Steph Opitz, Texas Book Festival’s new literary director, has been in Austin just since the beginning of the summer, but she’s already staked out her favorite coffee shops and made fast friends with Austin’s lit community. Her energy is kind of ridiculous; not only has she managed to put together a star-studded, event-packed weekend with only four months at the job, she even added quirky new programming — kayak or bike tours with festival authors, for example — while serving out her term as fiction co-chair for the Brooklyn Book Festival and reviewing books for Marie Claire.
The New York transplant admits that she may have underestimated Austin's literary community before getting here.
“There’s more opportunity to do quirky things in Austin. It has a great openness about it.” — Steph Opitz
“I think when you’re in that sort of New York literary bubble, you kind of forget that literary things happen elsewhere," she says. "Coming here and seeing all the literary magazines and the small presses that are here, and all the writers and people who go to literary events — I didn’t realize that happened so much in Austin. It was a cool surprise.”
Two days before the festival, CultureMap visited Opitz in her downtown office, where, amid a desk overflowing with books and the soundtrack of several different ringing phones, she dished on some of her favorite Austin spots and local writers she's loving right now.
Great Austin Literary Places
Not surprisingly, Austin’s beloved independent bookstore mecca is at the top of Opitz’s list of frequently visited places. In addition to all the books, Opitz loves BookPeople for its busy and diverse events calendar, which includes readings by local and national authors. She recalls being there a few weeks ago for a the inaugural book release party for new, Austin-based press A Strange Object and feeling excited by how packed it was. “It was just so cool to see all these people coming out for a local press, local author at this great independent bookstore," she says.
This connoisseurs' coffee shop, where the baristas wear bowties and discuss roast types at length, is the place Opitz heads when she needs a break from her desk. “Their coffee is just so much better than other places,” she says. We trust the New Yorker on this one.
3. Jo's Coffee
The iconic, open-air coffee shop on South Congress is another place Opitz goes for her caffeine fix, and where she likes to bring whatever book — or three — she’s reading. Lately, she’s reading a lot about her new home: Texas; topics include border issues, the Texas cowboy, Texas outlaws and “and fun stuff like that,” she says.
A hobby kayaker, Opitz spends a lot of time at the hike-and-bike trail dock. While we're all well aware of Lady Bird Lake as an epicenter for Austin loveliness, it also makes her list as a great literary part of Austin. When the folks at Congress Avenue Kayak found out Opitz’s role in the Texas Book Festival, they asked if there was a way they could help out. “Actually, yes!” she thought, and worked with them to put together a new addition to this year’s fest—an hourlong kayak tour with festival authors. There’s a bike tour too, that Mellow Johnny’s is helping support.
Fittingly, the sense of local love and a collaborative, creative community is ultimately what might help Austin beat out Brooklyn in Opitz’s heart.
When we asked if she found it easier to get things like the kayak tour going in Austin than it would be in Brooklyn, the answer was a resounding "yes."
“There’s more opportunity to do quirky things in Austin,” she says. “Austin has a lot of do-ers — not to say there aren’t do-ers in New York, but Austin has a great openness about it.”