Gist Street Reading Series to end in December

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(Read Sherrie Flick's farewell message here)

Forget a Steelers playoff game, a Lady Gaga concert or a spot on Grandview Avenue for July 4 fireworks. The toughest venue to crack in Pittsburgh for years was always the Gist Street Reading Series.

Presented the first Friday of the month in a partially gutted rowhouse in Uptown, between the Boulevard of the Allies and Forbes Avenue, this one-of-a-kind event was a sellout five years running, leaving dozens of grumbling people milling around on the dark street, forced to make other plans.

Now all Gist Street fans will have to make other plans on Friday nights. Sherrie Flick, who launched the series in March 2001, is ending its run on Dec. 3. She wants to go out a winner.

"We never meant for Gist Street to be so popular," Ms. Flick said. "We hadn't anticipated it. Of course, it's been great and we certainly could have gone forward, but it seemed to me that the series had run its cycle."

She added yesterday in her usual forthright style: "All good things must come to an end. That's why they remain good things and not stale, stupid redundant things."

A Beaver County native, Ms. Flick is the author of the novel, "Reconsidering Happiness" and the short-story collection "I Call This Flirting." The series was a collaboration with poet Nancy Krygowski and sculptor James Simon, whose studio/home at 305 Gist St. gave the space and name to Ms. Flick's idea of a "community literary experience."

"It worked because we were all friends," she said. "James' studio was certainly part of what made Gist Street work along with the atmosphere and the amazing readers."

While filling every cranny of Mr. Simon's third-floor living space, with his bathtub in the middle of the room (he does take baths in it when it's not filled with beer on ice for the readings), the audience could see the city skyline through the windows behind the poets and authors. A wood-burning stove provided some heat during the winter, while in warm months, occasional breezes were the only relief for the perspiring crowds.

With some shuffling and squeezing, the room could hold nearly 100. Food provided by volunteers, from homemade ice cream to pesto from Ms. Flick's garden, was a major component of the series, giving strangers a chance to meet over a pot of stew and talk about the evening's material.

"We basically have a staff of six, all volunteers and none of us paid," Ms. Flick said, "and all of us are involved in a lot of other things right now, too." Her husband, Rick Schweikert, Ms. Krygowski's spouse, Tom Kizer, and John Fleenor round out the crew.

The other key ingredient was Ms. Flick's knack for finding the nation's best new writers, people with one or two books who were willing to travel from across the country to read at Gist Street.

"We managed to bring all these great writers to Pittsburgh so they could be amazed by the city," Ms. Flick said. "So many of them were impressed by Pittsburgh and the kinds of appreciative audiences we have here.

"Then, the writers inspired a really diverse kind of audience for us, from math majors at CMU to middle-aged folks curious about what we were doing."

She was also able to draw support from a handful of independent publishers -- McSweeney's, Graywolf, Softskull, the University of Nebraska Press (Ms. Flick's publisher) and Pittsburgh-based Autumn House -- to sponsor the series' annual summer cookout and reading in Mr. Simon's back yard.

Gist Street's national reputation reached editors of the "Lonely Planet" city guides, who included the series in their 2010 publications.

Like the demise of the International Poetry Forum several years ago, Gist Street's closing leaves a large hole in the city's literary life, but Ms. Flick believes the cultural scene has grown so much in 10 years that people can find a wide variety of arts venues to fill some of the void .

"When we first started, there really wasn't much going on for the arts crowd on Friday nights," she said. "Now, when we turn people away, they can go to a gallery or another event that night. Plus, Gist Street was just the start of the evening for a lot of people who were headed somewhere else afterward."

Ms. Flick credits financial support from the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council and the Pennsylvania Partners in the Arts for making the series stable, but it also depended on the cover charge collected at the door.

When it became apparent that the wooden stairs to Mr. Simon's third floor needed to be replaced, she raised the charge to $10 last year. The price never deterred the crowds, even in February's blizzard, when many biked through the unplowed streets to fill the room to capacity.

"We had just a few rules," Ms. Flick writes in today's announcement of the shutdown. "Greet people at the door, charge admission, offer food, suggest a potluck/BYOB, invite kind, talented authors to read both prose and poetry and keep it simple."

Fiction writer Holly Goddard Jones and poet Jericho Brown will close the curtain on Gist Street's 10 seasons Dec. 3. Doors open at 7:15 p.m. Those determined to get in should line up much earlier.




For more information, visit www.giststreet.org.


Bob Hoover: bhoovere@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1634.


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