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Tulsan of the Year: Tulsans have Jeff Martin to thank for more than 1,000 author events

Jeff Martin Magazine

Jeff Martin, founder of Booksmart Tulsa and president of the board of the Tulsa Literary Coalition, poses at Magic City Books. 

Jeff Martin was in the eighth grade when he read “Lord of the Flies” for the first time.

“It was an assigned book in school, but it was the first book that I think captured my mind in a grown-up way, really,” he said, adding that it made him think about things he had never examined before.

Martin said “Lord of the Flies” is very much still with him. He has thought about the story every year since he first read it 25 years ago.

“I think that one remains kind of the gift that keeps on giving as far as making me kind of contemplate what it means and think about it,” he said.

For book lovers, Martin is the gift that keeps on giving, which is why he is among the Tulsa World Magazine’s Tulsans of the Year.

Martin is the president of the board of the Tulsa Literary Coalition and founder of Booksmart Tulsa, a project of the coalition. Because a little idea to start a book club evolved, more than 1,000 authors have made appearances in Tulsa in the past 10 years.

Big moments during that span? It’s all a matter of taste, of course. Taste aside, Martin picked a half dozen:

• A big name was sought after the opening of Magic City Books (proceeds from the downtown store benefit the Tulsa Literary Coalition). Stephen King is a big name. He agreed to be the author at the first Magic City Books-affiliated event in 2016.

“That was at Cain’s Ballroom, and it was just one of those truly unforgettable things,” Martin said. “A thousand-plus tickets sold out in 30 seconds online. It was just crazy.”

• Chuck Palahniuk, whose works include “Fight Club,” was the author guest at a 2013 event held at the Central Library just before it closed for an extreme makeover.

“We had this wild, raucous almost Flaming Lips-style crazy event there at the library that was an adult pajama party and we had beach balls and glow sticks,” Martin said. “It felt more like a rave than a book signing. It was a totally wild event.”

How many book signings have live music and food trucks? This one did.

“That (experience) really said if we can make these things an entertainment option the way anyone would think of going to a concert or a show or anything, that’s how I think we make this a 21st century thing,” Martin said. “That was the first one that really every piece came together that created what I think is a model of what we want to do when we are working at our best.”

• Rachel Maddow promoted her new book in October at the Union Multipurpose Activity Center. Martin said it was amazing.

“It was certainly the biggest event we have ever had,” he said. “I have never done anything with almost 4,000 people, so just the logistics of getting it all done and put together with no major problems, that was just a big success.”

Martin said Maddow attracted visitors from towns other than Tulsa, so a point was made that book events can have an economic impact on the city by attracting visitors from other cities.

“It’s a smaller scale,” Martin said. “But the same way the BOK Center can do what they do, we just put an extra ‘O’ in it, you know? It’s B-O-O-K Center.”

• The first Booksmart Tulsa author event was in 2009. Martin wanted the first author guest to be someone from Oklahoma. Rivka Galchen, a Columbia University professor and New Yorker writer who grew up in Norman, agreed to be the series-starter even though Booksmart Tulsa had no track record at the time.

“And she was totally down for doing what we have done and we have done events with her ever since,” Martin said.

• Booksmart Tulsa hosted Salman Rushdie for the first time during Banned Books Week in 2015. Martin put Rushdie in the category of being a game-changer because he altered “the perception of the kind of people we could get here.”

Said Martin: “We have had a lot of popular authors, but I think in terms of prestige or kind of icons of the literary world, he was certainly one of those that really broke through. I remember George Kaiser, for example, was sitting in the audience. And he later sent me a photograph that he took … of Salman Rushdie and I talking. So it obviously made some impact that these people are ‘fan-ning out’ so much and even George Kaiser is taking pictures from the audience and sending them to me. So it just felt like a different kind of thing.

• David Sedaris (he’s on the coalition’s advisory board) has been to Tulsa many times, but one instance stands out from the others. Martin said Sedaris was talked into doing an outdoor event at Guthrie Green.

“Guthrie Green is so used to having these big concerts and everything like that,” Martin said. “But I had never seen a book event out there that filled up the Green, and people were just having a blast hearing a guy read essays to them outside. It was just a really fun, unique thing. We ended up signing until past midnight. It took forever, but it was a really fun.

Here’s the foreword to their appearances:

Booksmart Tulsa was launched in the spring of 2009 as a citywide book club. Martin said he started the initiative with friend Mary Beth Babcock. The idea was to break out of the mold of the conventional book club and engage younger crowds, so a plan was hatched to have the book club meet in “book pub” fashion at bars throughout the city. The first gathering was held on the top floor of McNellie’s. The turnout — between 300 and 400 people — was significantly larger than expected.

“We did that for a few months, but the nature of any kind of club like that is entropy,” Martin said. “So what happened was we always had big crowds, but it started to fade. It was because we always had that same core group. We weren’t bringing in new people. And so in the summer of that year, we decided to throw out that model and start doing this thing where we bring in new authors every time with the hope that if a topic or subject is different, then we would bring in different people and start to build a larger core constituency.”

More than 1,000 authors later, Martin is a Tulsan of the Year.

15 Tulsans who did incredible things in 2019. Read each Tulsan of the Year story. 

Jimmie Tramel 918-581-8389

Twitter: @JimmieTramel

Scene Writer

Jimmie is a pop culture and feature writer at the Tulsa World. A former Oklahoma sports writer of the year, he has written books about former Oklahoma football coach Barry Switzer and former Oklahoma State football coach Pat Jones. Phone: 918-581-8389

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