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TOP 10 TEXAS BOOKISH DESTINATIONS 2016
Songwriter Bob Gibson had never laid eyes on Abilene, Texas, when he immortalized the city in 1956 as the “prettiest town I’ve ever seen.” Today Abilene celebrates that ditty, and a great cultural legacy that includes some of Texas’s strongest journalist-authors; a long-running regional book festival; a university press; and a vibrant historic downtown with museums, galleries, library, book and gift stores; and a national center for illustrated children’s books.
The 84th Texas Legislature proclaimed Abilene the official Storybook Capital of Texas. The historic West Texas railroad city is home to such attractions and events as the National Center for Children's Illustrated Literature, the Storybook Sculpture Project (thought to be the largest public collection of storybook sculptures in any city), and the annual Children’s Art & Literacy Festival.
The heart of the city’s downtown is a collection of seventeen outdoor statues that celebrate children’s literature, including six bronze sculptures of beloved Dr. Seuss characters created by renowned artist Leo Rijn (Abilene is one of only a few cities in the nation to permanently exhibit these six iconic sculptures). In March 2016 the city, its civic organizers, and its downtown businesses and property owners took a major leap forward in coming together to support their literary heritage by lighting the sculptures at night. Downtown businesses and property owners will be maintaining the energy costs of fifty illuminations—including sculptures and trees. The illumination project was designed by a former lighting director for Disney.
The National Center for Children’s Illustrated Literature (NCCIL), known locally as “the Nickel,” was founded in 1997 to honor the artwork of children’s illustrators. It has since featured the works of award-winning children's books illustrators and authors, like Dr. Seuss, Berenstain Bears authors Stan, Jan, and Michael Berenstain, and David Shannon. In addition is has more than 150 pieces of original illustrations. The museum collaborates with award-winning artists to produce exhibitions of their artwork that are distinctive and appealing to visitors of all ages. In addition to this unique artistic partnership, following its debut at the NCCIL gallery, each exhibition travels to museums, public libraries, and galleries nationwide.
Each June the Children’s Art & Literacy Festival (CALF) rocks the town in a downtown-wide event featuring the nationally recognized children's illustrator exhibiting that summer at the NCCIL. CALF showcases children’s books through a parade, costume contests, readings, talks, and crafts. All events are based on the work of the featured CALF illustrator. New sculptures are dedicated during the festival.
Monk’s Coffee Shop on Abilene’s Cypress Street welcomes a slightly older literary crowd as they host open mic nights every Thursday for spoken word and singer-songwriter enthusiasts. Monk’s supports arts of all stripes, with local paintings and drawings adorning their walls, and special open mic nights held in conjunction with Abilene’s monthly Art Walk of galleries, museums, and studios.
The Grace Museum has hosted poetry workshops and literary experiences for visitors of all ages. A 55,000-square-foot museum housed in the former Hotel Grace built in 1909 by Col. W. L. Beckham of Greenville, Texas, is located at the corner of Cypress Street and North First Street. The Prairie Style hotel was initially a three-story structure, a fourth story was added in the late 1920s. A subsequent renovation removed the main portico, bricked up several main story windows and changed the hotel's name to the Drake Hotel. The Drake Hotel eventually ceased operation and fell into disrepair. The Abilene Preservation League and the Abilene Fine Arts Museum banded together in the late 1980s to save the neglected structure and provide a new and improved home for the Abilene Fine Arts Museum. Following major restoration in the early 1990s, the structure was placed on the National Register of Historic Places and opened to the public as the Museums of Abilene in 1992. Since 1992, the museum has existed as The Museums of Abilene, Grace Cultural Center and the name was officially changed to The Grace Museum in 1998.
This fall the West Texas Book Festival, sponsored by the Abilene Public Library and the Abilene Reporter-News, will mark its sixteenth anniversary with a five-day extravaganza featuring some of the state’s favorite authors in a variety of genres. Abilene’s event gives local and regional writers their turn in the spotlight as well, cultivating new careers and rising stars.
