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  • Writer's pictureJeff Schober

Buffalo, Books & Beer expands the region’s hip literary culture

Updated: 4 days ago


May 15, 2024: Brian Castner, left, and Matt Higgins, co-founders of Buffalo, Books & Beer, discuss writing at The Place on Lexington Avenue in Buffalo. © photo by Steven D. Desmond


What happens when two local writers meet for a beer? If this sounds like the beginning of a barroom joke, that’s by design.

The full answer is complex, but the one-sentence explanation is this: when two particular writers met at a bar, they chatted, brainstormed, and eventually created Buffalo, Books & Beer — Western New York’s most casual public book club.

Matt Higgins, of Amherst, and Brian Castner, of Grand Island, first connected a dozen years ago. Initially, there was no indication that their friendship would be anything more than two young writers talking shop, eager to pursue success in a fickle business. But their shared vision led to an open community event. B3, as it is nicknamed, has convoyed through area bars and gathering spots on and off since 2015.

Wherever the event is held — locations shift, depending on the subject matter and visiting author — writers and readers mingle without pretension. For some in the audience, B3 is a destination. But patrons already sitting at the bar may discover an interesting new author simply from proximity. By intent or accident, everyone is invited.

“If you imagine book events to be academic, stuffy, formal or maybe a little pretentious, we’re trying to break that,” said Castner, a former Explosive Ordnance Disposal officer, and veteran of the Iraq War. “It should feel like friends getting together to drink beer and talk about a book. It doesn’t have to involve dressing up or sitting in a fancy place. The enjoyment comes from being engaged in the subject and wanting camaraderie.”

B3’s next event will occur at 7 p.m. on Thursday, May 30 at The Place on Lexington Avenue. It will feature Tim Wendel, who grew up in Lockport and wrote the Civil War-era thriller Rebel Falls, which published this month. Wendel will talk about his book, answer questions, and mingle at the bar.


A friendship is born

Journalist Matt Higgins has published hundreds of articles on a variety of subjects. He is a former correspondent for ESPN.com and longtime contributor to Outside and The New York Times. Now 49, he is the author of three books: Bird Dream, The Insider’s Guide to Action Sports, and Driven to Ride.

In 2012, Higgins read a story about another local author, Brian Castner, who had just published The Long Walk, a memoir of his military experiences in Iraq. Higgins attended Castner’s reading at Talking Leaves Books on Main Street, where the two struck up a conversation.

“I approached Brian and introduced myself,” Higgins said. “We both went to St. Joseph’s Collegiate Institute at the same time, although we didn’t know each other then. He’s a few years younger. We quickly realized we had similar interests in the outdoors and sports. He has four boys and I have two boys, so we each were living in a house full of boys. There was a lot of familiarity. He reached out to me afterward and we got together for a beer.”


Higgins with a copy of his book, Bird Dream. © photo by Steven D. Desmond

New to writing, Castner appreciated Higgins’ experience. The Long Walk was his first book. He has since published three others — Stampede: Gold Fever and Disaster in the Klondike, Disappointment River, and All the Ways We Kill and Die.

“There was so much about the world that I didn’t know,” he said. “I was not a journalist at the time. Matt was doing things professionally that I was interested in doing, but had not done yet. He knew about the business end of being a writer. During our early get-togethers, we talked about books and agents and pitching stories. Matt had great advice on all those things that I needed to learn. At a certain point, we thought that if we were drinking beer and talking about such things, other people might want to do it too.”

Their brainstorming grew and evolved. The pair began raising money, hoping to pay for transportation and lodging so respected authors might visit Buffalo.

“The initial goal was to create a community of readers and to support authors, both locally and from outside Western New York,” Higgins said. “There isn’t a tremendous amount of marketing support for mid-list writers or writers who aren’t celebrities. What about authors that don’t have a massive readership? We felt a barroom would defang the literary aspects, which can be intimidating to people.”

