Last month, the Huffington Post published a list of some of the best independent bookstores in the country, offering bookish folks the kind of rapturous home-store pride that makes them want to give literary wedgies to other cities’ bookstores. The article addressed the possibility of indie booksellers’ survival in a time of chain stores and a bad economy, and while I’m not exactly sure how one independent bookstore can be voted the best, I figure there is no greater sign of an independent institution’s health than internecine strife and a bunch of Strand people unafraid to tell City Lights to suck it.
Personally I’m partial to independent bookstores because they smell like paper and sweat instead of new carpet and plastic. Because the prices are often written in pencil instead of branded in barcode. Because one encounters erudite cats, dogs named Zola, and patrons whose heads are so deeply wedged into the spines of books that they appear to be evolving into a Garamond-browed creature bound by cloth and glue. These stores aren’t places for fair weather readers to browse magazines while inhaling steam from the top of a bamboo coffee cup. Instead, in most independent bookstores, owned and operated by people who demonstratively love books and booklovers, one is likely to find at least someone in a corner reading like it’s a contact sport.
I also love independent bookstores because they frequently, wantonly, and when-no-one-else-does, continue to hold amazing author events.
If independent bookstores are on the ropes, the author event is poised to go down with it. Don’t count on the chains. Unless you’re a “name” author, they can’t recoup their costs. If you’re lucky, they’ll let you sit by the door and ambush patrons with a five second description of your book before someone asks you to direct them to the bathroom. Sometimes the manager will let you sign stock on a table covered in Danish crumbs. Trust me, if the author event is to survive, it’s going to be independent booksellers at the defibrillator paddles.
Six months ago, I did a reading at Sunriver Books & Music, an independent bookstore wedged in the mountains of central Oregon, in a town with a population of less than two thousand. The owner, Deon Stonehouse, is just the kind of bibliophile that authors depend upon to help forge a connection with new readers. Wise and enthusiastic, but also unassuming. That is to say, she wasn’t wearing a cape. She didn’t brandish a magic ring. Yet by the end of the day, I realized that she had quietly, singlehandedly, figured out how to save the author event.
It started with knee high signs, perched like stone lions. Bold, red letters on an A frame – Author Event Today! The closer I got, the more incredulous I became. The window display had two full rows of nothing but my novel, fanned out seven copies wide. There was also the store newsletter, with my photo and book featured prominently on the first page above an elegantly personalized synopsis written by Deon Stonehouse herself. The owner. The owner, who – are you ready for this? – had actually read my book.
Understand, I get excited when someone has taken the time to tape a piece of paper on the door with a close approximation of my name written with a Sharpie. I’m grateful when there’s an events coordinator to list my event on a store website, if there is a website. I don’t expect anything. I’ve been to readings where no one has come, where my audience consisted of homeless people with actively bleeding head wounds.
This, though, was decidedly different. When my husband ventured near the door, he was immediately greeted with: “The author will be here shortly. It’s going to be a really exciting event!” Figuring I had somehow been double booked with Dr. Oz, I turned to introduce myself, but Deon recognized me immediately from my book jacket. Unprecedented. After all, my own agent, wonderful though she is, has never met me in person, so it’s entirely possible that she wouldn’t recognize me.
Deon greeted me the way a hostess greets her guest of honor at a party, only this wasn’t a party. It was a stop on the book tour, what quaintly used to be called an “author event.” Now they’re just “in-stores” or “drop-ins.” Sometimes “appearances,” as if authors are unpredictable, ghostly apparitions who materialize and spook readers by the café.
Inside, the guests had already begun to arrive. I was given a quick tour of the event room – in an adjacent building with its own separate entrance – already full of chairs marked with numbered slips of paper. “These are for the people who have made reservations,” Deon explained. There were easily forty chairs, which would make this the biggest audience I had ever had. “I can’t guarantee that they’ll all show up,” she said. “But we usually have a pretty good turnout.” At the front of the room was a gigantic bottle of white wine and a platter stacked high with sticky buns. I had never been to a catered author event before. At least not the kind in which I was the featured author.
After answering my questions and explaining how the evening would unfold, I was led to a private author’s nook upstairs. I sat there with my husband, confused. Wasn’t this supposed to be when we mingled with customers, handed out bookmarks, and tried our best to coerce a few people to stay for the reading? Wasn’t this when we usually accosted emo couples drinking lattes and jovially pitched my novel to the backs of their heads? Instead we were sitting alone like Barbra Streisand before a comeback concert.
My husband peered over the railing. “It looks like a full house,” he said.
Was that Deon downstairs, talking up my novel to everyone in the store, giving them a perfect plot summary?
When it was time, she walked me down from the nook, offering a trail of thoughtful last minute questions and reminders. Did I have everything I needed? As we walked to the author room, I could already see rows of packed seats.
With all the gravitas of a presenter at the National Book Awards, Deon discussed upcoming authors and their books before introducing me. When it was time to read, I sat in a chair no more than two or three feet from the audience. It felt more like a campfire than a reading. I read for ten minutes to an attentive audience so close they could have untied my shoelaces.
After the reading, we had a Q&A. For forty-five minutes. They had actually read the book before coming. One guy mentioned my book in a sentence with the word “art,” and it was all I could do not to let out a piercing, giddy girl scream and leap into his lap. And afterward, when I thought it was over, Deon graciously presented me with a beautiful fountain pen as a token of appreciation for coming to Sunriver. This was one gorgeous pen, I tell you.
Then it was time for the raffle. It was like an episode of Live with Regis & Kelly. Deon pulled out a basket, and I reached in and read the names of the lucky recipients of a prize of… books. Books that were linked to themes in my novel. People couldn’t have been happier; they leapt out of their seats. The whole time I couldn’t stop thinking, why don’t all bookstores do this?
There was no time to stay and chat. I was whisked back to the store to sit in my comfy chair, new fancy pen in hand, while the customers waited patiently – their patience aided by wine and sticky buns – to talk to me and have me sign their books. To talk about books we love, to wish each other a safe trip back into the Oregon wilderness.
I’m not sure if it matters, but I sold more books than I ever have that day.
Are author events necessary? Will people still buy books if they never have a chance to meet writers? Of course they will. But as a reader, I can tell you that despite purchasing umpteen books by each, I cherish my autographed copy from Richard Ford and I’ll never, ever forget having the opportunity to shake Barry Lopez’s hand.
Everything about the Sunriver author event, and many events organized by independent booksellers, emphasizes the fact that authors are still relevant, still worth coming out to see on a cold winter night. Independent bookstores are uniquely valuable not only because they seize upon the chance to make an important introduction between writers and readers, but also because they work harder than anyone to cultivate that relationship over time.
What, in the end, is the cost of bringing together authors and lifelong readers?
If it’s a few sticky buns, that seems like a pretty damn good bargain to me.