#WellBehavedReaderWriter

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There are cafe cultures and there are cultures that are still struggling to be cafe cultures. I’ve written and read in public in four different geographic areas in my lifetime, and lived in five different geographic areas; when I was growing up in rural Ohio there was no writing in public unless you were in school, and even then one needed to hurry up and finish the damn writing so that I could do some kind of domestic work or farm work or sport.

I didn’t start off in a creative writing atmosphere, and insisted on one anyway. The later I progressed in high school the less I used my free periods for music and the more I used them for writing, reading, or combinations of the two. When I left home after high school (and before I was talked into going to college) I went to a local college library and read the “snooty” magazines with fiction: Harper’s Monthly, The Atlantic, and The New Yorker. I wanted to write and read in public, but doing either at all was a source of attention-drawing that I struggled with; I read at lunch at work and my manager suggested that I go back to college to…read. So reading in public opened the door to that support network, but, again…attention-getting.

Any writer will tell you that attention is the last thing they want. Most readers are defined as introverts. Keeping these things in mind, it’s important to note that I loved college so much because I could read and write in public and could avoid most other activities because of the commitments of homework and balancing full-time employment with full-time course load.

After college, though, I wanted to keep up the practice. I would go to a coffee shop in Springfield, Missouri called The Mudhouse (the owner made his own coffee mugs on a pottery wheel), and I would write in a corner in low light, trying my best to write fiction in the face of fresh memoir material from my mother’s illness and passing. I didn’t receive any kind of attention for it, and started to breathe a little; maybe I could in fact write in the Midwest. I had to give up teaching, though, as my work (due to the compensation), and took a job I hated that required a lot of psychological work to maintain performance. I gave up writing for a bit, I hoped.

Flash forward to 2004 and an opportunity to move to the Bay Area. In the Bay Area there are an acute concentration of book stores and cafes and I was a writer and/or reader at a table again. I joined a book club, I joined a writing group. I found myself among my people, published or not, and talking about books, talking about writing, participating in city-wide literary festivals.

And then I moved to San Diego County.

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See the picture, above.

Shortly after this picture was taken, someone walked past me on the sidewalk and commented on the fact that I was writing in a journal. Something about what a pretty picture that made. I looked up an smiled, which jarred the person commenting, as though I was a performance artist drawing letters as opposed to someone who was tired of writing in the confines of her apartment.

In seven years of residency in San Diego County, I have managed to find a book club in the last couple of years, which has saved my life. However, if I go out in a bar or in a coffee shop, overwhelmingly there will some sort of comment on either the material I’m reading or the fact that I’m reading at all. I love the comments on the material (one man wanted to know if H Is For Hawk was chick lit–not really, sir–and a woman in a coffee shop two weeks ago predicted that I would read My Sister the Serial Killer in one day, and she was right), but the comments on reading at all take me back to the space between high school and college.

There appears to be something abjectly strange with reading in a bar. There are memes about these things. They weren’t strange in San Francisco, but here it makes other patrons edgy. I occasionally take a book into what I call my watering hole, but it’s closing for remodeling in a week and every other bar I’ve read in thinks I’m going to camp on one drink for a day. With writing it’s worse; when I first moved to North San Diego County I tried to continue my San Francisco writer’s group there, but people were upset with the cafe venue (“There’s no place to park”) and didn’t want to give up their cars to take the train, which was two blocks from the cafe. I ended my involvement with the group, and lost touch with them when I got a different day job.

But writing in public now, particularly at chairs and tables on the sidewalk or (gasp) at a bar, makes other patrons and people passing believe that you are writing about them. Honestly, sometimes I am writing about them, but most of the time I am writing what I would always write about, I’m just getting out of the house to do it. But I don’t want to make everyone else uncomfortable, so…I “behave” myself. I put the book away. I put the notebook away. I tap ideas into my phone, like the rest of the folks at the bar, or the rest of the folks in the coffee shop, and go back to hiding my passion under a bushel or book club.

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#BookBusiness

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All my life I have moved toward living in a community with bookstores. If I were to get picky, the bookstores would be independent, not this chain garbage, although I can’t tell you how many times Barnes & Noble and, back in the day, Borders, saved my life because I didn’t have the luxury of being picky.

When I was kid in Northwest Ohio it was the chain Waldenbooks at the Defiance Mall. We had an independent in neighboring Bryan, Ohio, but I don’t recall it having more selection than my mother did (my mother had amassed enough books over years to almost hold up the walls).

When I was in college it was Barnes & Noble and Borders in Springfield, Missouri, if it wasn’t the university bookstore or a library book sale.

My introduction to the You’ve-Got-Mail, truly independent with a heritage kind of bookstore, was in the Bay Area. Independent bookstores were part of my decision to leave Southwest Missouri; when I left most of the independents were Bible bookstores. When I visited the bookstores in the Bay Area I got to know each one like a personality: Alexander’s on Second Street in San Francisco would have African American literature, Stacey’s would have lots of writerly and readerly accessories in addition to books and journals, Green Apple would stash the books in the stair bannisters, City Lights would be all about the beats, the renegades. I loved them all, and still love them all. I remember a quest to bring in a copy of Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey to Green Apple, I remember getting a copy of Tales of the City at Alexander’s.  I remember the day Stacey’s closed, and I still have a tote bag from there.