Fundraising began in 2014. People bought t-shirts and mugs with the B3 logo. A vision was taking shape.


Why not Buffalo?

Buffalo is not usually on a tour schedule for most authors, Castner explained. He acknowledged that the popular BABEL series, sponsored by Just Buffalo Literary Center and held at Kleinhans Music Hall, attracts literary superstars. Over the years, BABEL has hosted Amy Tan, George Saunders, Colum McCann and Toni Morrison, to name a few. And Western New York’s poetry scene is vibrant as well, bringing a variety of poets to town. But what about writers who weren’t necessarily household names?

“If you’re a big-name writer, you’re going to New York City, Boston, Los Angeles, maybe Toronto,” Castner explained. “There were a lot of mid-level authors who go on book tours, but never make it to Buffalo. Could we find a way to get some of them to come through here?”

Using their seed money, B3 approached Kevin Mauer, who co-authored No Easy Day: the Firsthand Account of the Mission that Killed Osama Bin Laden, which was the bestselling non-fiction book of 2012. Mauer was the headline presenter during B3’s first event in February 2015.

“The writers we were able to attract were impressive,” Castner said. “We got plane or train tickets for people who had won book prizes. Benjamin Percy, who talked about his book Red Moon, writes for Hollywood and is now the lead author of the Wolverine comic series.”

Three events were held in Spring 2015, and another three in the fall. Each took place at Resurgence Brewery on Niagara Street. But Higgins and Castner realized that other taverns around Western New York would serve their purpose as well, so B3 went on the road, visiting Gene McCarthy’s in South Buffalo, and later, the Ukrainian-American Civic Center on Military Road.

“We’ve evolved with B3,” Castner said. “The first few events at Resurgence were great. But by moving it around and trying different places, I think we found a better model. It keeps things fresh. You get a real mix of audiences. Some come for the author, others come to drink beer, and others come for the location. From an event-planning standpoint, matching a place to a book and an audience is something we try to do.”


Castner drinks from a promotional B3 glass. © photo by Steven D. Desmond

Jonathon Welch, from Talking Leaves Books, was asked to sell the speakers’ books. Welch has been marketing and selling books independently since 1975, and has seen all types of literary events and book signings in that time.

“I love doing events in different places,” Welch said. “Bars can be great. But from our perspective, it can get complicated. We need Wi-Fi and sometimes bars don’t have that. From an audience perspective, when you move an event around, you might lose regulars who don’t know how to get there. But the tradeoff is that you gain interest when patrons say, ‘I’ve never been there before.’ Both things kind of work.”

Mark Jowett is a loyal B3 audience member. With one exception, he has attended every event, in part because he works as an English teacher at Clarence High School. Personally and professionally, he maintains a deep appreciation of literature.

“I first heard about B3 in a Facebook post,” Jowett said. “I’m always looking for new stuff to read. I try to read different genres, but some things never make it to my desk. B3 exposes an audience to different ideas, and I almost always read the books beforehand.”

Castner dubbed Jowett “Superfan No. 1.”

“Going to see Toni Morrison at BABEL is great and a high-profile event,” Jowett reflected. “It feels elevated and formal in a way. Seeing a writer at Resurgence or Gene McCarthy’s is a different atmosphere. I like the idea that you sit around and talk about books over a beer. It’s allowed me to experience some authors that I wouldn’t have otherwise.”

Jowett remains impressed with the variety of writers B3 has attracted. He recalled a presentation from Sonya Lea, whose memoir Wondering Who You Are chronicled the challenges that she and her husband faced after he emerged from surgery with acute memory loss, recalling little about the highs and lows of their 23-year marriage.

“That book was not something that I would normally gravitate towards,” Jowett admitted. “But to be part of that conversation, and to realize that the author is a regular person, was pretty cool.”

