Saturday, June 27, 2009

Breakfast Not Included

Last week I took my final trip of the selling season, and for the first time I actually remembered to grab my camera. Sure, I could have taken pictures of the scenic Texas Hill Country as Gianna and I drove out to Fredericksburg, or I could have photographed the wildlife, but really I love what makes a place unique (and even better if that diversity includes a bit of absurdity). Gianna and I were visiting a book distributor in Fredericksburg, Book Marketing Plus. We arrived in town about 20 minutes before our appointment, so instead of cruising the touristy areas of historic Fredericksburg with the peaches and the Germans, we wandered around the back roads and came upon this gem of a sign for accommodations. In this age of cost-cutting and recession, I'm a bit surprised that no one seemed to take advantage of this great offer. Sleep five for $39 a night and fully furnished? Is the "no breakfast" the problem? As we pulled forward to the property, though, we realized that "beautifully furnished" might be a bit of a stretch. Granted, we did not go inside (or even get out of the car), but Gianna kindly leaned out of the driver-side window and snapped a picture of the beautiful exterior. Even more impressive was the recreational area outside between what turned out to be two mobile homes. Never mind that mowing (scything?) wasn't part of the rigorous maintenance provided by the people living in the white house on the corner. I wonder how long that table has rested on its side? Decades?

As I mentioned before, I grew up in the boonies, and I confess that I have some low brow tastes. I'm not classy. I think that Tremors is one of the three best movies ever made. I asked for a Snuggie last Christmas and didn't get one, so I'll be asking for one again this year, in the maroon color because it looks most cultish. I prefer Sonic Drive-Ins to Ruth's Chris Steakhouses. Actually, I prefer Sonic to just about every restaurant there is. I even worked at Sonic as a carhop one summer during college. So I feel like I show a greater appreciation for rural treasures like the Bed & No Breakfast than I would if I'd grown up going to places like malls and libraries and museums and bookstores. For that same reason, though, places like the Bed & No Breakfast make me love the unique nature of independent business--you'll notice I haven't posted a single photo from the assorted Hampton Inns I frequent regularly. Sure, it's an eyesore that would destroy the property value of the house across the street (if there were a house across the street), but it's also adding character and depth to a town that has become such a tourist Mecca that it might as well be Branson with peaches. I guess I like the stuff that makes a town distinct, even if it is absurd. Do you think you'd have to give a vehicle description to the concierge when checking in at the Bed & No Breakfast?

I am officially on vacation this week. My sister and I are flying to California (if ever a state straddled the territory of majestic and absurd), and then working our way through the Major League Baseball stadiums there for a week. Like the mobile home-as-hotel accommodation, the baseball parks add character to towns. I stopped by one of my Houston bookstores last week and overheard a conversation between a customer and a bookseller about the Astros versus the Pirates. When the bookseller offered sympathy for the customer's support of the Pirates (who haven't posted a winning season in about 14 years), the righteous customer flew into a (good natured?) rant about how PNC Park in Pittsburgh is at least a "real" ballpark, as opposed to either the Astrodome or Minute Maid Park in Houston. I would have been all, "I have two words for you: World Series, so I'll take my ridiculous ballpark" but to his credit the bookseller didn't break into open taunting. He's right, though. The quality of the ballpark weighs into the appreciation of its location, and the Houston park sold corporate sponsorship of the foul poles, for crying out loud.

I am a big fan of the idea of bookstore tourism, too, and bookstores helping to define the character of a place. Is Oxford, Mississippi, the same place without Square Books occupying three buildings around the courthouse square? Isn't visiting the Tattered Cover one of those "must do" destinations when spending time in Denver? When my family took a vacation to Oregon several years ago, my father asked me what I would like to see. The only request I made was "Powell's." It seems to me that the successful bookstores are the ones that distinguish themselves in some way--as tourist destination, as cultivator of great book groups, as premier experts in a field, as passionate readers who know how to talk about books, as local leaders in community organization. Great bookstores add depth to their neighborhoods and towns.

My sister and I fly out tomorrow morning. I hope that I'll be able to update the blog a few times along the journey, as I drag her to bookstores and she drags me to the beach.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Rural Reading

I grew up in the sticks and I rep places like Texas, Mississippi, and Oklahoma, so I think I'm a little touchy about the fine line one must walk when writing about rural America. I once got in an argument with a coworker about the, in my mind ridiculously inaccurate, representation of East Texas by an author who claimed to know the area but exaggerated the idiosyncracies for "comedy." You know how you can disparage your family all day long until someone else takes a crack and then you're ready to kill? That's the way I feel toward rural areas.

Still, books that manage to capture life in remote areas and small towns without sensationalizing make me extra happy and become favorites, like Bastard Out of Carolina or The Liars Club. I also loved childhood classics that typically involved dead pets as well--Old Yeller, Where the Red Fern Grows, and my favorite, The Yearling. I recently read a novel that's coming out in paperback this August (and is available now as a hardcover from Poisoned Pen Press) called Sweeping Up Glass. Good? Yessiree. It starts with a woman and her grandson trying to stop the slaughter of a pack of wolves and to figure out who--and why--these wolves are being killed. Then the story flashes back to the woman's childhood, and there are echos of Scott Finch from To Kill a Mockingbird in her, Olivia's, adventures in town and with her veterinarian father growing up in rural Kentucky. Olivia's mother is absent in her early years, sent to a mental hospital, but returns to antagonize the girl through the rest of her life. There are sinister workings within the town as well; shady dealings, injuries, and deaths that are on the periphery of Olivia's life but hovering in the background, waiting for attention. The characters in this book are truly special--warm, hardworking people who are flawed and full of humanity. The author, Carolyn Wall, teaches creative writing to children in Oklahoma, and she's working on her second book now. That's a book I look forward to.

After finishing Sweeping Up Glass, I started reading another first novel, this one called Bloodroot and set on the side of a mountain in Tennessee. I am a couple hundred pages into it now and think it could be big. Telling the story of several generations of people living on the side of this mountain, this is rural fiction at its finest--full of big characters, folklore, humility, humor, and tragedy. This book is scheduled to come out in spring 2010. I don't know why I'm suddenly finding myself inundated with Appalachian lit, but for now it's a good place to be.

Traveling--Last week I visited Dallas and Oklahoma to sell fall books to my stores there. I found myself intrigued by the town of Edmond, Oklahoma, on this trip, even though I've visited Edmond half a dozen times now. Edmond is the home of gymnast Shannon Miller, for starters. I fully admit I'm a nerd, and I do follow my gymnastics for the same reasons I follow figure skating (the horrific flops and crashes--it's my NASCAR). I never was much of a Shannon Miller fan, preferring Kim Zmeskal...not for much of a reason really; I just liked the name Zmeskal. Oh, and because I always had the impression that Shannon Miller was probably a whiney cryer I'd endlessly torment if we'd attended high school together. She looked a little like the whiney cryer in my class. Anyway, the road I usually take to my store in Edmond is under construction, so I found myself driving through town for the first time. I turned onto a road called "Boulevard," and it is indeed a boulevard, but the name of the road is just Boulevard. No, Jackson Boulevard, or Edmond Boulevard, or even North Boulevard, or Boulevard Street. Just Boulevard. That's weird, right? I mean, what if it were something like Boulevard Lane, or Boulevard Road, or even Boulevard Boulevard? When I asked the booksellers at my store they couldn't explain the street name, but they did give me directions back to the highway that didn't involve taking Boulevard back. It might have been deliberate. I have decided I like Edmond, though, because I found this place called Eileen's Gigantic Cookies. I now kneel before Eileen, whoever she is. Bless her.