Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The Great American Book Tour, Week 7

It was wonderful to see my friends, Rebecca and Mary, at Parkplace Books in Kirkland, WA, last week. Rebecca and Mary own and operate one of the best independent bookshops in the United States. They may be looking for a new locale in Kirkland in a year or two, at least temporarily. The mall where Parkplace is located will be undergoing extensive renovations. No one had better lay a finger on the beautiful, matched white-oak, floorboards of the events alcove. It’s the loveliest events space in the universe.

Queen Anne Books, in Seattle, has the highest percentage of “shelf talkers” – written bookseller recommendations – I’ve encountered in any bookstore. Patti alone reads 3-5 books a week, and like Jane Laclergue, owner of Fireside Books in Olympia, WA, Queen Anne’s maintains a fine array of their favorite authors’ backlist titles, as well.

Like New England and certain regions in the South, Midwest, and California, the Pacific Northwest is prime indie bookstore country. At Fireside Books, Jane brought out a big and enthusiastic audience for me. Many were members of a book club that had just read my personal favorite of my novels, Northern Borders: the story of a boy who, in 1948, goes to northern Vermont to live with his feuding grandparents. What a lovely evening. Thanks, Jane and staff. I’ll be back.

No West Coast book tour would be complete without a visit to Village Books in Bellingham, Chuck and Dee Robinson’s marvelous emporium of literature, ideas, and good fellowship. As always, I had a large and enthusiastic audience of bibliophiles. Who says the book tour is dead? No way. It’s still the best way I know of to bring together booksellers, readers, and authors in a personal and meaningful discussion about books. Village Books is famous for having done exactly that, for decades.

If you find yourself in the Seattle area with a couple of hours on your hands, please zip north up to Stanwood, just a few miles west of I-5, and about 45 minutes from the Space Needle, to visit Cecily, Gertrude, and the dozen or so other carved snow geese at Kristine Kaufman’s unique indie bookstore of that name: The Snow Goose. Described by many of her colleagues as “the best bookseller in America,” Kristine has a wonderful sense of humor. Recently she invited Cecily (who wears a colorful bonnet and is life-sized and then some) to story hour, and then took her on an outing to the nearby beach. During the winter, tens of thousands of real snow geese from Siberia come south to gorge themselves on the winter wheat that grows in the Stanwood area. For geese and bibliophiles, this is the in-place to be. Cecily and Gertrude’s all-time favorite novel? To Kill a Mockingbird, naturally. Like their somewhat larger barnyard cousins, snow geese (once endangered but now flourishing) mate for life, are fiercely protective of both their young and their spouses, converse companionably in a constant, low gabbling and love to read, especially the classics. Along with turtles and elephants, they’re my favorite animal.

It’s a haul from Bellingham, WA, to Salt Lake City, where I had yet another terrific audience, at the King’s English Bookstore. The King’s English also happens to be the title of my favorite bookselling memoir, by Betsy Burton, whose motto is “Never sponsor an event for a book you don’t love.” I felt flattered, but they had to come pry me out of the fiction room for my event. A whole room devoted to the best fiction in the English language. I could spend the rest of my life there.

I swung a few miles out of my way to visit my favorite Montana trout stream. Never mind just where that is. (It was still iced-over and snowed-in in mid-April.) Saw western hawks, a lone heron, and stream-side willows turning orange, yellow, and pinkish for spring. Thus far I have seen spring coming in Virginia, New Orleans, Phoenix (the desert), California, the Pacific Northwest and, now, in Montana. Still, the maple leaves will just be unfurling when I return to Vermont next week for my New England “saturation tour.” The brook trout ought to be hungry. Me, too – for brook trout!

I finished up my week at Barbara Theroux’s Fact and Fiction, long a literary landmark in Missoula, MT, “at the junction of great trout rivers.” This busy university city doesn’t look much like Norman Maclean’s old cow town with dirt roads, but a fly fisher can still hook a good fish just down the street under the big bridge, and Barbara continues to promote the work of writers from Montana and far beyond with frequent bookstore events.

I hope to return to Montana this summer to fish with my son, Jake, myself. Jake moved to Big Sky Country fifteen years ago, after college, and never looked back. Montana, of course, is the destination of Gus Macrae and Woodrow Call in Lonesome Dove. After Kingdom County, VT, it’s my favorite place in the world. I’ll be back – with my fly-rod, next time. In the meantime, watch for my memoir The Great American Book Tour, coming in a year. In it, my road bud, the Talking Jesus of West Texas, and I fish a Montana stream ... go figure!

Saturday, April 17, 2010

The Great American Book Tour, Week 6

It’s April, 2010, and I’m back in southern California where, in 1969, after 8 days in the fabled MFA Writers Workshop at UC Irvine, I stopped at a red light at Hollywood and Vine in downtown L.A., a telephone truck pulled up beside me, the driver yelled out, “I’m from Vermont, too, go back while you still can” – and, on the spot, I did. (After marrying Phillis and having our two wonderful kids, that was the best decision I ever made in my life!)

