For an author there is only one thing sadder than showing up for a reading on a book tour and finding that only the bookstore employee on duty ventured out to hear you– and he had to be there.
Tonight– on the first dark, monsoonish day of winter in Portland– I began this season of hunkering with a visit to Powell’s Books to replenish the bedside stack that will get me through the early-dark nights. I returned a box full of review copies– which various publishers have been sending me weekly for nearly two decades even though it’s been that long since I actually reviewed a book– a box so full that I tweaked a shoulder muscle carrying it from the car in the rain, but which fetched only $76 in trade, though the list price of the pile I bartered must have been $300-$400. But as I hadn’t paid for the trade-ins to begin with, I was playing with their money, so I treated myself to several fresh hardcovers, including the new memoir (The Possibility of Everything) by my friend Hope Edelman, as well as a couple of anthologies of the best new travel writing and fiction. Before I headed for the register, I did something I always do at Powell’s– I went to visit my books.
It’s been several years since I published a new book, so any copies of my work still remaining on bookstore shelves are usually dog-eared used books (which at least means someone read them– or used them as a coffee coaster), buried sideways in wide shelves of other books. (Yes I liberate them, and set them cover out, usually over the book of some writer I don’t like or simply envy.)
One time, as I approached the golf section at Powell’s, a gentleman in snappy cords and a V-neck sweater was standing in the aisle and actually thumbing through one of my books.
I made as if I hadn’t noticed, pulled a random volume from the shelf. and feigned interest while watching him out of the corner of my eye. He seemed to be reading. Was he smiling at something I wrote, or simply thinking about an old girlfriend, or his favorite sandwich?
Ultimately, I couldn’t help myself. I sidled closer as if searching for a book in front of him on the shelf. I gazed back at him and said, matter-of-factly, “Oh, that’s a good one. You’ll like it.”
He looked up at me over the tops of his glasses. “You’ve read it?”
He pursed his lips in an appraising way, closed the book to consider the cover. “I think I’ll try it,” he said, and we exchanged pleasant glances and off he went.
But back to the sadness of this evening. I’m long over wishing I had a newly released hardcover piled high in the front of the bookstore, and I’m not even disappointed if all my books (I’ve published five) are gone from the shelves– I’ve come to expect that. But when they are present, before improving their shelf posture, I can’t help but open the front covers, and tonight I found what I dreaded.
Although I have no recollection of who Ken Bracken is, apparently he showed up at a reading or signing of mine some years ago, when my publisher had sent me out on the road to promote my book entitled Driven to Extremes.
“To Ken Bracken,” I’d written on the title page. “Here’s hoping you hit ’em long and straight.” Followed by my inelegant signature.
Okay, not exactly a personal note. Not clever or sincere– it was what I usually wrote to a stranger who’d given me no details about himself but wanted a book made out to him. I know that I scrawled it, nonetheless, with the deepest hope that Ken Bracken might actually read my book. Might like it. Might consider it worth keeping.
Possibly Ken bought it out of pity for the writer he glimpsed standing by himself beside a stack of books that nobody was even browsing, or perhaps he heard my lonely voice across an empty Barnes and Noble and thought, I’ll go buy that guy’s book. Or maybe someone bought it for Ken Bracken and gave it to him as a birthday gift, because they knew he liked golf.
However he ended up with a hard-wrought copy of Driven to Extremes, he didn’t care for the book enough to keep it, even though it was personally made out to him.
He sold it to the used book buyer. Just like the box of books I’d brought in earlier this evening.