In the early days of Over the Transom Bookstore’s operation, when Sonny Brewer first began inviting writers to town to read on stage from their works of fiction, the book loving crowd noticed something missing from the literary landscape in Fairhope. There was a conspicuous absence of information available on the town’s remarkable literary history and its tradition of being a home to so many writers.
“There was not even a brochure at the visitors center dealing with the great contribution of both fiction and nonfiction to the country’s bookshelves from a long list of Fairhope authors,” says Sonny. “So, right in my bookstore we founded the Fairhope Center for Writing Arts, filed a corporate charter, and asked the IRS for nonprofit status, which was granted. The FCWA is an approved 501(c)3 corporation.”
The first conspicuous act of the Center was to apply to the Fairhope City Council for a lease on a tiny city-owned cottage at 9 North School Street. “It’s just a little bungalow built in the 1920s, and, quite frankly,” says Sonny, “was in danger of demolition. Which would have been a shame, I think.”
FCWA was granted a lease on the cottage, and the Center raised the money to repair and renovate the property, and even furnish it and hang art on the walls. “Our board then voted to call it the Betty Joe Wolff Writer’s Cottage in honor of the grand lady of books in Fairhope, who founded Page & Palette Bookstore. “Betty Joe has been an author’s best friend and advocate, and raised the reputation of her bookstore to a national reputation. Page & Palette is now owned by her granddaughter Karin Wilson, and Karin’s husband Keifer, who continue what ‘Granny’ started,” says Sonny.
The Wolff Cottage was put to first use as a writer’s residence for Rick Bragg, who was the Center’s first author-in-residence, a program that allows a writer to work on a book in the comfortable and scenic setting of Fairhope. “Our program is an ‘escape-to-create’ or ‘retreat-to-complete’ opportunity for a writer to get some good work done, while living in one of the prettiest places in the country. An author couldn’t find a more inspirational spot for writing,” says Sonny.
Since Rick Bragg moved out of the cottage, it has been a lodging for several authors on brief visits to the city. Among them, screenwriter Tom Epperson, novelists Bev Marshall, Daniel Wallace, national magazine editor Clay Risen, and several others. The property on which the cottage rests has become the site for a new Fairhope Library, and construction is in full swing. “When the library is completed, the Fairhope Center for Writing Arts will designate a new author-in-residence, and in the meantime visiting writers have a nice place to stay and get to know our town,” says Sonny.
FCWA also pledged to help raise funds to build a creative writing classroom at the proposed new Fairhope Center for the Arts, set for groundbreaking on the premises of Fairhope High School in the spring of 2006. Additionally, FCWA has awarded cash prizes in recognition of writing talent and contributions to publishing. Winners have included Eric Kingrea and John Sledge.
“It is our goal to assemble a collection of the books written by Fairhope writers past and present, and to donate those books to the new library. People, even folks who’ve lived here a long time will be surprised to see what a great number of volumes that will include,” says Sonny. “It will be an impressive statement to anyone about the creative climate that is fostered in Fairhope, and particularly, the importance of our local writers’ contribution to the national literary tradition.”
Winston Groom, W.E.B. Griffin, Rick Bragg, C. Terry Cline, Judith Richards, Jimmy Buffett, Tom Franklin, Suzanne Hudson, Frank Turner Hollon, Joe Formichella, Clarence Darrow, Sherwood Anderson, Upton Sinclair, Monroe Thompson, Mark Childress, Fannie Flagg, Everett Capps, Sidney Thompson, Jennifer Paddock, Tom Kelly, Brad Watson, Brewster Milton Robertson, Jack Kerley, Michael Morris, Ben Erickson and Roy Hoffman
are among those authors who have called Fairhope and the Eastern Shore home. And there are others who have written and published books that will be added to the collection, and whose work will be honored by the Fairhope Center for Writing Arts.