Well. As Robert Frost says, way does lead on to way and here I am 40-some years later, out west again, on tour with my 11th book. Here are a few things I learned during my recent West Coast sojourn, on the sixth week of the Great American Book Tour – which, by the way, is the title of my forthcoming memoir, arriving in about a year:

1. Written recommendations from booksellers, affixed to books on display, are called “shelf talkers.”

2. Pasadena’s “One City, One Book” selection, The Distant Land of My Fathers, mentions a young girl and her grandmother going into Vroman’s Bookstore in the 1930’s. What an honor to sign my new book there in 2010.

3. Katie O’Laughlin’s Village Books, in Pacific Palisades, features a mural, painted on the cement floor, of Yeats, Joyce, and some other great writers seated around a table. Sitting with them is a white-haired man with a kind, intelligent face. It’s Michael O’Laughlin, Katie’s father, who loved to read and inspired her love of reading when she was a child by telling her stories from The Odyssey. To heck with walking to Gatlinburg – I’d walk from Vermont to California to see this stunning, original, and wonderfully personal work of bookstore art.

4. Mahri Kerley’s world-renowned Chaucer’s Bookstore in Santa Barbara is located in a former waterbed store, on the former site of a lemon orchard. Years ago, Mahri’s husband said, “You buy so many books you might as well own a bookstore.” Done! Later, when times got tough, Mahri borrowed against her life insurance to keep from going bankrupt. Now that’s dedication.

5. Marcia Rider, former owner of another of HFM’s favorite West Coast bookstores, Capitola Book Cafe, told me that a chain book store wanted to move in just up the street. The city council held a meeting. Local residents had five minutes each to speak, and the meeting ran past midnight. Only two speakers spoke on behalf of the chain store, which went slinking off elsewhere. Capitola Books is now an employee-owned store.

6. After the huge ’89 earthquake in southern California, 100 loyal customers of the Santa Cruz Bookstore signed liability waivers and went inside the devastated store to rescue the books. The store then operated out of a tent on the sidewalk for 3 years before moving to its current location across the street.

7. You want more dedication? Ed Conklin, formerly of L.A.’s long-famous but now, sadly, out-of-business Dutton’s Bookstore, now at Chaucer’s in Santa Barbara, arrives at work every morning between 4:00 and 4:30 a.m. Joan Grenier’s superb Odyssey Bookstore in S. Hadley, MA, rose from the ashes of not one but two bookstore fires. Parkplace Books in Kirkland, WA, weathered a flood, and the list of Job-like tribulations goes on and on and on. Independent booksellers work farmers’ hours for peanuts, take out second mortgages to keep their stores going, dwell on the outermost edge of security, pass up other and much more lucrative careers to bring good books to good readers. Kelly Justice, owner of Fountain Books in Richmond, VA, “loves people who love books.” I love indie booksellers, including those occasional “mole indies” who work deep in the soulless depths of chain stores. Indie booksellers are, hands down, the smartest, hardest-working, most dedicated and economically challenged professionals in America.

8. In 1980, when Mt. St. Helen erupted for the second time, the wind blew south toward Portland and covered every book in Powell’s City of Books – the largest new and used bookstore in the English-speaking world – with a thin, gritty film of volcanic ash. Powell’s booksellers spent a year dusting off the titles and kept selling books.

Powell’s Bruce Burkhardt gave me a tour of this metropolis of books, where new and used books are shelved together, by author, an arrangement I like. He showed me the curved, sandstone pillar of books supporting one of the store entrances, a soaring four-story skylight pouring morning sunshine down onto a shiny metal “Cultural Survey” elevation marker – 55.31 feet above sea level – set in the floor, and a manhole cover inscribed with a rose, emblematic of this beautiful City of Roses, beneath which, Bruce tells middle-school tours, are three unruly 13-year-olds from a previous tour, waiting for their parents to come and get them.

Bookseller Emma Borg, who recently received her graduate degree in medieval literature and studies, showed me Powell’s graphic books section. Junior high kids love the graphic edition of Beowulf, which I devoured 50-some years ago in a Classics Comics incarnation.

This coming year, Emily Powell, current owner Michael Powell’s daughter, will become the third generation of Powells to take over the operation of the store. Booksellers at this Portland landmark still claim to see original owner Walter Powell’s ghost flitting through this square city block of books from time to time.

9. My long-time Portland bookseller friend Carol Hushman worked at Powell’s for 15 years. Now a Portland-area realtor, she still works the Friday night shift at the great Pacific Northwest indie, Annie Bloom’s Books. Years ago, arriving in Portland fresh out of graduate school in Chicago without a penny, Carol wrote a letter of application to City of Roses bookstores beginning, “I am a hopeless bibliophile.” She still is.

