Thursday, October 10, 2013

Alice Munro Wins the Nobel Prize, and Yes, That Leads to a Lot of Rambling, with Some Memories of the Only Milwaukee Event with Said Author.

This morning about a dozen emails, a couple of phone calls, and one shout from upstairs alerted me that Alice Munro won the Nobel Prize, It's always exciting when an author you've read gets a big award, and like many book lovers, I've read a number of her collections. Unlike a number of recent winners, there doesn't seem to be as much of a political element to her fiction, it's just beautiful writing, finely honed characters, and stories that are as rich in texture and scope as novels ten times their length.

She's certainly been suitably lauded, what with the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Man Booker Prize, the Giller Prize (twice), and a three time honoree of Canada's Governor General's Award.

Amie and I chatted about numbers to reorder. I said I would do it and then got caught up in dotting the i's on the four November events I'd agreed to that didn't quite have a confirmation. (Sorry, Stacie!). That led me to send off some bookseller staff recs, and then Amie called again and asked me if I placed the order, and well, Amie had to save the day and do it. I am assuming stock is being allocated, and I understand that there will likely be a reprint. We had quite a number of her books in stock, so some lucky readers can get a book today. And of course there is always the question of how much a Nobel winner will pop when there are many equally good titles to choose from. Where would you start? I honestly don't know. 

For years, Munro has been a star seller in literary fiction at indie bookstores. Whereas publishers always seemed to push women literary writers into the spring, Knopf kept Munro in the fall, and she always found a place in whatever holiday gift guide I was helping put together.

Munro recently announced that she was no longer going to publish fiction, and I wonder if that influenced the selection at all. One of the rules of the Nobel is that the award winner has to be living, and I'm sure there was at least some worry that the author's health might be in decline.

So of course I'm not going to write a post without some personal component to it, and that is the case with this celebrating Alice Munro. For those of you who asked me for years if Munro would ever come to Milwaukee, I will note that she in fact did visit Schwartz. It was 1994 for the release of Open Secret. By then, we had started our monthly print newsletters and had really revved up our event schedule. Most events were now going to Shorewood, Mequon, and Brookfield, which had dedicated event spaces.

But when Alice Munro came along, we decided to try a literary event at Iron Block, partly thanks to my begging. I was working on the balcony of the store (now a FedEx Kinkos) as a buyer, and it seemed like at that point (yes, we're talking 19 years ago), all of her fans were concentrated in that location. By the next release, I don't think that would be the case.

I was part of a small group of booksellers I call in retrospect the Canadian crazies. In addition to myself, the other members were John and Nancy. Between them we read not just the stars like Margaret Atwood and Carol Shields,  but also folks like Bonnie Burnard, Barbara Gowdy, Bronwyn Wallace, Anne Michaels, Gail Anderson-Dargatz, and a woman named Audrey Thomas, who I'm not even sure ever had an American release. A trip to Toronto was not complete without some bookstore visits. My favorites, Pages and This Ain't the Rosedale Library, are both gone, but John, whose territory as a sales rep now includes Toronto (can you say "dream come true?") says there are plenty of good bookstores left in town. Sigh of relief.

So we tried it at the Iron Block location downtown. I had us print some postcards that I personally sent to a bunch of people. It seemed like hundreds, but I'll bet it was more like 25. Not only did we not have the internet, we didn't even have a customer database to draw from. I'm pretty sure the Schwartz Gives Back started a bit later, but I could be wrong. We had bookmarks. We hoped for press coverage.

Alas, it was a small turnout of maybe 15 people. It was a crazy event space, and I'm not sure if we really could have held more than 50 without obscured views. But if I could have said to the folks who were too busy, "You don't understand what a magical moment this is. If you don't come now, you will never see her." But while she had already won every Canadian award possible, she didn't start winning the high-profile American and international prizes until 1998.

It was indeed a magical moment that I will not forget. And as I dug through my books, I was pleased to find my signed copy of Open Secrets and the postcard invite that I clearly designed myself. Hey, who knows what future award winners you've already seen at Boswell. Hey, The Orphan Master's Son was awarded the Pulitzer, right?

This was supposed to be a short post. Maybe tomorrow.

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