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.”


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