10. Me, too, Carol. Me, too. And that’s the real reason I’m writing this from a Motel 6 in Seattle, 3,000 miles from home, instead of back in Vermont where I belong, plying the icy waters of my beloved Northeast Kingdom brooks for speckled trout and starting my next novel. Soon enough, my bibliophiliac friends. Who knows? There’s a talking turtle in Walking to Gatlinburg. I may slip a talking trout into my next novel.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

The Great American Book Tour, Week 5

Week five of The Great American Book Tour got off to a great start at Mary Gay Shipley’s That Bookstore, in Blytheville, Arkansas. A former speakeasy, That Bookstore is one of my all-time favorite independents. “Hold your bills til John gets here,” Mary Gay tells her creditors. John is John Grisham, who personally signs hundreds of his first editions at That Bookstore each time he has a new book. That Bookstore is a great bookstore. It defines Blytheville the way Fenway Park defines Boston.

At St. Louis’s Left Bank Books, events coordinator Danielle Borsch told me they “follow their customers” by using email, Twitter, and blogging to “get out the word” about favorite books and authors. Left Bank Books has recently opened a new, downtown store, which defines hope and faith in this era. Kris Kleindienst, long-time owner of Left Bank, told me indies are “really masterful at the smoke and mirrors technique of cash management.” She added that she and her staff of dedicated booksellers “have a bad case of the bookstore habit and work for almost nothing.”

While we were visiting, a street person they’d had prior experience with sloped in. Kris didn’t let him rob the store blind but at the same time was very kind to him. And, yes, thought the touring Vermont author, there go I, no doubt, in a short year or two . . .

The subject of electronic, hand-held readers came up. Kris told me that not long ago, a popular manufacturer of “readers” and e-books needed to retrieve a title over which a copyright dispute had developed, and simply went into some customers’ readers and deleted it without permission. The title? I kid you not – George Orwell’s 1984.

After a great event at the St. Louis County Library, I posted west to Vivien Jennings’ and Roger Doeren’s marvelous Rainy Day Books. Vivien helped start an inspiring project at a local well-child clinic. Every child who came to the clinic received his or her own book. Many had never owned a book before and the program now operates at 60 clinics. Vivien didn’t receive her first book until she was in school, but books have shaped her life. “If you can read,” she tells young people, “you can do and be anything.” She and Roger partner with dozens of other area independent businesses and charities to brig literature to Kansas City and beyond, and they went out of their way, kindly, to arrange an event for me sponsored jointly by Rainy Day Books and the Kansas City public library.

“Keg Powder” the faded black lettering on the side of the ancient brick warehouse next to the Tattered Cover Bookstore proclaimed. I knew then that I was “Out West,” in mining country, though I expect it’s been a hundred years since blasting powder came in a keg. The Tattered Cover is world famous. It rather resembles a warehouse itself, a big, comfortable, multi-floor warehouse of books, with the heating ducts exposed in the ceilings and old-fashioned sofas and deep armchairs for book-reading in all kinds of pleasant nooks. Formerly, the Tattered Cover was a retail grocery store – Morey’s Mercantile. Scores of photographs of my favorite authors – Richard Russo, Annie Proulx, Richard Ford – decorate the walls, along with authentic old flyers advertising spiced apricots and shoe-string potatoes. These days, as a memorable sign in the second-floor event room reads, the old Morey Mercantile is “filled to the rafters with books and authors and readers and the smell of coffee brewing – and incarnation that would, no doubt, please Mr. Morey.”

I cut diagonally down through Arizona to Phoenix through more gorgeous desert wildflowers than I ever imagined existed. Changing Hands, Gayle Shank’s renowned independent bookstore, was full of readers. This storyteller from the Vermont hills did a well-attended writers workshop on material, characters (six of mine, over the years, have been inspired by my beloved wife, including Slidell Collateral Dinwiddie, the beautiful, young fugitive slave woman in Walking to Gatlinburg), touring and lying.

“I’m an aspiring writer,” one attendee named Gloria identified herself.

“Me, too, Gloria” I said, meaning it. “Me, too. Every time I start a new book, I’m an aspiring writer. I have to teach myself how to do it all over again.”


Saturday, April 3, 2010

The week couldn’t have started out better than it did. Bill Cody, the erudite and personable host of WSM – Nashville’s and America’s flagship country music station – kindly invited me on his morning show. We talked about out mutual life-long love of country music, Hank Williams Senior, Kris Kristofferson, books, Vermont and Tennessee – for me, the thrill of a lifetime. Thank you, Bill!

