, which he envisioned as a way to provide exposure to new authors by bringing their books to small towns.
"The drive behind it was that people throughout the country should have access to the arts, they shouldn't have to go to New York City or another big city," he says. "Luckily, that was a time when you could do that, because the New York State Council on the Arts and National Endowment for the Arts had just got going, so suddenly there was public funding for the arts."
The bus traveled from Maine down throughout New York State and New Jersey, through Maryland and D.C., West Virginia and Ohio, hitting college campuses and book fairs, and in the summer, crafts and music festivals. Flaherty would park and encourage people to come aboard the bus and browse, discuss, and buy books. He coordinated talks and readings with authors on campuses, and began inviting writers to travel with him and his partner (now wife) Liz.
"As a result of the arts funding, and the drive to have arts accessible in small towns and medium-sized cities, there were all of these arts organizations getting going," he says. "You'd find alternative art spaces, other than big museums, showing contemporary artists. You'd see dance companies and theatre companies getting going. Music groups. All of these things started boiling and it was fantastic."
But Flaherty didn't see any literature-oriented spaces popping up. Through his work coordinating readings, he had also gained an appreciation for the performance aspect of literature. Before long, he realized he wanted to settle in one place and start a community literary organization.
"Joe is an ideas man," says Chris Fanning, public relations associate at Writers & Books, who has been with the organization since interning there in 2006. "He can see his vision for a project laid out before any of the raw materials are there."
Flaherty came back to Rochester because of his connection to VSW, but he was also inspired by the fact that the organization was, despite being part of the SUNY system, nestled within a community setting.
In late 1980, Writers & Books opened as a one-room storefront on South Clinton Avenue. In addition to functioning as a bookstore for small presses, "we started bringing in authors for readings and had classes, but we could only do one thing at a time," Flaherty says. "We also gave local writers the chance to read, and meet each other."
The endeavor was well-received, and the organization began to get requests from the community that led to authors reading at local schools and summer writing programs for kids — the latter of which has grown from 20 participants in the beginning to more than 600 kids that enroll in Writers & Books SummerWrite programming today.
In 1985, Writers & Books moved to its current location on University Avenue, into what had formerly been a police station, then a police athletic league. Most recently, the space housed All of Us Art Workshop, a cooperative arts space that offered space to a ceramics studio, Garth Fagan Dance, and a glass-blowing center, among others. But in 1984, the space's director took another job and the workshop folded.
After spending some time convincing the city to rent the space to Writers & Books, the organization moved in and expanded. "That was a big growth spurt for us," Flaherty says. "We were able to have all kinds of things going on at the same time."
But in 1998, Writers & Books was faced with having to relocate again, because the city of Rochester needed to modernize its buildings to meet handicap accessibility codes. Additionally, the structure needed many other repairs, and the organization didn't have the funds for any of the upgrades. Flaherty was interested in buying the building, but the city didn't want to sell to a non-profit that didn't pay property taxes.
As Writers & Books began hunting for another space, the Atlantic-University neighborhood association proposed approaching then-Mayor Bill Johnson with a re-branding of the area as the Neighborhood of the Arts. It made sense — the Memorial Art Gallery, Eastman Museum, Visual Studies Workshop, and other organizations were all clustered in the same vicinity. "This is really the center of the arts for this city, right in this neighborhood," and yet they were kicking Writers & Books out, Flaherty says.
It worked. But the mayor redirected the sale of the building from city real estate to community development, which conducted an audit to value the building. Johnson asked Writers & Books to have a study done to see how much it would cost to make the building handicap accessible, and said they could deduct that cost from the price of the building. Next, Writers & Books raised necessary funds, bought the building, made needed and desired upgrades, and by the year 2001, was a fully-operational 21st century facility in a beautiful historic building.
So goes the struggle to found and maintain an independent arts organization.
Since then, Writers & Books has added programs that seek to further engage and serve not only writers, but also readers. These include the annual "Rochester Reads" selections, which began with the community-wide book club "If All of Rochester Reads the Same Book..." and has expanded to include the Debut Novel Series, which brings two new authors to town annually.
"When those authors are here, they do a lot," Flaherty says. Over a three or four day period, the visiting writer gives several readings and signs books around town, and teaches workshops, and typically gives interviews on the radio.
Rochester Reads is among certain moments of success that stand out in Flaherty's memory.
"The very first book we featured was 'A Lesson Before Dying' by Ernest Gaines," he says. "One of the very first programs we had was at Penfield Library, where Ernest read from his book. This woman stood up, and said, 'I have to tell you, this is the first book by a Black author I've ever read in my life."'