San Diego, happily, also has a wonderful collection of bookstores. People who are from cities like New York and San Francisco can roll their eyes at the limited number of San Diego independents, but I am eternally grateful to them in any number. San Diego doesn’t like to set itself off as a readerly city (San Diego is mostly known as a brewery town), but when there are literary events the readers come out in a packed collective (would the noun here be “a chapter/book of readers”?). There are author events here, too; local authors come out en masse in August to meet readers at the two-day reader event sponsored by the Union-Tribune, visiting bookstore booths as well. In April the bookstores hold a Litcrawl, the bookstore equivalent of a pub-crawl all over the city (and San Diego is a sprawling city) for three days of book binging. And then there are the events that happen throughout the year by bookstore concoction and by author publication events: Warwicks has probably the largest number of author events, but authors also frequent South Park’s Book Catapult and North Park’s Verbatim (Verbatim is a big proponent of poetry and zine writers). The University of California San Diego bookstore has a cafe in the first floor, and The Library Shop has new books to buy if you don’t want to check them out on a deadline. Bluestocking Books in Hillcrest donates books to kids’ organizations and holds themed specials every month (with February they are discounting a small collection of titles on co-dependency), and LaPlaya Books in Point Loma (as well as the aforementioned Book Catapult) have book clubs that meet once a month.  Most of the stores send out emails of what’s new; Book Catapult also holds a once-a-month coffee session with the new suggestions on discount that day.

What’s the difference in a San Diego indie and a San Francisco indie? This could just be my personal experience; I’m so gun-shy of scaring people with my passion for reading that I try not to be a gushing groupie to the person behind the counter. My experience in San Francisco matched that fear; most of the booksellers I’ve met in San Francisco prefer to be left alone unless you’re desperate, with the exception of Green Apple, who I always enjoyed a conversational relationship with in the shop and on social media. But San Diego booksellers…my experience is that they will draw you out.  There’s not a time where I have walked into them without someone asking me if I needed help finding something; my standard response is that whatever I’m looking for usually finds me, and then the bookseller nods and laughs and realizes that I’m an avid reader without being scared by my passion. Some of them even ask about my reading habits and we are both at ease (Book Catapult knows I review books as a side gig, so we do a lot of talking shop in a safe space).  I’m not sure if in San Francisco the majority of booksellers know that they are in a literary town and therefore don’t encourage the groupie mindset (I’m reminded of the scene in A Tree Grows in Brooklyn when Francie finally gets up the courage to ask for a book recommendation for the girl she used to be and confronts the librarian for not even looking up), but San Diego booksellers seem to relish any patron with a love of books who wants to talk.

San Diego, as a readership, seems to be grateful for the indie bookstore.

#BookClub

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Every day there’s a new article about how a degree in the fine arts will get you an overabundance of student debt and that’s it; there’s nothing lucrative about literature.  I don’t think solvency was the motivation or even any remote consideration when I entered college as a non-traditional student (read: older than everyone else in the class at 22 years old).  There were a combination of arguments:

  • If I was going to be broke anyway, why not study something that I loved?
  • My manager at the time was a little stunned that I loved books as much as I did and wasn’t in college;
  • Once the general education classes were out of the way, then I would get college credits to gush about other peoples’ writing for months.

In essence, my college years were one long sequence of book clubs.

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After the gen ed courses, I briefly double-majored in both literature and history.  Fiction and non-fiction, if you will. I took two classes in literature a semester and two classes in history.  I was already in love with literature when I entered college, but an excellent professor in history during my gen ed years convinced me that history was one of the best stories I could find, so I double-majored.  The two majors paired wonderfully together (read Moby Dick, and then study 19th century whaling to see how Melville got there), and my only hang-up was that writing about literature is a completely different animal than writing about history, unless you break the rules like David McCullough or Stephen Ambrose and have the audacity to tell a story.  Writing about literature was direct, like sipping on a sazerac in the back of a dive bar with a pack of Marlboros, but writing about history in a purely academic sense was a hard lesson in the passive voice, like backing into a glass of rose. I continually mixed up the two, and then there was a British history professor who claimed I had plagiarized Orwell’s Road to Wigan Pier (I have never been a fan of Orwell, even before the damn class, and other professors didn’t think it was that close of a match even though they liked my writing, including the dean, so charges were dropped), so that was one too many straws, and history was dropped to a minor.  To this day, however, I still balance out a lot of fiction with non-fiction (preferably memoirs and biographies, but I read about history if the story is specific enough), and love to talk about all of it.

