Wake-up call at a gift shop
Published 8:29 am Tuesday, December 7, 2021
By Robert St. John
It is book season. For many people that’s the time of year when summer paperbacks are released, or the holiday cookbooks hit bookstore shelves. For me it’s the time of year when I take to the road on an always interesting, sometimes grueling, book-signing schedule
The coffee table art book— and companion guide to the documentary Anthony Thaxton and I produced— “Walter Anderson: The Extraordinary Life and Art of the Islander,” hit the bookshelves of independent locally owned bookstores and gift shops across the state last week.
This is my 12th book, therefore my twelfth book-signing tour. Some of my books have been collaborations, others have been solo. Some have been cookbooks others have been non-fiction collections of columns and autobiographical musings. In the early days I released six books in a six-year period. Watercolor artist, Wyatt Waters, and I collaborated on four coffee table cookbooks, and he and I have another almost-finished book waiting in the wings for future release.
I love book signings. They truly mean something to me, at a gut-feeling level. The idea that someone would take a few minutes out of their day to drive to a bookstore or gift shop so I could put my signature on the front pages of a book, moves me. For 20 years I’ve been able to meet people who have purchased my books and have read this column. People remember stories about me, and my family, that I wrote in the late 1990s and early 2000s that I have long forgotten. I love that and am deeply grateful for their faithfulness.
Though I didn’t always have a great attitude about book signings. During the promotional tour of my fourth book, I received a Scrooge/Dickensian-level wake-up call that changed my attitude on book signings forever.
It was about a week before Christmas and I was at a gift shop in McComb, Mississippi for the final book-signing of the season. It had been a particularly grueling promotional tour as the marketing director of my New York publisher scheduled six weeks’ worth of signings from Orlando to Dallas in a short period of time. McComb was going to be the last stop before I could finally head home to work the holiday rush in the restaurants.
The McComb book signing started with a line out the door, but within 30 minutes I had signed every book anyone in McComb wanted, at least from me. But I was scheduled until 6:00 p.m. so I browsed the gift shop, purchased a few last-minute gifts for my wife, visited with the staff, and sat at the book signing table alone watching the clock. As soon as the little hand struck six, I was ready to bolt out the door, hop in my truck, and call an end to another book tour.
There is something uniquely woeful about an author sitting alone at a book signing table waiting for someone to purchase a book. If I ever see that in a bookstore I purchase the book, no matter the subject or price. Though I don’t mind being that guy, necessarily, as it goes with the territory. Luckily, I have been blessed to stay busy and occupied at most of my signings through the years.
The phone rang in the gift shop, and I could tell from the one side of the conversation I could hear that there was a person who needed to get to the store to get a book signed but was running late. They would be driving down from Brookhaven and probably wouldn’t get there until 6:15. The owner of the bookstore muted the phone against her chest and asked, “Is there any way you could stay till 6:15? This person has a book that they’ve already purchased but would love for you to sign.” My first thought was I’m ready to go home. My second thought was I’m going to be hanging out in this gift shop to sign a book that’s not even being purchased in this gift shop. My third thought was this person is driving 30 to 40 minutes so I can sign a book I wrote. I need to stay. I stayed.
The person finally got there at 6:20. I wasn’t happy, but I didn’t show it. Inside I was frustrated tired, and ready to go home. The person walked in frazzled and frantic and apologized for being late. There was a certain sadness in her eyes. The book she held wasn’t even the new book. It was a previous book of my former columns and stories. She said, “I have a story to tell you.” I thought to myself again this is going to take a long time. This lady is about to tell me a story about something that happened to her kids that is similar to something I’ve written about that happened to my kids. I’ve heard it before. I’m ready to go home. Though I smiled and said, “I would love to hear your story.”
It turns out that a very close friend of hers died of cancer. The man was close to my age and had experienced a similar childhood to mine. At the end of his life, and as the cancer ravaged his body, he really had no friends except this lady who would sit at his bed side, and in his final days, would read stories to him from my book. The book she held in her hand. The book that, moments earlier, had me feeling so crass. With tears in her eyes, she relayed how my stories used to brighten his mood when she read them to him.
How could I have been so selfish and impatient? I felt like the biggest jerk ever.
I sat and visited with her about her life and her late friend for another 30 minutes. I asked her about their childhood experiences. There were a lot of similarities there and— it was in that moment— I gained a new appreciation for book signings. From that moment forward I have always been grateful to anyone who would take time out of their day, whether it’s driving frantically from two towns away at the last minute, or someone who lives down the street.
The new book, “Walter Anderson: The Extraordinary Life and Art of the Islander” will only be released in independent, locally owned bookstores and gift shops. Those are the type places that will take a phone call and ask an author to stay late. Big box retailers don’t care.
The pandemic has hit all locally owned businesses hard. But from my vantage point, the big box retailers, national chains, and online retailers have thrived. The pandemic has put locally owned retailers at a crucial tipping point and the need to shop locally is at a critical crossroads. The decision was easy. There was no way I was going to aid in the downfall of local businesses by selling this book through big box retailers and online retail giants.
I write this column at 5:45 a.m. as I am about to hit the road to sign books at two independent bookstores in two separate towns in the Mississippi Delta. Tomorrow I will sign at two separate events in another town. In all there will be 15 book signings in 13 days. There was probably a time in my past I would look at that schedule and scoff. But that would have been a time before I met a lady from Brookhaven and learned all about her childhood friend.