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.

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