Each year the festival also presents the A. C. Greene Award to a distinguished Texas author for lifetime achievement. Native Abilenean A. C. Greene (1923-2002), known as the Dean of Texas Letters, was a columnist and editor for the Abilene Reporter-News, the Dallas Times Herald, and the Dallas Morning News who also earned fame as author, teacher, bookstore owner, musician, poet, and radio and television talk show host. Greene is best known for his numerous books and articles, both fiction and nonfiction, about or set in Texas—and for his early bibliography of de rigeur Lone Star reading, Fifty Best Texas Books.
Another pair of Reporter-News veterans, Glenn Dromgoole and Carlton Stowers, picked up Greene’s mantle again with 101 Essential Texas Books (ACU Press, 2014). Stowers, a 1960 Abilene High School graduate who also served as longtime Dallas Cowboys beat writer for the Dallas Morning News, is most noted for his true-crime books; he is a member of the Texas Institute of Letters and the Texas Literary Hall of Fame and also a recipient of the A. C. Greene Award. Dromgoole writes the syndicated book column "Texas Reads" for this publication and several Texas daily newspapers and is the author of twenty-seven books and counting.
With his wife, Carol, Dromgoole has since 2004 run the Texas Star Trading Company, an independent bookstore and gift shop they playfully dub the National Store of Texas. You can’t miss its storefront on historic Cypress Street, where the Lone Star flags fly gracefully in the West Texas breeze.
The Dromgooles have both played an active role in the West Texas Book Festival as well. Festival events are generally held at the Abilene Public Library at 2nd and Cedar Streets, and the Abilene Civic Center on North 6th.
In the spring, from March through May, the Abilene Friends of the Library host a monthly author series of leading Texas authors talking about their books.
Other authors from Abilene or with Abilene ties include Stephen Harrigan, Christian romance author Karen Witemeyer, poet Robert A. Fink, children’s author Penny Parker Klosterman, and the father-daughter duo Joe Specht and Mary Helen Specht.
Abilene Christian University Press, the publishing arm of one of Abilene’s three religious denominational universities (the others are McMurry and Hardin-Simmons), produces books about Texas culture and history as well as theological volumes and textbooks. ACU Press has kept the stories of its home city alive with Glenn Dromgoole and Jay Moore’s Abilene A to Z (2015), Moore’s Abilene in Plain Sight (2014) and Dromgoole, Moore, and Joe Specht’s Abilene Stories: From Then to Now (2013).
At H. V. Chapman and Sons on North 3rd Street, Tim de la Vega and his team of about a dozen carry on the family tradition of book and Bible binding and conservation begun here by Stan Chapman in 1947. De la Vega, himself a product of a multi-generational printing family, feels called to this work like a mission -- and his staff share that passion for books. Though they have integrated digital and offset printing into the mix these days and, according to business development manager Jody Rood, are looking to grow and fine-tune their operations, the firm earns its loyal following through the ancient craft of the book bindery. Here is the domain of the letterpress, the stamping foil, the book press, and all the arcane tools thereof. Besides its business serving local organizations with custom print runs and stamping the Bibles used in the state capitol, HVC bound some 25,000 books last year the old-school way. Stop by and say hello — HVC's current location is a fine example of historic preservation and adaptive reuse, and the old building's a veritable museum and archive as well.
Frontier Texas tells the story of the region in multimedia form. Drawing from history and texts of West Texas’s Native American, ranching, and settlement roots, the museum brings the Old West to life with the help of state-of-the-art technology. Frontier Texas also serves as the official visitor center for Abilene and the Texas Forts Trail Region, and it has an excellent bookstore onsite to boot.
No visit to the Abilene area is complete without a visit to historic Buffalo Gap Village and a culinary destination of statewide merit—Perini Ranch Steakhouse, where you can pick up a copy of the illustrated Texas Cowboy Cooking to try some of steakmaster Tom Perini’s mouth-watering recipes long after you’ve returned home. The Perini Ranch also sports two guesthouses on the property with a peaceful and tranquil setting in the middle of the wooded ranch land—a great venue for a writer’s—or reader’s retreat.
The city’s Convention and Visitor Bureau can help you plan your visit to the area, with excellent lodging, dining, and recreation recommendations. Find them at www.abilenevisitors.com.
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Above: Abilene's Grace Museum hosts literary events and poetry workshops.
Above and below: A. C. Greene lent his name in many ways to Abilene's literary landscape.
Above: Traditional bookbinding processes are alive and well at Abilene's H. V. Chapman and Sons.
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