I greet the crowd with a smile. Tonight's reader, with his paunch and silver hair, hit the peak of his literary fame twenty years ago. According to my introduction, however, he will read from a "classic" work, reissued by a distinguished publisher of esoteric literature. Observing the author's mandate to tout him, not as a master of sci-fi, but of "speculative fiction," I usher him to the podium for the opening applause. Taking my staff-labeled seat behind the speaker dials, I scan my mental wardrobe for the appropriate demeanor: The Avid Fan? (Sorry, out for dry cleaning.) The Rapt Admirer? (A tight fit after the author's backstage vow to strangle the previous publicist with her own fallopian tubes.) Ultimately, I don the all-purpose gaze of The Attentive Listener. After all, a bookstore-publicist's demeanor, along with a key worn at the end of a plastic coil on the wrist, is part of the dress code.
As a bookstore publicist, my job is a mix of public service, literary reverence, and tedious minutiae. By the time an author arrives, I have memorized his or her face from a photograph and am
prepared to greet him or her as I would a guest to my home, receiving a wet raincoat, offering a drink, and inquiring after the journey. Part ceremonial tea hostess, part literary call girl, I receive almost 100 guests a year in this manner, trying to make each one feel particularly honored. Because an event is the culmination of several months’ planning, I become protective, not just of the evening’s success, but of the individual author, “freshening” black coffee with whiskey if the hint has been dropped, fetching a sweet to ward off a blood-sugar plunge, procuring the fine-pointed pen specified for the autographing, and, yes, flattering if warranted.
As tonight's author begins, the listeners settle into the literary serenade. It's easy to see why so many people fantasize about working in a bookstore, especially in a respected independent establishment where the boss is breezy, turnover is low, and the posted Staff Favorites are determined by taste instead of sales figures from a Regional Office. The dress is casual. There is no canceling of dinner plans for overtime, no avalanche of responsibility. The humor is wry, and the hours are flexible. The evangelism is literary.
Still, the potential for intellectual quicksand is high. Unlike those stalwart saviors of literature who are dedicated to a life of bookselling, many of us are reluctant veterans who find ourselves neck-deep in the retail job that was “fine for awhile” nine years ago and vaguely apt to advance a literary career. Most of us have at least one college degree; more than one has transferred a law license from wall frame to drawer. Overeducated and underpaid, we watch friends buy condos and curse their desk jobs. All inked up with nowhere to flow, we spend our time putting books into boxes, taking books out of boxes, fending off bathroom requests, and working to sell the wares of a prolific author. The ennui can be palpable; the mischief, proficient.
“So, what do you think about David Foster Wallace calling you the Antichrist?” a member of the audience once asked an author in the Q&A session after his reading.
“Hey, there's the book right there!” another person shouted, pointing to Wallace's essay collection unaccountably—and, I fear, conspicuously— exhibited near the podium.
“What's that doing there?” the author asked me.
I shrugged, horrified. The author laughed it off and dismissed post-event apologies from the on-staff trickster who was actually a devoted fan. As any publicist knows, however, this is precisely the kind of sting to be immortalized by a susceptible human ego just splayed, however deftly, before an audience. The incident will never again be mentioned; the author will never again return for a reading. Gone in seconds is the stellar welcome I worked several months to cultivate.
Co-workers say I take my job too seriously.
While tonight's scribe answers audience questions with charm and congeniality, I look for ways to dismiss his pre-performance pride: I know that stage fright can make an author cranky, withdrawn or maniacally friendly; I know that most of the authors on these reading tours are jet-lagged, sleep-deprived, or disconcerted without their writing routine; I know that despite a sardonic savvy about the crowded, fickle book business, most authors are disappointed when a store's publicist hasn't managed to read his or her latest work; I know that a well-intended question can put even the most articulate author on guard in front of an audience.
Overall, the visiting authors are an affable bunch. The famous ones are often gracious and imperturbable. As well-fed luminaries, they are the least likely to ply a bookstore publicist for a morsel of flattery. The sincere unknowns are usually a pleasure as well. They might wobble at the podium, but they still value ideas over stature and have the appealing gravity of one who spends a significant amount of time in solitary thought.
The worst, however, are the high priests of personal transformation. One Enneagram author got huffy when I wouldn't distribute her promotional literature by hand to individual customers; a she-goddess rearranged the store's front counter to highlight her books; a famed and former junkie loomed incognito on the sidewalk, ditching her event because the crowd was skimpy; a bestselling New Age guru championed the lofty goal of deep spirituality, but snapped like a sugar pea when informed at the airport that his driver was waiting: “I don't follow schedules! Haven't you read my book?” And bookstore employees always know it's the author phoning when an edgy but ingratiating voice inquires about the sales record for a particular title.
Fans, too, can be perilous. A Monkees groupie in a pink sweatshirt probably still has a contract out on me for giving away the signed Micky Dolenz poster she insisted was promised to her. And I know my polite nod was disappointing for the fragile Deadhead who, with palms turned up and eyes brimming, confided in me that Jerry Garcia died serendipitously on her birthday. At William Wegman's autographing, fans from the crowd of 300 made such inquiries as: “Are you into bestiality?” and “Didn't you make a film that had a dog licking up human vomit?” Fortunately, tonight's science-fiction fans are patient, standing in labyrinthian lines, their freshly-purchased books opened to the title page, names scrawled on small, sticky squares.
For most booksellers, the literary immersion is priceless and the rewards, enduring: The life-altering novel recommended by a co-worker; the poem discovered because a browsing customer left the collection sideways on a shelf; the essay named in a conversation overheard; the memoir by a former rock star/cult member/gang leader/drug addict/mental patient/sex worker/UFO abductee which turns out to be moving or enlightening and not merely “disturbing.” For a bookstore publicist, the author-reading series furthers these benefits by keeping the breadth of human experience immediate and, quite literally, on stage.
However, when people croon that I have their dream job, they usually have something else in mind. Brushes with literary greatness? Hate to disappoint, but the most gifted authors are prized less for their live repartee than for the works they produce from solitary contemplation. In addition, for every poetic deity whose reading takes me to my knees, we host a slew of fashionable bad boys/rude girls immortalizing the collapse of a vein on the viscid floor of a rodent-infested hovel. Career contacts for a writer in search of a publisher? Not likely. Just as Rosemary Mahoney was one of Lillian Hellman's many housekeepers, a bookstore publicist is one of many publicists, in one of many stores, on one of many tours. Weighty talks about literature? Few authors seek conversation before a reading. Most have more immediate concerns: Their entourage, their nerves, the addition or removal of empty chairs in the audience. The last time a visiting author actually attempted to engage me in conversation, it was late in the evening and I dismissed the rare opportunity with a habitual smile, only to kick myself on the way home. Another robotic pleasantry, another facial expression plucked from a wardrobe— another sign that it was time for me to go.
The master of speculative fiction shakes my hand and departs. The storeowner is happy because we had a large crowd and sold hundreds of books; the staff is grouchy for the same reason. Meanwhile, I stack the folding chairs and glance back on the night as if from the future— sad to have left my bookstore job, but ready to awaken from someone else's dream.
The author worked in bookstores for 12 years. She lives in New York and writes essays and fiction.