The woman said that her sisters had prevented her, but since they had died, she had a newfound freedom to read what she wanted. "She said, 'I have to tell you, this is one of the most incredible books I've ever read in my life, and it's really changed my mind about a lot of my prejudices, and what a sheltered life I've led. So I want to thank you for writing this book.' That was exactly the kind of thing you'd want to have happen when you have a community reading program," Flaherty says.
At another library reading for the same book, the librarian told Flaherty that it was the most diverse group she'd seen in at one reading in the space.
Other successful moments have to do with parents approaching Flaherty to say that taking classes at Writers & Books sparked a love of reading and writing in their children.
Writers & Books offers scholarships to its summer programs for kids, so there are opportunities for those who can't afford the tuition. Flaherty says they've received letters from parents stating how the programming has turned their kids' lives around, because it offers a setting where they meet other young people who are enthusiastic about reading and writing. Quickened by their peers' enthusiasm, the kids have the potential to return to school with new confidence in their own interests.
"Books raised me. Authors raised me," Flaherty says. "In a certain sense, this is like giving back to books for what they did for me when I was growing up."
Writers & Books is also part of an economy that lets writers make additional income as teachers, Flaherty says of the many classes taught by working local writers. "That's their time and their expertise that they're sharing," he says.
Sally Bittner Bonn, Director of Youth Education at Writers & Books, calls Flaherty "a real innovator." Over the years, she's experienced the organization from all angles, as an administrator, teacher, and student. "He never stops coming up with ideas for new programming, opportunities to bring the power of reading and writer to the greater Rochester community," she says.
Even now, just months before his retirement, Flaherty is putting together large-scale grants for new projects, she says. "Because what he has built is so strong, it will continue for many, many years to come."
Fanning fondly remembers one particular instance of his levelheaded boss holding things together through chaos. Writers & Books held a special event in celebration of architect and mystic Claude Bragdon with a projected slideshow Flaherty had prepared "on a huge piece of machinery that none of us were very familiar with," Fanning says. "We built scaffolding, brought out chairs and a sound system, and then everything went wrong. The projector wouldn't connect to Joe's laptop, it started to drizzle ... people were less than thrilled."
The staff quelled the unrest by distributing snacks and drinks and playing music while Flaherty worked on the projection. "It eventually worked out fine, and I remember talking with Joe afterwards," Fanning says. "He was so calm about the entire thing, very 'We did it; wasn't that crazy how everything went haywire for a minute,' and laughing. I was still hyperventilating and remember thinking, 'This is how I need to approach situations that spiral out of control for a minute. Keep clam, realize what you can and can't control, and move on.'"
The succession committee has narrowed the search for a new director down to three potential candidates. Writers & Books' is looking for someone who's vision for the future "matches the heart of what we've been doing for the last 35 years, but who has the skills to move us forward while still honoring the integrity of the organization," Bittner Bonn says.
Though Flaherty is retiring, he's not entirely ready to relinquish his baby. There will be a period of time where he'll help the organization transition under the new leadership, and after things are settled, he says he'd like to shift his focus to the Gell Center, which is Writers & Books' writing retreat in Naples.
Writers & Books came to own the center in 1988, when 24 acres of land in the Bristol Hills holding a Thoreau-inspired cabin was gifted to the organization by Kenneth Gell, a former East High School teacher who had moved into a nursing home. In his will, he stated that he wanted his property to be used for creative purposes, so a lawyer connected Gell with Flaherty.
The Gell Center currently hosts classes and workshops in the Gleason Lodge, for which funds were raised, but Flaherty would like to expand programming and add a residential wing, so that groups of people can stay there on retreat.
Among the many ideas he has, Flaherty is considering using Gell for a retreat program for burned-out teachers who are near quitting, in which they do writing exercises to explore why they originally became teachers. This is inspired by a program in North Carolina that he read about, which has a high success rate of retaining teachers.
"That's the kind of impact on society we'd like to have," Flaherty says.
Writers & Books has many programs and events lined up in celebration of its 35th anniversary. For more information, visit wab.org.
March 15-19: "If All of Rochester Reads the Same Book..." with appearances by featured author Sonja Livingston
April 23: Open House
April 30: Poetry, Potluck, and Pinot
May 6: 35 Word Contest deadline
May 19-21: Debut Novel Series with Carola Dibbell
June 5: Joe Flaherty's birthday
June 6: 35 Word Contest reading
June 9: Mike Jr Open Mic
June 10: Visiting Writers
June 11: Dinners with Writers
July 16: Midsummer Night's Dream Party at Gell Center
July 30: Harry Potter Party
August: Pub Crawl (details TBA)
September: Writer's Block Party (details TBA)