People search for book at a book fair

Some 2,000 visitors and volunteers typically frequent the annual Spencertown Academy Festival of Books. The festival will remain virtual for the second year in a row.

CHATHAM, N.Y. — Former U.N. staffer Jill Kalotay loves books. So do the 2,000 people and volunteers who attend Spencertown Academy Arts Center’s annual Festival of Books. Too many for the current climate, the 16th festival will spend a second year online.

Kalotay co-chairs the festival, her sixth, with David Highfill, executive editor at HarperCollins imprint William Morrow.

“I’m a reader and book lover,” said Kalotay during a phone interview. “Our family has always been that way. My daughter is a writer and my Hungarian husband is very bookish.”

As the Academy is an all volunteer organization, she added, “everything we do is a labor of love.”

Topping a wide-ranging lineup of free Zoom talks is Pulitzer Prize-winning author and playwright Ayad Akhtar, whose "Homeland Elegies" about a Pakistani immigrant and American-born son was selected a Top 10 Book of 2020 by The New York Times. The nearby Kinderhook resident was recently appointed State Author of New York State.

Returning, is historian and New York Times contributor Russell Shorto, author of "Smalltime: A Story of My Family and the Mob." Set in Pittsburgh, “the things he discovers about his family are amazing and heartwarming,” Kalotay said.

Author and illustrator Peter Sis, the first children's book illustrator to win the MacArthur Fellowship, will speak about his book, "Nicky and Vera: A Quiet Hero of the Holocaust and the Children he Rescued," the story of a little-known British hero who rescued hundreds of Jewish children from World War II Czechoslovakia.

“There’s a lot of autobiography in the work he writes,” Kalotay said. “He’s a world-renowned artist, famous for his peaceful approach.”

Librarian Ann Gainer will read "Nicky and Vera" in a program suitable for ages 8 and up; and author Nancy Castaldo will engage young readers with "Sniffer Dogs: How Dogs (and Their Noses) Save the World."

Also appearing are historical novelists Rishi Reddi — his debut "Passage West" introduces a Punjabi family with Mexican in-laws and Japanese neighbors in World War I California — and Dexter Palmer, author of 18th-century tale "Mary Toft; or, The Rabbit Queen".

Sonia Purnell's "A Woman of No Importance" and Clare Mulley's "The Spy Who Loved" both feature remarkable women of World War II.

Acclaimed comic artist, illustrator and writer Michael Kupperman’s graphic memoir, "All the Answers"  follows his father’s fame on mid 20th-century TV and radio show “Quiz Kids.”

In a festival first, Rick Rodgers will demonstrate baking Almas Pite — Hungarian Apple Pie — from his book "Kaffeehaus: Exquisite Desserts from Classic Cafés."

“He’s a most approachable, entertaining person,” said Kalotay, whose mother-in-law taught her “all about Hungarian cooking.”

The 2021 and 2020 talks will be posted on the Academy’s YouTube channel. They are always free, Kalotay said, “but we really appreciate donations.”


The Academy raises funds through its extensive book sale, curated for 10 years by former antiquarian book dealer and retired judge Wayne Greene.

“I took a leave of absence [from law] to become a book dealer,” said Greene in a phone interview from Manhattan. “That was my passion.”

Previously, books were mostly sold at one price. ”I started culling through donations, finding the real value of the books,” Greene said. “I would find treasures.”

He examines each volume for signatures, marginalia and condition.

Displayed in the Special Book Room, individually priced books increased revenue by 25 percent.

“Historically, book dealers would attend and walk away with tremendous bargains. I still left room in the pricing for them to make a profit.”

In 2019, book sales netted about $29,000, an all time high. After moving online last year, however, “we took in $12,000, one-third what we normally do,” Greene said.

Unlike the typical 20,000 volumes of years past, online sales are limited to 500 items. Subjects include art, architecture, photography, fiction, biography, history, cookbooks and kids, plus CDs, DVDs, LPs and ephemera. Prices start at $5, with some 250 books priced at $25 and up.

“A lot of beautiful art books were donated this year,” Green reported. “One of our best offerings is 'Portraits, Figures and Landscapes,' a mint condition seven volume set of complete paintings of John Singer Sargent. We’re asking $750.”

Of interest is a 1904 first edition of Edith Wharton’s "Italian Villas and Their Gardens," with illustrations by Maxfield Parrish, priced at $250.

The crown jewel of this year's sale is Mark Twain’s "1875 Sketches New and Old" with engraved black-and-white illustrations, offered at $1,000.

“One of our neighbors was editing his possessions,” Greene said. “This book belonged to either his father or grandfather, it’s a very rare early edition that’s seldom seen.”

Touching and owning a book is nothing like a digital experience, he suggested. “It’s just a much more fulfilling experience than reading something on a screen.”

“I like to gaze over at the shelf and remember the pleasurable experience I had reading the book.”