Over the past few years, Santa Cruz has become a place where book lovers can go to exciting, high-profile author events almost every week. The influential political leader, lawyer, author and activist Stacey Abrams is coming to the Rio Theater on June 4 to promote her thriller, Rogue Justice. Ocean Vuong will read his poetry on June 8 at the Cowell Ranch Hay Barn on the UCSC campus.
Both readings sold out almost immediately.
But Santa Cruz’s current status as a book-lover’s hotspot didn’t just happen by itself.
Back in 2015, two vital local institutions—The Humanities Institute at UC Santa Cruz (THI), and Bookshop Santa Cruz—joined forces to promote, support and organize events featuring novelists, creative nonfiction authors, historians, poets, dignitaries, Civil Rights pioneers, philosophers and investigative journalists.
Housed within the Humanities division at UCSC, THI is a hub for new directions in Humanities research and teaching, cross-disciplinary collaboration, and public engagement.
“The three pillars of THI’s work – research excellence, student success, and public programs – are closely connected and mutually reinforcing,” said UCSC alumna Irena Polić, managing director of the Humanities Institute at UCSC. “And teaming up with Bookshop helped us launch initiatives that are open not just to UCSC students, faculty, and staff, but the community at large.”
THI and Bookshop brought unique strengths to the partnership. Bookshop could order and distribute books for sale at their co-sponsored events, and its seasoned events staff understood the dynamics of popular readings, from the best way to organize signing lines to handling Q & A sessions.
Meanwhile, THI organizes campus and community dialogues about the readings and reserve big on-campus venues for the most popular events, including the Quarry Amphitheater.
“These days, we are definitely considered one of the premier literary destinations on the West Coast,” Polić said. “But this is so much more than just literature and creating a literary hub. This is about the campus and community working closely together.”
Each year the calendar is so crammed with literary events that it’s almost impossible to catch them all. Readers who love edgy, overlooked voices as well as more mainstream authors no longer have to hit the road and head up to San Francisco to see all their favorite literary stars, as well as a long list of eminent people who just so happen to be out on the road promoting new books.
Book lovers can attend the Living Writers Series, presented by the UCSC Literature Department and the Creative Writing Program, co-sponsored by THI and Bookshop Santa Cruz, and featuring an array of award-winning contemporary writers and cross-genre artists in readings that celebrate diversity and inclusion. And they can enjoy the annual Morton Marcus Poetry Reading, also supported by the THI/Bookshop alliance.
In one of its first collaborations, THI and Bookshop presented a reading by the law professor, author and activist Anita Hill, whose life changed forever in 1991 when a television audience of 22 million saw her testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee during the confirmation hearing for Supreme Court nominee Judge Clarence Thomas.
Her calm demeanor—as she was pressed to endlessly repeat the graphic descriptions of sexual harassment she endured while working for Thomas—struck a chord with the public and began a conversation about sexual harassment and power in the workplace that still resonates today. She delivered a public lecture called “Speaking Truth to Power: Gender and Racial Equality, 1991–2015.”
In 2019, THI and Bookshop presented a reading by Madeleine Albright, the United States’ first female Secretary of State. She spoke about her book, Fascism: A Warning. That year, THI and Bookshop Santa Cruz also hosted a reading by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Colson Whitehead.
This impactful partnership has drawn strong support from community leaders and philanthropists such as Gail Michaelis-Ow and George Ow, Jr..
“Two of the many treasures that make Santa Cruz an amazing place to live are Bookshop Santa Cruz and The Humanities Institute at UCSC,” Gail Michaelis-Ow said. “And when these two entities unite, magic happens.”
A “Deep” dive into reading
One of THI/Bookshop’s most successful projects is the Deep Read, a program that is all about reading deeply into works of literature with the input of UCSC scholars. These deep dives into books include expert panels, weekly “email explorations,” community conversations, and salon-style events in which professors lead UCSC students in discussions of the chosen books.
The Deep Read initiative kicked off in 2020 with Margaret Atwood, author of The Handmaid’s Tale, and widely considered one of the most influential authors of the 20th century. The Deep Read focused on Atwood’s 2019 novel, The Testaments.
This year’s Deep Read selection is Under a White Sky: The Nature of the Future by Pulitzer Prize-winning science journalist Elizabeth Kolbert. This nonfiction book explores the role that human ingenuity has played in creating climate change and the role it plays now in creating a sustainable future. This year’s program will culminate in a live discussion of Under A White Sky with Kolbert in conversation with New York Times columnist, podcast host and UCSC alumnus Ezra Klein on May 21 at the Quarry Amphitheater.
UCSC Humanities Dean Jasmine Alinder called Deep Read “one of THI’s signature achievements, and a cornerstone of its ongoing partnership with Bookshop Santa Cruz.”
“The Humanities build bridges between disciplines and provide a rich historical and ethical framework for problem solving,” Alinder said. “All too often, the Humanities get pushed to the margins at the times when we need them the most. The THI/Bookshop collaboration brings us authors who show us how and why the Humanities are essential in the 21st century.
“The Deep Read is all about getting beneath the surface of these issues at a time of fractured attention spans and political division,” Alinder said. “The Deep Read is also a great example of enduring and meaningful community collaboration.”
The Deep Read initiative is made possible by the support of the Helen and Will Webster Foundation.
A chance meeting, and an enduring friendship
The THI/Bookshop alliance arose because of a chance meeting that resulted in friendship. A few years ago, Polić and Bookshop Santa Cruz owner Casey Coonerty Protti struck up a conversation because both of them were hanging out in a schoolyard while their children were running around, enjoying recess.
They started chatting, and Protti told Polić about her role at the bookstore. Immediately, Polić thought about the possibilities of an event partnership, and how Bookshop Santa Cruz could help THI expand its reach and attract a greater array of writers.
Protti, in turn, wanted Bookshop to have a greater presence at UCSC, given the fact that this store is not just a bookseller but an intellectual hub and meeting place.
“We had the same vision from a different perspective,” Protti said.
In bringing more authors to town, UCSC/THI was filling a hole in the literary scene that the beloved midtown bookseller Capitola Book Café left when it closed in 2014 after 34 years of operation.
“Bookshop Santa Cruz always put on a poetry festival, and we have always done events,” Protti said. “But the fact was that the Capitola Book Café was known for their events more than any other bookstore in the area. Events were part of their brand. Indie bookstores are cooperative. We never wanted to become an event center and step on their toes. When they closed, we realized that we wanted to get into the game, and we made a strategic decision to go big on events. We couldn’t imagine doing that without UC Santa Cruz.”
Though the year of readings is still underway, Protti and Polić are already busy bringing more authors to town for the 2024 season.
“It’s kind of hard to believe now, but I remember a time when Santa Cruz was not on the literary map the way it is now,” Protti recalled. “I used to go to New York and ask authors’ publicists to schedule book talks in our town. And I had to convince them. They would ask, ‘is Santa Cruz near LA?’ I’d have to make the case that it was worth adding a second stop in California when they thought Santa Cruz was in the middle of nowhere.”
“But one way of getting on the map is mentioning our partnership with the THI,”’ Protti said. “That carries a lot of weight because they know this is a culturally rich environment where people take books seriously, and where readers will come out to support their favorite authors. And that was our mission all along—to make the literary community bigger and brighter in Santa Cruz.”