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TOP 10 TEXAS BOOKISH DESTINATIONS 2017
In December 1993, Abilene’s mayor at the time, Dr. Gary McCaleb, was invited to a local elementary school to read author-illustrator William Joyce’s Santa Calls. Inspired to learn that Joyce had set his story in Abilene, McCaleb invited Joyce to speak at the Abilene Cultural Affairs Council luncheon. From this meeting originated the concept of a place that would honor the artwork of children’s picture book illustrators.
In March 1997, the National Center for Children’s Illustrated Literature (NCCIL) was born. Two years later, a statue depicting the children from Santa Calls, “Childhood‘s Great Adventure” by Rick Jackson, was erected downtown, and the following year the beautifully renovated circa-1920s Rhodes Building opened as a home for the center.
This year the “Nickel,” as the locals call it, celebrates its twentieth anniversary with a year chock-full of special activities.
The anniversary celebration includes return visits and small exhibits from past artists; an exhibit in September featuring the work of every artist who has ever shown at the NCCIL; and an exhibit featuring the “Illustrator of the Century: Garth Williams,” the 2017 Children’s Art & Literacy Festival honoree. Williams was one of the best known illustrators for the popular Little Golden Books series and created the iconic Charlotte’s Web images.
During the past two decades, the Nickel has featured the works of award-winning children's books illustrators and authors such as Dr. Seuss; Berenstain Bears authors Stan, Jan, and Michael Berenstain; and David Shannon. The center houses more than 150 pieces of original illustration. 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. Each year new sculptures are dedicated during the festival. This year CALF celebrates the 75th Anniversary of Little Golden Books.
Abilene’s three-dimensional depictions of beloved characters didn’t stop with that first Santa statue. Over the years, the city’s downtown has been graced with some twenty-four 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). Last year Abilene undertook to illuminate them all, providing a welcome to visitors night and day.
Today the Storybook Sculpture Project is thought to be the largest public collection of storybook sculptures in any city. Recognizing the city’s ongoing commitment to the theme of children’s literature, the 84th Texas legislature proclaimed Abilene the official Storybook Capital of Texas.
The Nickel is just one aspect of a great cultural legacy for Abilene 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.
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.
Added to Abilene’s range of public library services in November 2016 was a new South Branch Library located at the Mall of Abilene, funded with $1.5 million raised by the Friends of the Library in a partnership with the city (the Friends donated $500,000 from their book sale and book festival profits and raised the other $1 million to open it, and the City agreed to pay the higher rent). Already the library is experiencing more than three times the activity of the previous South Branch location.
This fall the West Texas Book Festival, sponsored by the Friends of the Abilene Public Library, will mark its seventeenth anniversary with a five-day extravaganza featuring some of the state’s favorite authors in a variety of genres, at the Abilene Public Library and other venues around town. 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) (left), 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.
In the spring, from March through May, the Abilene Friends of the Library hosts a monthly author series of leading Texas authors talking about their books.
ABILENE AUTHORS Authors (left) associated with Abilene include, from top left: Karen Witemeyer, Isaiah Campbell, Mary Helen Specht, Jay Moore, Penny Klostermann, Glenn Dromgoole, Tiffany Harelik, Steven Moore, Carol O. Riordan.
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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 (right) 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.
Or, as they say on the Abilene CVB website, visit Abilene and know you’ll live happily ever after.
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Above: Traditional bookbinding processes are alive and well at Abilene's H. V. Chapman and Sons.