Amidst an endless din of conversation and the clink of dinnerware that greet Bentara on a Monday night, New Haven native Nicholas Dawidoff reached towards Natalie Elicker with a pen. He nodded as she put forth simple request: Could he sign a book for the Institute Library?
Then Elicker, toting a formidable stack of hard-cover titles, was off to Nini’s House of Tapas and Thali, where authors Brian Slattery and Mary-Ann Tirone Smith (Smith is pictured in the image above with Board member Joe Banks) mingled with Institute Library Board Members, book enthusiasts, and beloved state personalities like Colin McEnroe over plates of Duck Pastrami and Vegetable Jalfrezi.
Just up Orange Street at The 9th Note, local favorite Katharine Weber (pictured) captivated two packed tables, giving away a few savory morsels of her upcoming novel, The Monkey Helper, before dinner was served.
Welcome to Book Plates 2014, the second annual gala and fundraiser for New Haven’s gem-like Institute Library, well-loved yet still largely undiscovered. Held Monday night between a series of Ninth Square restaurants and the the library’s cozy home on Chapel Street, Book Plates raised over $16,000 between ticket sales (78 members paid $125 a ticket; another 7 attended as guests of honor), monetary and in-kind donations, and sponsorships.
Based on the format of Book Plates 2013, the aptly named fundraiser offered a two-part evening that showcased not only the library, but the community it has so proudly been a part of since 1826. During the first half of the evening, attendees chose one of five local authors to dine with, splitting up between Bentara (Dawidoff), Nini’s (Slattery), The 9th Note (Weber), Thali (Smith), and Miso (Terrence Hawkins).
The idea, two-time organizer Maryann Ott explained, sprang from the realities of the library’s limited space and New Haven’s celebrated food culture.
“The library doesn’t really have the capacity to do a food event, and so many fundraisers are about food. So to be able to outsource the cuisine and have people choose the food they feel like eating is ideal. The other part of that is we’re a place. And we need to bring people to that place. Because we know once they see it, they get hooked,” she said.
Mingling over chilled coffee, wine, and sweets back at the library, attendees remained abuzz with excitement about the evening, during which a number of new fundraising initiatives and partnerships were rolled out.
One is a new “Adopt-a-Book” program, in which books “in great need of conservation” – some freshly signed, thanks to the above collaboration – receive the “tender, loving care” they so desperately need through patrons’ donations. In return, adoptive “parents” get their own book plate in the text, a lasting sign of their dedication to the Library.
Another fundraising tactic, unique to the event and pointing towards a collaborative spirit that has long personified the library, was an auction item that quite literally necessitated working together: for a winning bid, one lucky member of the audience would get a mention in The Monkey Helper.
“New Haven has become the setting for a lot of my fiction, and I’m always playing reality and fiction off of each other. I like to push that ... what is real, what isn’t real, where facts begin, where fiction begins. First of all, I think it’s a fun fundraising idea. But second of all, there is something sort of wonderful about using something that someone else is going to supply,” Weber said of the venture.
The lucky winner? For $310, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Debby Applegate will pop up somewhere amidst the complex tale of a quadriplegic and his monkey helper, a trope that Weber has researched for the upcoming novel.
Where it will be, though? That’s for the two of them to decide.
As Dr. Caterwaul’s Cadre of Clairvoyant Claptraps closed out the evening, traversing Serbian and Bulgarian vocals to Icelandic “post-rock,” a sense of celebration and newness still hung thick and palpable in the air. It was, perhaps, thanks to an evening that had personified the Library’s founders’ hopes to foster learning “In a context of mutual encouragement.”
“The Institute Library’s such an interesting place. It’s easy to want to support it, and it’s fun when I get to support it in two different ways,” said Slattery, who plays banjo and fiddle in Dr. Caterwaul’s Cadre when he isn’t writing.
“Thank you all for supporting us in any way that you can,” said Elicker, citing the event’s extensive volunteer base, involved Board members like Greg Pepe, Eva Geertz, Daisy C. Abreu and Maryann Ott, and citywide collaboration as proof positive that the IL is continually building its strong cultural network. Attendees grinned and took another last few minutes to mingle, slipping their newly framed book plates by George Corsillo into pocketbooks or under their arms before stepping out into the summer night.
Its clean message is perhaps fitting as the IL moves into a period of new leadership: I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library. Indeed, if the fundraiser is any indication, Elicker hasn’t just approached the proverbial plate: she has hit a home run.
Or in Ott’s words:
“A library is place and people. And Natalie ... she’s calm. She’s unruffleable. She’s grace under pressure. You’ve gotta love that.”