The Bibliophile of Beaufort
On a slow, hot afternoon in July, I find Jo Ann Kingsley in her office in the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI, the University of South Carolina, Beaufort Department of Continuing Education) in downtown Beaufort. The grounds and parking lot are deserted except for a single car. It is Friday. It is summer. Jo Ann appears to be the sole center of activity.
She is the founder of the "Lunch with Authors Series,"* which is celebrating its tenth year and has brought numbers of New York Times bestselling authors to the Lowcountry. Jo Ann is a woman who loves books. She also appreciates the individuals who write them and the fans who read them. She brings authors and audiences together in a way she calls "a win-win for everybody."
While she completes a phone call, I take her business card. Her title is simply Program Coordinator. I have the chance to observe that her clothes, demeanor and voice are a warm combination of professional and personal. She is wearing light linen slacks and a knit sweater in shades that darken from light beige to chocolate brown. She has a brown patterned seashell on a thong around her neck and dark brown coral earrings. There are papers and books scattered on her desk and a framed colored drawing of Lowcountry water. There is a bookcase behind me with an interesting collection of contemporary books.
She hangs up the phone, swivels around in her desk chair and with an energetic smile says, "I get to do education on the fun side." Besides the author series, Jo Ann coordinates historical tours using local sites and historians. Both the author series and the historical tours are self-sustaining programs offered under the rubric of the USCB Continuing Education Program. September 28 will launch the 2011-2012 "Lunch with Authors Series."
How does a woman who retired from one life almost two decades ago end up with what she describes as "the best job anybody can have?"
The story begins 18 years ago when Jo Ann and her husband retired to Beaufort from Westport, Connecticut. "When I got here [Beaufort] I noticed there was an art gallery on every corner, but nothing for authors. I wanted to change that."
Jo Ann's volunteer position with what was then the Creative Retirement Center (precursor to OLLI) led to a paid position with the university in their Continuing Education Department. She was determined to develop some kind of forum for writers. What began as a luncheon with a local author speaking to 25 people has expanded to a subscription series that boasts over 250 ticket sales per luncheon and book sales that have major publishing houses courting Jo Ann to get their authors on the series' schedule. She says, "Can I tell you my big brag? I have four authors now that are on the New York Times bestseller's list."
I ask how the authors are selected for each series. She laughs and says, "I get to choose. That's the good thing about being a dictator." Since Jo Ann operates in a world that is all about words, it seems fitting she should get the last one. She reads the books and only selects those she thinks are well-written. She tries to have a combination of fiction and non fiction, including something historical (she loves history) and have at least one southern writer. She says that she asked John Jakes to participate early on and he agreed only if all the other authors were published professionally. Since then she has not included any authors who are self-published. She acknowledges the publishing industry is changing and this criterion may also change in the future.
We talk about books and writers we love. We exchange titles and authors. As draggy and dull as it is outside her window, I have rarely spent a brighter afternoon. She says, "Most good books are really stories about relationships. I think that's why women read and form book clubs. People are so busy and have so much information overload; but when they sit down together and talk about the characters in a book it's a form of support."
Finally, as our time is ending, I ask what she thinks about the future of books and technology. She ponders for a moment. There's a hint of a smile. "Electronic books are great when you're traveling. But there's something about lending a book you love to a friend who will enjoy it. Plus, you could never get one of my authors to autograph your Kindle after lunch."
Family Matters: In Westport, Jo Ann and her husband owned Educon, Inc. a strategic planning company that operated in 26 countries. Her husband is "overjoyed" she is now the "Boss."
Living Quarters: Jo Ann chose a low maintenance townhouse in Beaufort. "Historic homes take too much maintenance, like the boat we owned in Connecticut."
Her "Big Brag" Authors: Mary Kay Andrews (Summer Rental), Lisa See (Dreams of Joy), Steve Barry (The Jefferson Key), and John Hart (Iron House).