I’ve worked in the book business for nearly twenty years. Since 1995, I’ve worked one year for a Little Professor Book Center in Oshkosh; nearly 15 years for Harry W. Schwartz Bookshop in Brookfield, including four years as store manager; then I spent three years as the buyer for the Next Chapter Bookshop in Mequon, and now I’ve spent the last year as the Midwest Trade Sales Representative for W.W. Norton, the largest independent publisher in the country.*
As with twenty years in any business, I’ve come across many weird coincidences, serendipitous moments, bizarre occurences. I think of them sometimes as strange intersections. For instance, I ran into a former Milwaukee Harry W. Schwartz colleague working at Parnassus Books in Nashville while I was calling on them for Norton. I had no idea that he worked there. It’s strange to be standing in a bookstore in Tennessee and hear a deep voice say, “didn’t you used to work at the Schwartz Bookshop in Brookfield?”
The strange intersection that most recently struck me starts with my time at Next Chapter in Mequon. I had read and reviewed a very impressive debut novel by Hannah Pittard called The Fates Will Find Their Way. I called it “a bold and innovative debut from a fine new literary talent.” My blurb was used in the national Indie Next newsletter. Shortly after the Indie Next flier was printed, I got to have dinner with Ms. Pittard with a bunch of other booksellers from the Chicago and Milwaukee area. It was a lovely evening. Friends were made.
So now I’ll switch gears entirely to another author….
When you work as a buyer for a bookstore, you know every book that’s coming out from every publisher. That’s what makes the job so enjoyable. When you work as a sales rep for a publisher, you get tunnel vision. You spend most of your reading time reading your publisher’s books. I’m fortunate to work for a publisher that – in my opinion – publishes some of the finest books out there.
Still, even though I expect great things from Norton – Historians Eric Foner and Ian Toll! Anthropologist Jared Diamond! Scientists E.O. Wilson and Richard Dawkins! Philosopher Daniel C. Dennett! Fiction writers Andrea Barrett and Brady Udall! And all those poets!!! – every season we are confronted by new faces, and it’s their books that are most in need of our attention.
So it was a happy coincidence that very early in my life as a rep, while I was still getting my sea legs, I got the chance to read Will Boast’s memoir, Epilogue. Not only is Epilogue one of my favorite books of the Fall, but it was the perfect book for me to read at the time. Boast is, like me, from Wisconsin. We’re about the same age. We have a lot of the same interests. While his book is often sad and even tragic, it is buoyed by that understated Midwestern sense of humor that I can relate to so well. Reading his book was like listening to an old friend. Now that the book is out, I’m so happy to hear from booksellers in my territory about how much they love the book as well. So…
Flash forward to the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance Trade Show in Norfolk, VA just last month. I was there representing Norton (Norton’s version of the Midwest includes Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama, etc.). On the last day of the conference, I was essentially wasting time until I had to go to the airport when I scanned a list of authors who were signing in a nearby conference room and on that list was , of all people, Hannah Pittard!
I had only recently heard that she had a second novel coming out (remember what I said about sales reps having tunnel vision when it comes to upcoming books). I went into the signing room and we caught up as if that Chicago dinner was just a couple weeks ago. She gave me a copy of the new novel, Reunion, and – guess what? She’ll be in Milwaukee for a book event! That’s great, I said, I’ll read the book and come to the event. Then she mentioned that it would be a joint event with another author; an author, she said, whose new book is wonderful, just wonderful! That other author? You guessed it: Will Boast.
So, I don’t know where you will be this Friday night, but I will be at Boswell Book Company which – at least for that evening – is at the strange intersection of Pittard and Boast.
*Editor's note: I'm not sure of how it is determined that a publisher is independent. I think it means that they are not publicly traded, but there may be another formula. They are certainly the largest employee-owned publisher in the country. And thank you, Dave, for a lovely post.