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First SunLit Festival celebrates St. Petersburg's literary scene

What has "literary combat," live music, a Shakespeare play, a cookoff, a talk about reading to babies, a huge book fair, a pub crawl with "four dead writers, seven live ones," a birthday party for Jack Kerouac and more?

The inaugural SunLit Festival, a celebration of St. Petersburg's lively literary scene, that's what. It kicks off Saturday and will include 14 events over nine days around St. Petersburg, most of them free.

Michael Slicker is the owner of Lighthouse Books in St. Petersburg and chairman of the Florida Antiquarian Book Fair. T. Allan Smith is a former bookstore owner; he's also a former Tampa Bay Times staffer and longtime volunteer at the Times' fall Festival of Reading. The two friends had talked about starting a celebration of books and writers taking place in the spring, and last year they set out to do it.

The Antiquarian Book Fair, the third-largest in the country and in its 34th year in St. Petersburg, was the starting point. "We had a building block to build from, a nationally recognized event," Slicker says. The more than 100 book dealers who attend are "a built-in audience," Smith adds.

They formed a steering committee, teaming with John Collins, who heads St. Petersburg's Arts Alliance. "John is the central clearinghouse for arts activities," Slicker says. "He said the literary arts seem to have been the poor stepchild, but this is a time they're really blossoming around here."

They sent out a call to a wide variety of organizations, asking them to participate, and were delighted by the response. "We were very fortunate that so many people see the value in something like this and were willing to put in the effort," Smith says. "Various groups really stepped up with creative efforts to find events that would fit in. We ended up with a real tapestry of literary events."

Both men hope the SunLit Festival will grow, and they're already planning next year's events. "All of these groups have followers," Smith says. "Imagine what it could become if those followers come to another event, and then you multiply that. And I think beer helps."

"Libations," Slicker says, "we're calling them libations."

Smith agrees. "Literature and libations, that's it."

Contact Colette Bancroft at cbancroft@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.

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