Monday, October 26, 2009

From Barstool to Bookshelf

Bellied-up to the bar at The Cave recently in a rare moment of rest, I had the pleasure of sharing a beer with Pete. If you like books, but don’t know Pete, you should head as soon as possible to McIntyre’s in Fearrington Village. He is the best bookseller I’ve ever met and if there were a quantitative measure to bookselling, I’d like to see his world ranking. Often when he tells me about a book he’s reading I become so covetous to read it myself it may be a sin.

And of course, since like finds like, Pete and I were talking books or, more specifically, book business. Because there aren’t just books, there’s a book world, and it’s large and has some dark places. And recently a war has broken out. It’s one of those “price wars,” where, supposedly, the only wounds are deep discounts. The war’s over books, just ten particular books, which Wal-Mart last Thursday decided to sell for $10. Amazon followed suit hours later. And as those things go, the ten books now retail for $8.98. These are new, hardcover books from the likes of Stephen King, JD Robb, and John Grisham.

Now, I’m helping bring a bookstore into this book world. As I am sure an expectant father might look about and have momentary reservations about the world they’re bringing a child into, I too felt it. So, of course, I ordered another beer. Keg was tapped on my choice. I asked the bartender for a recommendation and she let me taste a couple until I found a suitable replacement. I almost just ordered a PBR—I know what it tastes like and it’s the cheapest. But I was in the mood for a good beer.

I wish I could say the analogy hit me right then, that having a good beer in a great bar with a helpful bartender and a good friend enlightened and reinvigorated me to the prospect of the bookstore. It took me a few days to see it and the analogy falters in a few places, but a good bookstore does share much with a good bar. A beer at a bar does cost more than a beer at Harris Teeter. But at the bar, you get the atmosphere and the knowledge of the staff. There is no Pete at Wal-Mart dot com.

Where the analogy falters, though, I think there may be lessons. Perhaps, as the price war may indicate, there should be PBRs of the book world. Those authors who churn out a couple of books a year to the widest audience possible should be cheaper. Sometimes I am in the mood for a PBR book. More often, though, I prefer a good book like a good beer. And sure, I realize that people go to bars to meet people and find dates, but could I offer that love may be truer found over a stack of books than beside a litter of empties?


Monday, October 5, 2009

How do you stand in relation to the potato?

Down in Greenville, SC at a book trade show in a refurbished convention center I had the opportunity to eat breakfast next to one of my favorite authors and barely mustered a word. It was 7:30 in the morning in a cavernous room with lights that gave us the healthy pallor of a vampire –but the most intimidating factor was the author, Padgett Powell, a National Book Award finalist, was there in promotion of his latest book, The Interrogative Mood, a book made up entirely of questions.

First sentence to last, his book, all ending in a question mark (¡And the Spanish version will have twice as many question marks!). How could I have the gall to ask him a question? I mean, I read the book and really liked it, its rhythms and language stuck like a song in my head—but in this case having read the book caused me to clam up. Even if he didn’t, I’d care if my questions didn’t measure up. So I spent the morning devising statements instead of questions to aim his way mostly inspired by the plate of food in front of me, like “instead of the patty, looks like they opted for the sausage link.” But I never said any of them and left the hall afterward like I’d left the iron in the hotel on.

Lunch that day brought slight redemption, as I had the good fortune to be seated at the same table as key speaker Pete Dexter, who has one up on Padgett Powell on the meaningless leader-board of literary achievement for having actually won a National Book Award. I admit I hadn’t read any of Mr. Dexter (something I quickly remedied with his latest: Spooner, a semi-autobiographical novel which has that perfect ratio of laughter to tears as the best sandwich has the perfect ratio of peanut butter to jelly).

Not only was his speech –a seemingly sloppy, but gilded-tongued bouillabaisse of the day’s events and main players, a pinch of self-deprecation, and summation of his novel – an experience I would have invented the Handicam and YouTube for, he gave me the chance for redemption. He said, “Padgett Powell is one of the greatest writers living today.” Apropos of I don’t know, and probably not an exact quote, and maybe it was just a swatch of a red carpet but I felt invited enough to engage Pete Dexter in a conversation about Padgett Powell. And it was easy, the conversation, probably because I hadn’t yet read Pete Dexter. Turns out they are old friends, but Pete Dexter talked like he was just a big fan, a good reader. It reminded me of the best part of being a bookseller, the chance to talk to people, strangers and friends, about good books and share the passion. And that books are a great way to start a conversation, whether your first line ends in a question mark, period or exclamation point.