B3’s guest authors feature diverse topics. Past writers include Andrew McConnell Stott, whose The Poet and the Vampyre is a literary biography about British authors Lord Byron and the Shelleys. Robert Andrew Powell wrote This Love Is Not for Cowards, a non-fiction memoir examining the role of soccer in one of the world’s most dangerous towns, Juarez, Mexico.

B3’s resurrection

By 2017, Higgins and Castner tapered away from B3 events. Higgins had been awarded a journalism fellowship in Michigan and moved out of Buffalo, although he always expected to return — and since has. Castner was busy with travel. He has visited spots all over the globe and written about international issues in publications such as The New York Times, Wired, Time, and Le Monde.

“We talked about keeping it going,” Higgins admitted. “Michigan isn’t that far away, and we typically planned things months in advance. But that meant Brian would have to do more of the heavy lifting, and there are little things that no one sees — like securing a public address system, booking a venue, and posting someone at the door. It was a lot for one person to handle. Plus, we had run out of money, so everything would need to be scaled down.”

“B3 had done what we set out to do,” Castner agreed. “It reached a natural end.”

So B3 was put on ice. No one ever announced that it was gone forever, but neither were there plans for future events. The pandemic drove more nails into their coffin. By 2020, no one would gather in public spaces.

But a funny thing happened last winter.

“I have a longtime friend, Matt Gallagher, who has a new book that came out about the Ukraine, called Daybreak,” Castner said. “I love his writing, and I really liked this book. I wondered how I could support this and help him out.”

Simultaneously, Welch from Talking Leaves Books was eager to spread the word about Wendel’s forthcoming book. He needled Higgins and Castner, suggesting Rebel Falls would be a good fit for a B3 event. Higgins and Castner agreed. Although several years had passed, they worked in tandem again.

“I guess I’m responsible for initiating this event,” Welch laughed. “I got a copy of Rebel Falls from the publisher. I contacted Tim Wendel and asked if he’d be willing to do an event here, and then reconnected with Matt and Brian to see about starting up B3. Over the years, we had talked about doing something again. We all thought it had been a great project and loved finding the right writers and the right space.”

On a Thursday night in February, B3 began its second life. A crowd gathered at the Ukrainian-American Civic Center — a spot Castner compares to a time capsule, calling it “the most Buffalo place I’ve ever seen in Buffalo” — to hear Gallagher talk about Daybreak. The space felt full, Castner said. The discussion was relevant, people chatted, and books were purchased.

Higgins and Castner believe that momentum will carry into the next event on May 30 at The Place. Welch will stand behind a table selling copies of Rebel Falls. Higgins will ask Wendel questions about his book. Jowett will be in the audience. People will mingle, talk about new ideas, sip drinks, and participate in a relaxed and reflective setting.

“Ninety-five percent of authors are just honored to talk about a book they wrote with someone who is curious,” Castner reflected. “When I was a new writer, I struggled with how a writer is supposed to act. These weren’t people that I knew growing up. My family never had contact with writers. I think that’s probably true for most people, who think that writers are different or separate. But none of this has to be intimidating or stuffy. No one is trying to prove something or show that they’re smarter than someone else. That’s what B3 is all about.”


The interior of The Place on Lexington Avenue, where the next B3 event will occur at 7 p.m. on Thursday, May 30. © photo by Steven D. Desmond

Click the highlighted link for more information about Buffalo, Books & Beer.



text © 2024 by Jeff Schober

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Jeff Schober has a journalism degree from Bowling Green State University and a master’s degree in English and History from the University at Buffalo. He teaches English and Journalism at Frontier High School and is the best-selling author of ten books, including the true crime book Bike Path Rapist with Det. Dennis Delano, and the Buffalo Crime Fiction Quartet. Visit his website at www.jeffschober.com.


Steve Desmond is an award-winning photographer. With his son, Francis, he is the author of A Life With A Purpose which raises money for Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy research. To view more of Steve's work, search Facebook under "Steve Desmond" and "Desmond's PrimeFocus Photography," or on Instagram at "Stevedesmond9."


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