Saturday, December 12, 2009

Stephen King and Sarasota

Cleopatra and I recently took a road trip to see Stephen King at the Van Wezel in Sarasota. With all the author appearances I’ve seen during my five years at Books & Books, it's funny to remember my first. Way back in junior high, at the Landmark Theater in Syracuse, NY, I watched Stephen King read the opening chapter from Needful Things.  He did it in character, using the flat vowels, wide r’s, and dry tone of the native northeasterner.  I didn’t consider it something I’d ever do again; I’d seen my favorite author – why would I need to see some lesser writer?

Back then I couldn’t imagine I'd be a bookseller, how many stories and authors I’d discover. Now I watch readings as research for when I'm behind the podium, and to express my appreciation for the writer's work.

Thankfully, Stephen King didn’t read from the mighty Under the Dome.   I’ve seen enough authors read to know that very few of them perform successfully.  Further, books were meant for a reader, not a listener.  He was interviewed for ninety minutes by Susan Rife of the Sarasota Herald-Tribune. He was witty, intelligent, and interesting, and Cleopatra and I enjoyed ourselves completely. Not enough to wait out the crowd for a lottery ticket and a remote chance at perhaps possibly getting a signed copy if maybe we were unbelievably lucky, but we enjoyed ourselves.

What struck me about Stephen King was not the reading, but the people with whom we spoke about it afterwards. We told everyone we met what had brought us from Miami to Sarasota, and everyone had read at least one of his books.

Only if you work in the book business can you understand how rare that is. I’m so used to getting blank stares when I mention Ethan Canin, or Amy Hempel, or whoever I'm in love with at the moment, that the sentence is pre-diagrammed. “Do you know so-and-so? Doesn’t matter, here’s what s/he said…” This even happens among booksellers. Tens of thousands of books are published every year, with readers for each one. Co-workers all read fifty to sixty books on a yearly basis and might not overlap a single one.

 The best we can do is something along these lines:

     Bookseller A: You’ve never read Lolita? What's wrong with you? How can you call yourself a bookseller?

     Bookseller B: Well, you’ve never read The Secret History just because it was published after 1970. Really open-minded, by the way.

     Bookseller A: Lolita is a classic. It’s on more must-read lists than you can name.

     Bookseller B: Secret History is a modern classic. Fifty years from now, readers won’t know there was ever a distinction between how the literary community regarded them.

     Bookseller A: Okay, then I’ll read Secret History if you read Lolita.

     Bookseller B: Fine.

Bookseller snobbery be damned, the leathery blonde woman managing a mechanic shop was a Stephen King fan.

The scraggly outdoorsman working at the Big Cat Habitat loved Stephen King.

The career waitress at Hob Nob had read a few Stephen King books and enjoyed them.

Everywhere we went, his books had come before us. Most critics sniff when his name is mentioned, as do many booksellers and "serious" readers, but you have to respect someone whose work has reached so many.

While in Sarasota, we checked on Cleo Pater’s 1960 MG at a mechanic shop specializing in restoration of British classics.  A toothless, scrofulous blonde man pulled himself from under a car frame right out of James Bond.  He walked up to us wiping his blackened hands on a filthy rag and said, “Can I help?”  In his rugby-inflected English, it came out “Can’ai ‘elp?”   I wanted to put a shovel in his hand and force him into a grave so we could discuss skulls.
talking her way inside; squint and you'll see her butt
The Big Cat Habitat is only open weekends, and I had no hope that Cleopatra would get us inside.  I underestimated the force of her will, and the depth of her tiger obsession.  She charmed her way in on a Tuesday, and we got a private tour.  Her face glowed the entire time.

At Hob Nob, Cleopatra ate a very healthy-looking chicken wrap.  I slobbered down the greasiest food I’ve ever put in my mouth.  This grilled ham and cheese dripped down my arms and soaked three layers of napkins.  Just watching me eat it made Cleo gag around her smart food choices.  Hob Nob apparently caters to all types.

There was romance on our adventure as well. An intimate hotel room, glasses of wine on a deserted beach watching a meteor “shower” (I saw a meteor shower when I was a kid; three comets does not a shower make), coffee chat in fuzzy robes under the morning sun, a brief art walk, and more wine while watching the sun set over Sarasota Bay.

With perhaps twenty minutes to spare, we left our bench on Sarasota Bay in search of an unobstructed view. We found a sparsely-populated white sand beach and enjoyed a lemon-bitingly beautiful sunset. Clouds streaked in fiery gold, flocks of gulls, a crisp breeze, and someone special to share it with. How fucking romantic.

A friend from my hometown of Syracuse stayed in Sarasota for four months doing theater; she called it the “slowest place she’s ever been.”  So if you're wondering how slow Sarasota is, a lifelong Syracusian called it the slowest place she's ever been.  Coming from a denizen of a college town whose economic hub is a mall, that's damn slow.

But it’s the kind of slowness that’s made for lovers.  Go there.   Bring someone special.  Take a breath.   Watch the sun set.


  1. Hullo AJC,

    Read quite a bit of Steven King, mainly a few years ago, after reading Salems Lot which I read in one sitting {thankfully in the holidays} as it was un put downable. I was exhausted by the end of it, but it remained a favourite for quite a while.

    I can't believe there is anyone in the western world who is unaware of Steven King. { although to be honest I couldn't quote him on anything.

    I agree with what you say ref readers rather than listeners and especially about some authors ability to read to an audience. Books are best as an internal experience. It is interesting and often more enjoyable than the 'reading' itself to attend a reading though to understand some of the back story or other aspect of the book and to learn about other parts of the authors experience and how he reacts and relates to audience questions. I do it every year at the Edinburgh Book Festival, although I do have authors I go to see every year - Ian Banks, Ian Rankine and Christopher Brookmyre { makes me sound a bit of a stalker} but also like to mix in a raft of new authors too.

    Sarasota sounds great but its a bloody long way!


  2. Ian Rankin came to Books & Books 4 or 5 years back on a double-bill as a favor to author Peter Robinson. It's the joy of having an independent in Miami; the city is a draw.

    Rankin had the greatest promotion ever that year, sending a bottle of single malt scotch along with a free copy of the book ("Question of Blood," I think).

  3. I bumped into Ian Rankine in a bar in Edinburgh, the Oxford Bar which is his character Inspector Rebus' favourite watering hole. Well I say ' bumped into him' but actually it was more of an acknowledgement - eye contact, mutual nod and a raised glass in each others direction. I think 'celebrities' thrive with recognition but also appreciate an understanding that they have the right to a private life too. As a fan I have copies of all his books in the library and enjoy revisiting old friends.

    Have just come in from Edinburgh and Borders books is closing down - company has gone bust. Its a shame when that happens, even more so to see a whole bookstore reduced to clear. There was a feeling of obscenity about it like you can put a knockdown value on all that effort.......shocking and very sad.