Bestsellers draw pilgrims - and big bucks

The couple in the hotel elevator are headed to Forsyth Place, the most elaborate square in Savannah, with its moss-draped oak trees and ornate iron fountain.

"Forget the fountain," says the woman. "I want to see the home where Jim Williams lived."

The late Williams was the central character in the bestselling "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil," the book by John Berendt that catapulted Savannah to the top of the literary tourism business five years ago.

The tourists still descend in droves, snapping pictures and scooping up "Good and Evil" mementos. Residents who have reaped the rewards of a Yankee telling the story of their secretive Southern city wonder how long the phenomenon - and big bucks -will continue.

"It's amazing how it keeps going and going," says Pat Whitlock, owner of Patty's gift shop. "The only people you hear grumbling about 'The Book' are the ones who didn't make any money off of it."

Certainly, Savannah isn't alone in marketing literature as tourism. From England's Lake District to the covered bridges of Madison County, Iowa, readers make pilgrimages to the settings that inspired their favorite writers. And whether they're 20th-century classics or bestselling beach reading, each book has one thing in common: a setting so vibrant it becomes one of the characters.

"People want to become part of what they have read," says Frances McGovern, editor and publisher of the Literary Traveler magazine. "That's why you see this strong connection between literature and travel."

New Orleans thrives on Anne Rice lovers visiting the city, stalking the haunts of the Vampire Lestat as well as Ms. Rice herself, who welcomes fans into her Garden District mansion and operates a gift shop with items for sale, such as sequined shoes and a gothic wedding dress Rice wore for a book signing.

Hundreds of Southern-literature buffs make annual pilgrimages to Rowan Oak, the home of William Faulkner, in Oxford, Miss. In recent years, suspense author John Grisham has drawn his fair share of fans to the same town, where several of his novels are set.

"When people read books, they often become close to either the characters or the place and the author," says Susan Glisson, director of the Center for Southern Studies at the University of Mississippi in Oxford. "Faulkner draws people to Oxford that otherwise may never step foot in our town."

And once a fire is ignited in a place, thanks to a book or movie, it seldom dies out completely, experts say. Literature leaves a legacy - usually in the form of dollars.

In Atlanta, "Gone With the Wind" fans pay homage to author Margaret Mitchell at her Peachtree Street house. And in Key West, Fla., - the El Dorado of literati migrations - Ernest Hemingway aficionados continue to fuel the island's economy nearly 40 years after the author's death.

Indeed, a book's success, or the lingering legacy of, say, a Faulkner or Hemingway, often turns a locale into a shrine for scholastic travelers, who return faithfully - like swallows to Capistrano - establishing an economic windfall for towns year after year.

But readers' fickleness can fade as soon as a book drops off the bestseller list. That's what happened five years ago in Iowa, when devotees of the book "Bridges of Madison County" flocked to the covered bridges featured in the romantic tale.

"We certainly don't see the amount of tourists we did in 1996," says Adam Cermak, director of the Madison County Chamber of Commerce. Last year, chamber officials estimate that more than 30,000 tourists visited the bridges. In 1996, at the height of the book's popularity, more than 80,000 people visited the area.

Although Savannah began experiencing a boom a couple of years before "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil," the exposure granted by the book certainly influenced continued prosperity and growth. A new $81 million convention center will open in May, and a $100 million hotel opened a few weeks ago.

And local business owners are searching for the next great story to yield more bucks.

They may just have found it: "The Legend of Bagger Vance," a 1995 novel about golfers on the Georgia coast. Robert Redford recently shot the film version in Savannah, and copies of the book are flying off shelves.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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