Sadly, you can’t go to college forever, and the course load decreased when I demoted history, so I graduated against my will in December of 2000.  I futzed around with exploring options into careers in literature or careers in the proximity of literature at the beginning of 2001, but life had other plans, and after a series of diversions I finally moved to what I considered to be a more literary city in San Francisco in 2004.  San Francisco had more bookstores than I had seen in whole states in the Midwest; at lunch I would flip a coin and, depending on the outcome, would visit either Alexander’s on Second Street or Stacey’s on Market, which were less than a block from each other.  I would occasionally chat books with these booksellers, but finding a chatty bookseller in San Francisco has rarely been my luck.  The bookstores in San Francisco are luxurious, “floors of books” and historical sites of Beat poets and quirky adhoc shelves made from planks, but most of the booksellers there seemed…sentenced.  Another starry-eyed former literature student stumbling around in a bohemian funk?  I could have gotten in line or paid subscriber dues.  Yes, the bookstores had author events, or the yearly book fair called Litquake would pop up a rash of author events or panels, and I leaped at tickets.  I had one line of questioning for every author and panel: What are you reading? What books inspired you to write the way you do? What is your favorite book?

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I tried traditional book clubs in San Francisco, but they usually defaulted to a combination of wine, appetizers, other book events, other authors, or personal stuff unrelated to the book.  I loved talking about and listening to others talk about books, so having to shut up and be good for the other topics was maddening.

There are several book club movies out there that remind me of this kind of experience.  The most recent is Book Club, which came out last year and has a stellar cast of Jane Fonda, Candice Bergen, Mary Steenburgen, Diane Keaton, Craig T. Nelson, Andy Garcia, and Don Johnson, just to name a few.  I like every actor in this film and love book clubs and I loathe this movie.  The only redeeming aspect of the film is the music and a flying sequence with Garcia and Keaton in the Grand Canyon…and neither one of those topics are related to the title.  Books are discussed for about seven minutes in this movie, and the overwhelming reference in the club is to the Fifty Shades of Grey series, a collection of books that isn’t struggling for promotion.

Back in the late aughts there was a movie called The Jane Austen Book Club, which wasn’t a much better script but talked about books a lot more more than Book Club.  I watched that movie again after Book Club as a palette-cleanser, and, because it’s January, thought I might be able to follow the calendar in The Jane Austen Book Club this year starting in February with Emma like the characters in the movie did.  Still a lot of wine and coffee in that movie, though.  Probably my favorite book club film was an adaptation of a book for a Netflix production called The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, which addresses World War II as well as literary classics and struggles of writers. The members of that group had some questionable edibles (which factors in the plot in more ways than just the title) but the primary food is the stuff of reading, and I could watch that movie on a loop if needed.

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I went without a book club for some time after moving to Southern California.  One reason was that I briefly belonged to a writing group who wanted someone to organize their writing lives but did not want to write under the organization of what someone else had put together for them.  The writer’s group that I belonged to in the Bay Area would write in all kinds of places and locations; I had written with them in Oakland after work, at a cafe in Duboce Triangle on Sundays for a day-long marathon session with a lunch break, at the Richmond District Library in the basement conference room, at the Borderlands Cafe in the Mission, where there was purposely no wi-fi.  I tutored kids in writing, science, and math at 826 Valencia and wrote for their 826 Day festivities.  But reading…that fell off the radar early and generated a TBR pile in my apartment bedroom that would choke a fire.  I kept with writing and thought reading would come in later, when an earthquake killed the power or I ran out of ink.

In Southern California I knew people who read, but either didn’t like to talk about what they read or thought of reading as a non-social activity.  I didn’t know how to debate that; when I was in college I was alone a lot, but there was the social aspect of class.  Was it possible that one couldn’t have a book club without other aspects: a classroom forcing to read, a bottle of wine, a number count on Goodreads, a hashtag of Sunday sentences?  Social media has made online book clubs or book communities a sometimes mine field; if I were to pick up a short story by Woody Allen or quote from Garrison Keillor’s anthology Good Poems, do these choices unleash wrath or banishment?  Social media can be cruel and often is (I often find myself retreating into just Sunday sentences, but what happens when I want to find Hemingway there?), and a reader has to step carefully.

Do I wish I were part of more readers’ circles?  Sometimes. I have the added joy of reviewing books for an online publication, and when the authors reach out and connect over the reviews I have a few hours of feeling like a I have a book club to love words in, a safe space regardless. Most of my friends and family fulfill other curiosities for me, since their interests rarely involve books.  Just this past year, however, I stumbled on the greatest fortune: a book club in a book store here in San Diego.  The owner of the store selects a fiction book in paperback, discounts it for the month leading up to discussion, and one Thursday night a month a sizable crowd of us discuss the book.  The personalities and approaches to the book in that group are nearly stories of their own, and I’m back in class in the 90’s, arguing writers’ choices of POV, characterization, voice, setting, and special effects.

There’s no wine, no appetizers.  All the food is brain food. For one hour a month I sit in the room and socialize with a slim paperback in my hand, at the center of all of our thoughts.