Down in Atlanta, Marlene Zeller, owner of Tall Tales Books and a long-time supporter of my books, told me that she originally planned to open a dessert pastry shop but wasn’t really that good a baker. I’m glad that Marlene opted for an indie bookstore instead. Tall Tales is one of the best in the country, likewise Capitol Book and News in Montgomery, where I had a wonderful late-afternoon visit with owners Tom and Cheryl Upchurch and customers about the state of the book in general. With passionate, knowledgeable booksellers like Cheryl and Tom, I’m hopeful for the future of “the book.”

In between Atlanta and Montgomery, I stopped at the Andersonville National Park in Georgia. Two quick stories: In august of 1864, with 100 men a day dying of thirst, fever, and bacterial infection from impure water, a powerful spring came gushing out of the ground during a lightning storm. “Providence Spring” saved perhaps thousands of lives. In the cemetery nearby, apart from the other 12,000 or so graves, lie six miscreants known as the “Raiders.” The Raiders preyed on “fresh fish,” newcomers to Andersonville, robbing them and sometimes murdering them for their belongings. They were duly tried, found guilty, and hanged by their fellow prisoners, with the full blessing of the prison commandant. (The Union prison camp at Elmira was no better, by the way. In a little more than a year, nearly 3,000 Confederate soldiers died there of neglect, starvation, disease, and worse.)

It occurred to me, looking at Providence Spring and the graves of the Raiders, that one reason the American South has produced, and continues to produce, so many wonderful writers, is that it is a gold mine of wonderful stories. Southern writers, from Twain, Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor to Steve Yarbrough, William Gay, Tom Franklin, Howard Bahr, Lee Smith, Ron Rash, Tim Gautreaux – the list goes on and on and on – have never cut themselves off from the timeless literary themes of history, family, and nature. Beyond the British Isles, I know of no other region in the world that had bestowed more first-rate literature upon us than our southern states.

So. Did Tom Lowenberg, bookman par excellence and owner of New Orleans’ great Octavia Books, still sell my all-time favorite American comic novel, A Confereracy of Dunces, in good quantities? Absolutely, and All the King’s Men as well.

Up in Jackson, Lemuria Books has championed southern literature (and literature in general) for decades, and so has Square Books, in Oxford, MS. Jamie Korenegay, at Turnrow Books in Greenwood, MS, knows the work of every southern writer since Twain, inside out. As for Mary Gay Shipley, owner of That Bookstore in Blytheville, AR, who describes herself as “a poster child for bookstores in places where there oughtn’t to be bookstores,” well, her knowledge of literature and commitment to her customers and community are astonishing. Mary Gay’s bookstore, by the way, used to be a speakeasy. A customer told her that his father was shot to death there, sitting in a shoeshine chair, by a Prohibition-era mobster down from Capone’s Chicago.

For me, part of the fun of this Great American Book Tour – the title of my next book, incidentally, a memoir of my book tour, coming out in a year, is getting out of Vermont and New England, my literary “comfort zone,” and trying my luck with events, readings, and signings in the rest of America. Like baseball, touring for a book can be a pretty humbling enterprise, and you don’t have to take my word for it. Ask my colleagues Chris Bohjalian, Richard Russo, Annie Proulx. They’ll tell you the same thing.

But if touring writers are willing to get off the beaten track, the usual 8-city circuit, they’ll find world-class bookstores in the unlikeliest places, like Page and Palette in Fairhope, Alabama, where I signed on the most beautiful coffee table I’ve ever seen, a six-foot-long slab of yellow, long-leaf pine, one of the most beautiful trees – and woods – on earth. And Lorelei Books – look for the sign of the Siren reading a book – in Vicksburg. And Turning Pages in Natchez, where you’ll meet Sugar, the dancing Westy Terrier.

Not to mention libraries, in tiny hamlets and big cities, which, along with indie bookstores, are keeping “the book” as we know it alive.

“Alabama State Library Services” the small sign on the outskirts of Montgomery said. I had just time to swing by or to re-visit the Hank Williams Senior Museum downtown. Having stopped to see the powder-blue Cadillac convertible Hank died in on New Year’s, 1953, on my last visit, I opted for the State Library Services, just out of curiosity. There, it was my good fortune to meet Dr. Dana Barlow, director of Acquisitions and of Services for the Blind and Handicapped. She took me on a guided tour of the cavernous repository of Braille and audio books for the blind – 700,000 titles in all, including two of my all-time favorites, Lonesome Dove and Cold Mountain. Dana and her staff send out hundreds of titles a day. Circulation in many regular libraries nationwide is, sadly, down, but not so for blind and handicapped readers. I asked if I could see the Braille edition of Alabama author Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. Dana took me right to it. In Braille, Lee’s classic comes in two huge volumes as large as an unabridged dictionary, though the entire Bible fits into an audio cassette no larger than a cell phone.

“We hope one day that everything available in print will also be available in electronic format for the blind,” Dana told me.

Oh, and that she just got married last Friday. Congratulations, Dana. Keep up the good work!