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Writers & Books turns 25 

Looking back at a quarter-century of the community literary center


"Looking back, from the beginning I certainly had no idea which way it would really go," says Joe Flaherty, executive and artistic director of Writers & Books. "I had no idea [of] all of the kinds of things that Writers & Books would end up doing."

In the mid-'70s, Flaherty was driving a converted motor home around the northeastern United States selling and distributing books. He dubbed it the Book Bus, and his idea was to connect readers to American writers outside of the mainstream. In 1981, that bus came to a stop at a storefront on South Clinton Avenue in Rochester and set up shop. After a bit of repurposing, Writers & Books was born.

This year Writers & Books celebrates its 25th year as a community-based literary center. The anniversary crescendos in a gala on Thursday, November 30, at Rochester Academy of Medicine, featuring author John Berendt (Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil).

Flaherty's original plan for Writers & Books was to target people already interested in reading and writing, and give them a space to gather and interact. As more people began to participate, their feedback led the business to consider moving into new territory. Instead of being primarily a resource for readers and writers, it was urged to reach out to the community and initiate programs to incite people to both read and write.Flaherty says that now, in any one seasonal session, there might be up to 250 people taking a class or attending a workshop affiliated with Writers & Books. Along with all the programs on-site, published writers go into schools, libraries, senior citizen and recreation centers, hospitals and settlement houses to foster positive reading and writing experiences. Summer children's programs regularly sell out.

One success story Flaherty touts is Andrea Barrett. Once a Writers & Books book group participant, she went on to win the National Book Award in 1996 for Ship Fever, and was nominated as a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for Servants of the Map.

In 1985 Writers & Books moved to its current residence at 740 University Avenue. The large, landmark building was once a police precinct designed by Claude Bragdon, a Rochester architect and illustrator. With the move came enormous growth. The South Clinton storefront was essentially one large room. This meant that only one program could take place in any one given time. In its new digs, many programs could take place simultaneously. The literary community of Writers & Books expanded in all directions.

With expansion came more far-reaching recognition. In 1986 Writers & Books was designated by the New York State Council on the Arts as one of New YorkState's "Primary Arts Organizations," along with institutions like the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the New York City Ballet. Two years later Kenneth Gell gave Writers & Books the Gell House, an estate in BristolValley. Now called the GellCenter of the Finger Lakes, it hosts literary conferences, seminars, and workshops and also offers writers an inspirational space in which to retreat (it even has a tree house). A residential wing able to house up to 20 people is scheduled to be added soon.

Over the next 25 years Flaherty looks to expand the GellCenter, create even more classes and workshops for Writers & Books locations, and perhaps develop some programs for home-schoolers during the school year.

Writers & Books, 740 University Ave | 25th Anniversary Gala Thursday, November 30, at the RochesterAcademy of Medicine, 1441 East Avenue. Tickets $25-$30; call 473-2590 ext 107 for reservations | For a complete listing of offerings and activities visit