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Writers put special Akron places in spotlight

6/19/2014 - West Side Leader
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By Ariel Hakim

Book cover courtesy of Karen Starr and Joanna Wilson
WEST AKRON — What began with two women, a few beers and a notebook has far exceeded the expectations of Karen Starr and Joanna Wilson, co-authors of “A is for Akron: an A to Z list of Akron’s places & things that make us Smile.”

Last March, the women met at the Highland Tavern to draft a list of what would become the skeleton of their book after Starr pitched the idea to Wilson — inspired by something Wilson posted on Facebook.

That post, a link to an article assigning Dance Dance Party Party™ (Wilson is an organizer of the local chapter of the group, an international franchise of women who dance) to the letter D in an alphabetical listing, gave Starr the idea to create the Akrocentric list that would eventually become their book.

The women had known each other two or three years at the time, but they have gotten to know each other better since working on the book together — including finding out they are neighbors in the West Hill area of West Akron, they said.

Wilson, besides co-organizing Dance Dance Party Party, is an expert on Christmas TV. Her reputation is based on authoring an 800-page encyclopedia listing of over 3,000 Christmas episodes, specials and made-for-TV specials, she said, and she’s also been featured on the History channel and in The New York Times for her expertise. She is also co-founder of “Akron Empire,” a blog about favorite places, people and events in Northeast Ohio.

Joanna Wilson
Photo: Chris Rutan Photography
Karen Starr
Photo: Jon Haidet
Wilson was born in Akron and raised in Cuyahoga Falls. She left in 1986 to attend college and returned to Summit County in 2008 after living in New York, North Carolina and Youngstown, she said.

Starr is an interior designer and co-owner of Hazel Tree Interiors. She was born in Akron, grew up in Stow and has lived her entire adult life in Akron, she said.

It was not difficult to come up with the A to Z list itself, Wilson said.

“So many of them were automatic,” added Starr. “D was certainly devil strip.”

The letters that were the hardest to decide weren’t the ones people might guess, said Wilson.

“The first thing they say is ‘What is Z?’ And that was easy — Akron Zoo.”

“And ‘What is Q?’” said Starr. “Well, that’s an easy one — Quaker Square.”

The women struggled to come up with a W, they said. They knew they needed to write about the Soap Box Derby, but S and D were already taken, so they got creative and came up with “W is for Whoosh! The All-American Soap Box Derby.”

“It was really neat how it just kind of morphed a little bit as it went, but yet in the end, we were able to get in everything we felt really strongly about featuring,” said Starr.

Adding to the main entries on the letters, in many cases, are photo spreads accompanied by captions, allowing a letter to speak for more than just one thing. For example, a one-page essay and images explain why B is for blimp, but photos on pages that follow show that B is also for brick roads and Buddhist Temple.

The women, who divvied up the letters and each wrote half of the essays, said they are grateful for all the help and support they received along the way.

In terms of research, two people whose help was invaluable from the onset are Larry Pentecost, an Akron tour guide, and Judy James, from the Special Collections Division of the Main Branch of the Akron-Summit County Public Library, according to the authors.

Pentecost took the women on an automobile tour around Akron that left them scribbling notes furiously in the back seat, and James gave early feedback and helped obtain archival photos, the authors said.

Both authors learned a lot while researching the essays for the book, they said.

“I learned something in every single one I wrote,” said Wilson.

Wilson enjoyed writing “N is for Neighborhoods” best, she said.

“I have a different sort of connection to the city now because I geographically had to do all that research and talk to people. ... It just feels a little more homey now,” she said.

Starr said she particularly liked writing about Quaker Square.

“It was such a magical place for me growing up,” she said.

The book was released March 18, almost a year to the day from when they began the project, according to the authors. They held a release party at Musica in Downtown Akron, rented a photo booth and had a rock ‘n’ roll band perform.

At this point, the women have no plans to begin a new project yet, they said.

They’re working behind the scenes to market “A is for Akron” and get it sold in more local stores — so far, the book is sold in half a dozen stores, as well as online. Hard copies purchased at the authors’ website, www.aisforakron.com, can be requested with the authors’ signatures.

The initial run was 300 copies, and they’re now on their third printing, they said. Many people have purchased the book as gifts, and they’ve shipped it all over the country, the authors said.

“People have really responded to this in a way that’s exceeded my expectations,” said Wilson.

Besides the website, the authors also have a Facebook page and can be found on Twitter @AisforAkronbook.

The book costs $20.95. Kindle copies also are available from www.amazon.com for $11.99.

For a list of upcoming author events and locations where the book is sold, visit the website.

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