Friday, September 17, 2010

A Loss in Book Land

Earlier this week the book world suffered a major blow when longtime bookseller David Thompson passed away unexpectedly. David worked at Murder By the Book in Houston, one of the country's preeminent mystery bookstores, for 21 years--his entire adult life--and to call him a legend in the industry is not an exaggeration.

I don't know how to comprehend this tragedy. Others knew him better, longer, shared more in common. Still, I miss him. His death seems so terribly unfair. I grieve for him and for the pain felt by his family, friends, and everyone who ever came into contact with him. To know David was to love him.

I knew of "David at Murder By the Book," as my sales reps referred to him in telling me stories, back when I was a buyer at BookPeople and long before I ever met him. Someone so respected and with so much experience--I was shocked when I finally did meet him (in my capacity as a rep for Random House) years later, shocked that David was my age, in his 30's. The book industry by-and-large is a world populated primarily by an old guard of the stalwarts who've run the best stores and the best presses for decades, and then another group of the young booksellers making less than $10 an hour hocking their favorites while figuring out what to do with their lives. David was that rare individual who was experienced but not embittered, young but not looking for "a real job," a man who'd found his love as a 17 year old stocking shelves at a mystery bookstore and made it his life.

Another first impression of David: Gianna and I were escorting one of our New York bosses to stores around Texas, and because we were in Houston we took her to Murder By the Book. At the time, MBTB was a telephone sales account, so I wasn't actually selling to the store and felt a little awkward walking through the door as a stranger...who only lived three blocks away. I needn't have worried. David was in his element and swept all of us into a tour of the store and a discussion of his favorite books, and ours. I wasn't a mystery reader and worried that I would be lost in his world, but the opposite was the case. He accepted everyone, drew out others' passions, and found commonalities to bond people together. In his delightful dorkiness and infectious enthusiasm, it was impossible to feel out of place in his company and in the store. That visit was also special because David and MBTB's new owner McKenna Jordan were about to fly to Scotland to get married, and both of them were giddy about the trip and their obvious love for each other.

When I moved to Houston a year earlier after I accepted the Random House job, I despaired at my disconnection to people in the city; I worked from home but travelled frequently, I don't like organized social gatherings, I didn't have a preexisting group of friends. I had met a few booksellers and eased into a new life straddling my new, isolated life in Houston and my old life in Austin with my friends. David and McKenna unknowingly acted as a bridge between these worlds. They made me feel welcome, they laughed at the same things, they worried about the same issues (to be in your 30's and looking at the rapid changes in the industry and ponder your chances for a career in this business--it's a daunting vision of the future). I counted them as friends. I loved giving David a hard time--he and McKenna joined Gianna and me for an Astros game earlier this year and David insisted that McKenna bring a glove to protect him from foul balls--and he loved the exchanges.

I have never met a more passionate bookseller than David Thompson. He possessed an innocence in his boyish enthusiasm for what he loved--books, authors, and sharing the joy of reading--that was entirely unique and beautiful. David was supposed to attend a dinner the night of his death, a dinner I was hosting along with a group of people representing Other Press, and I'd specifically wanted him there because everyone in the industry needed to know him and know that the written word had such passionate advocates. He was loved by his customers, he was loved by his sales reps, he was loved by the publicists with whom he booked signings, he was loved by the authors, he was loved by his fellow booksellers, and he was loved by family and friends. I am a better person, a better book rep, and a better reader because I knew David Thompson, even if only for a couple of years. I've missed him every day this week, and I don't anticipate the longing to see an email pop up in my inbox or hear his voice on my phone to ease any time soon.

Read a mystery in David's memory this weekend and drink a margarita. He would have liked that.

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