Sunday, November 2, 2008

A Bookstore Tourist

This October I took a cruise to the Mediterranean, visiting Venice, Dubrovnik, Santorini, Corfu, and Ephesus (in Turkey). The weather was gorgeous, as was the scenery, and the overall experience was very interesting and relaxing (and which was what I needed). The highlight of my trip, however, was my final day in Paris because of a stopover flight — a bright, sunny Sunday afternoon crowded with Parisians strolling arm and arm through the streets. I walked through the Marais till I found Rue Ste Croix de la Bretonnerie, where I was relieved to discover that Les Mots à la Bouche, the gay bookstore was open. I was tired from the flights and my stamina isn’t what it used to be, and I wedged my way through the aisles looking at titles, searching for books that might be familiar to me in their English editions. And there, face out on the shelves with the other works, was Les Fantômes, the French translation of my AIDS stories by Anne-Laure Hubert that French publisher Cylibris had published in late 2005. I’d seen the edition before; I have several copies and have given many as gifts to friends. But I had never seen the book in a bookstore.

It’s hard to explain this sort of thrill to someone who hasn’t had the experience of seeing their writing displayed in a bookstore. It’s immensely gratifying and awesome and exhilarating, probably like what an architect might feel standing in front of his completed building, particularly if you have spent years and years, as I do, writing a book, struggling with the plots and characters and themes and then trying to find a publisher who was willing to release it out into the world. I remember the first time I saw a book of mine in a bookstore — it was the winter of 1993, late February, and I was temping at a job on Park Avenue in Manhattan. My first collection of short stories had been accepted more than two years before by Viking, but because of a recession and a company freeze on signing contracts with new authors, the book was not slated for publication until that spring. The store was a small Barnes and Noble outlet, situated on a corner of one of the high-rising glass skyscrapers on Park Avenue near Grand Central Station. I hadn’t expected to find my book so soon in a store. I was on a lunch break, escaping my desk where I had eaten a sandwich because I was too poor to afford the neighborhood restaurants. It was a winter I could barely even afford to take the subway. I had stepped out of the cold into the bookstore, thinking I might look at a magazine or find a title I might later be able to get from the public library, before I headed back to my dismal job, where, at the time, I was typing up the license plates of cars and trucks that had been abandoned and were sitting in a lot in Queens. And there, in the store on a shelf with the rest of the fiction, were five copies of Dancing on the Moon. The first sight of them remains one of the happiest moments of my life, particularly when I correlate it with the unfortunate experiences and deaths from AIDS of the friends who inspired those stories.

That spring and the following one were full of similar thrills. My book found its way into the windows of Brentano’s on Fifth Avenue and B. Dalton’s in the West Village on Eighth Street. I did readings and signings for the first time — including at Lambda Rising in Washington, D.C and Glad Day in Boston, among other stores. I’m not a widely bought or distributed author and the press runs of my books haven’t been the kind to impress any kind of bestseller list, but I’ve now seen my books in an airport bookshop (in New Orleans), in foreign bookstores (also at Word is Out, the gay bookstore in the Bloomsbury district of London, where I was on the shelves with many of my friends’ books), and part of a suggested reading list posted at a university bookstore. And even now, fifteen or so years later, I still get a thrill discovering something I have written in a store, even if it is a used copy of my novel, Where the Rainbow Ends, in the second-hand bookstore in my hometown, north of Atlanta.

Hopefully as you get older and wiser, you discover things about yourself that keep you happy. I have been fortunate to have taken some amazing trips during the last two decades — many due to the generosity of friends — and I’ve learned that I find great joy in being a bookstore tourist. Some people go to museums or sporting events or concerts or restaurants when they travel. I love to hunt for books — and, for the record, not for just my own. I search out local ghost story anthologies, local gay history books, local literary journals and magazines, unusual translations, and all sorts of novels and fiction by both mainstream publishers and small presses. Of all the bookstores I've been to, some other memorable experiences stand out — a deja-vous experience at the Haunted Bookshop in Cambridge (realizing I had already been there decades before with a friend who was now deceased), a boulevard in Pisa, Italy, lined with bookstores, store after store after store, with bins of books outside in the bright sun, the same with Galway, Ireland and the Shinjuku district of Tokyo. I remember the first time I walked into City Lights bookstore in San Francisco and didn’t want to leave because the friend I was with wanted to go elsewhere. I can still spend hours wandering along Charing Cross while many of my other friends are out at the theater. And I’ve often thought I might one day retire to Napa, California — on my last visit there a few years ago I counted more than four bookstores within blocks of each other. I'm not ready for that yet, though. (I still have a few more years left...) And first I'd like to find that town in Wales where there's nothing but bookstores.