Dana Gioia and Kay Ryan at the Bay Area Book Festival in 2016. Photo: Michael Hitcher

The organizers of the popular two-day Bay Area Book Festival have decided to cancel their 2020 event so as not to risk spreading coronavirus.

The sixth year of the festival was set to take place May 2-3 in Martin Luther King Jr. Civic Center Park in downtown Berkeley, as well as indoor locations nearby for book talks and many other sessions. (Note: Berkeleyside is a media sponsor.)

The announcement is the latest major event cancellation in Berkeley this week. On Tuesday, the organizers of the much-loved annual Persian New Year Fire Festival decided to call it off this year. UC Berkeley said it was moving to online classes, and Berkeley City College is considering the same. The city of Berkeley has urged people to avoid large events to the extent possible in the interest of public health.

The decision to call off the event was devastating, Bay Area Book Festival founder Cherilyn Parsons told Berkeleyside on Wednesday.

“We had a full, fabulous festival with 265 amazing speakers coming from the Bay Area, nation, and world, traveling to us from a dozen countries,” she said. “Authors included luminaries such as Henry Louis Gates alongside emerging authors. We had 100 fully articulated programs for adults and teens, plus more than 20 children’s programs with authors, illustrators, and performers on two stages and a Storytelling Circle within an array of exciting activities for kids from exhibitors. Our nearly 200 exhibitors included a knockout VR installation with living walls among many other compelling attractions, including an array of terrific local authors. All this was ready to send up to our website a couple of days ago, for a March 20 schedule launch.”

The city of Berkeley, which is a co-sponsor of the festival, gave $50,000 to help put on the event last year.

The Bay Area Book Festival draws tens of thousands of attendees to Berkeley each year. Photo: Bay Area Book Festival

Parsons told Berkeleyside the festival team had “anguished over the past week about what to do” and tried to see if there was any way to make the event happen.

“It breaks our hearts that we had to cancel. We’re looking at ways to continue to serve our community over the coming months as we all face rough days ahead,” she said. “We already have some ideas cooking. Once we recover from the shock and the enormous disruption, with follow-up literally to thousands of people, and many ends to tie up, we’ll rise again!”

Parsons said organizers considered finding another date later this year but decided they didn’t want to run into any conflicts during an already-busy election season. Supporters can mark their calendars for next year, however, Parsons said: The 2021 Bay Area Book Festival is scheduled to take place May 1-2.

Organizers said the book festival draws approximately 25,000 attendees each year from the Bay Area, Los Angeles, other parts of California and other states. The festival features the largest contingent of international authors in the United States other than PEN World Voices, organizers said, with authors from Mauritius, Greenland, Mexico, Ireland, Sweden and Norway. Authors from the U.S. and Bay Area who have been involved include Saeed Jones, Rebecca Solnit, Pico Iyer, Garth Greenwell, Lidia Yuknavitch, Percival Everett, Terry Tempest Williams and many more.

Festival organizers issued a statement late Wednesday afternoon about the cancellation. It appears below in full.

We created the Bay Area Book Festival out of love for our local community and the wider literary community of writers, booksellers, literary nonprofits, and, of course, readers. It’s that same love that has led us to make a difficult decision: Due to the evolving situation related to the coronavirus, and in order to protect your health and that of others, our 6th annual Bay Area Book Festival slated for May 2 & 3, 2020 in Berkeley, California will move to spring 2021 — specifically, May 1 & 2, 2021.

From nearly six years of presenting this Festival, we know how much this event means to you: meeting the amazing authors, hearing the conversations, visiting the array of interesting exhibitors, and coming together as a community around the joy of books and reading—the life of the mind and imagination.

While we won’t gather in person this year as planned, we hope to help sustain you during this difficult time, whether that’s through an expanded newsletter with book recommendations and author interviews (subscribe here), our social media platforms, our year-round event series (Women Lit) once it’s safe to meet again, or other ways we’re already brainstorming. It’s time to get creative and scrappy. Luckily, the literary community has no shortage of either quality. Neither does the Festival.

We know you may have questions or concerns, and it will take a few days, or even weeks, to work through the adjustments we all need to make. We thank you in advance for your patience as we respond as quickly as we can. Please check our website for updates.

During this tough time, let’s all remember one tried-and-true way to promote wellness. Stress and anxiety are terrible for our immune systems, and there’s a proven antidote for that: read a book. In the midst of the chaos and uncertainty, it can help to spend half an hour escaping with a novel, feeding your soul with poetry, or finding companionship in a memoir.

Our deepest thanks to the scores of authors, illustrators, booksellers, exhibitors, partners, sponsors, donors, volunteers, Berkeley city leaders—and devoted patrons—for your understanding and continued support. We look forward to bringing you an amazing festival May 1 & 2, 2021. Meanwhile, as we always say at the end of our newsletters, Read on!

Emilie Raguso (former senior editor, news) joined Berkeleyside in 2012 and covered politics, public safety and development until her departure in 2022. In 2017, Emilie was named Journalist of the Year...