You know it’s going to be a great festival when the owner of one of Canada’s most storied clubs picks you up at the airport wearing a bright blue “Word on the Street” T-shirt.
That’s how a friendly Steve Benesh spent his weekend not long ago, running a cavalcade of Canadian authors to and from the airport for the 2019 edition of Word on the Street Saskatoon. Benesh has been a part owner of Amigos Cantina, a legendary music venue, for the past thirty years.
Word on the Street is a national literacy celebration that began in Toronto in 1990, now just a year away from celebrating its own thirtieth anniversary. It has since spread into a network of street festivals across Canada, from Halifax to Vancouver. Over the decades, some locations have broken off and gone independent, but the general sentiment remains: shut down a street in an effort to engage readers of all ages in a free celebration of the Canadian written word.
An army of book-loving volunteers prepared under pleasant Prairie skies.
Saskatoon closes Broadway Avenue to cars, right in the heart of the city’s vibrant cultural district. Amigos is right around the corner, as well as the blues bar Bud’s on Broadway, the Vinyl Diner record store, and the acclaimed Broadway Theatre.
This year marked Saskatoon’s first time breaking away from Word on the Street’s traditional September scheduling. The 2018 event was so heavily rained out that the organizers decided to move the entire thing to a much more pleasant prairie month—June. The new date meant going head to head with another long-established Saskatoon event, Art in the Park, which draws thousands. But it was worth a try.
A well-attended welcome party for authors was held at Amigos on Saturday night, and boasted local literary celebs like Yann Martel (Life of Pi) and Guy Vanderhaeghe (The Englishman’s Boy). Outside, an army of dedicated volunteers in those same blue T-shirts made sure the stages were set for the book party the next day. The weather looked promising: 19 Celsius and sunny skies.
When Sunday arrived, Saskatchewan lived up to its nickname, the Land of Living Skies. The winds whipped across the prairies and into town as the skies danced overhead, changing colours every five minutes. It was cooler than a lot of people expected, but the rain seemed to be holding off.
The readings took place in three main tents and, if anything, festival organizers were a little too optimistic with their set up. Though attendance was good, an abundance of empty chairs made for awkward optics at times. Such are the challenges of free events.
Iconic independent bookstore McNally Robinson had its own tent and was the festival’s main bookseller. At around 1 p.m., faithful employees scrambled to cover up displayed titles—as a burst of sideways rain fell from a sudden gathering of black clouds above. But the sun soon broke through again.
With or without the rain, dozens of Word on the Street Saskatoon volunteers ran the festival with a welcoming and professional efficiency. They also looked after several well-received bonuses: a free bike valet, a children’s entertainment area, a half-block of food trucks, and a songwriters’ circle to close the day.
At 5 o’clock, while that friendly army of volunteers tirelessly packed away chairs and pulled down tents for another year, there was smiling Steve Benesh, waiting to ferry authors back to the airport. It was the end of a breezy, beautiful, and inspiring literary day in the Paris of the Prairies. Word!
Grant Lawrence is a CBC personality and the author of three books.