Tuesday, December 15, 2009

A Mark Gates Note

My apologies for not publishing yesterday. I have been in a blur and really didn't want to write anything but this, and read anything (for fear that I might steal good bits) until my note about Mark was finished.

I first met Mark Gates when he was selling to my coworker John. We had been buying frontlist and backlist together, dividing up the list, and John inherited the line because it was previously sold by the Eugene Rotenberg (or possibly "Burg") commission group. That's another five stories in itself.

Isn't it funny how memory is? I would insist that Mark moved to Chicago to sell Farrar Straus Giroux in 1996, based on this fleeting impression of how I met him and this weird dynamic where I was more like a visitor to the office. If you told me he actually started selling us in 1991 (which is entirely possible), I'd admit that it wouldn't be the first memory I'd rewired to suit a story.

Afterwards, we both went to John and sort of asked, "Who was that?" (I was probably at my most manic, and Mark was sort of showing pity for having to work with a bit of a know-it-all, an interrupter, a suck up). Did I leave the card out of my brain file or something? Because I have that very clear memory of John telling me Mark's story, about he moved to Chicago to be a key account rep for FSG, an esteemed publisher that was still independent and run in the old family way by Roger Straus.

It was the next year in Schwartz lore that John left buying to open Schwartz on Downer, the location of the store that I've come to own. I returned to buying after a short sabbatical where , my goal was to write a book about old department stores, by the way. I still have piles of research, but I never knew exactly what I could contribute to the canon, and why anyone would want it. One of the ways I would detour with sales reps was to ask them about their childhood department store memories, and Mark had some nice tidbits about visiting the stores of Pittsburgh.

Pretty quickly my meetings with Mark grew to be a highlight of the season, starting of course with the little asides. He could be very passionate about the books, but was pretty blunt about books that he thought has little chance of working. This is quite common now, but in the days when many reps had strong commission incentives (and some did not even account for returns), it was common to see a rep that loved everything.

He could take something as seemingly drab as a trip to the grocery and turn it into a wonderful story. So you can imagine how a book he enjoyed would become a must-read for everyone around. In particularly, his appearances at our sales rep presenations would be much anticipated. When he loved a book, he could make it happen. When there was a list where he was lukewarm, he would just be incredibly funny. What made him a great rep is that he didn't stop thinking about the list after he sold it; if there was a book that was generating some good reads or buzz that we missed out on, he'd pretty quickly get us up to speed.

Mark had a way of being droll and a bit cutting, and yet he possessed a very warm heart. No matter that he sometimes dropped a less than angelic insight about someone, he had an incredibly warm heart. (editor's note: Really! Very warm!)

I have two strong book memories of Mark. I'm not including Maisie Dobbs, the Soho press title by Jacqueline Winspear that went on to great success, and where I credit Mark with rallying many, many indendent booksellers to get behind the book and spread the word out of his territory. It's a wonderful series, but my fellow booksellers at Schwartz led the charge, and I was just along for the ride.

Another book that Mark loved deeply was Nuala O'Faolain's Are You Somebody, a book he sold very agressively and passionately, and eventually developed a good friendship with the author. It was one of those books where I grew to appreciate his special working relationship with Maggie Richards at Holt, one of the few publishing folks I know that could match Mark jibe for jibe.

No, the focus was on books we both loved that we tried to help break out. The first was Kathleen Cambor's In Sunlight, In A Beautiful Garden, a novel about the Johnstown Flood, which coincidentally, was set in the town where Mark was born. It was a beautiful story that jumped around to the different residents, unknowingly in the path of the flood, while also focusing on the corporate titans of Pittsburgh whose neglect led to the tragedy. The book worked, but never found the audience I thought it deserved. (It's still in print from Harper, but I included the FSG jacket, which I like better).

The second was Alan Bennett's, The Uncommon Reader, which had a very different fate. I remember having these very intense conversations with Mark about how this book spoke to the true independent customer. How when I met my good friend Sue Boucher at Lake Forest, I started jabbering about the book, and John Eklund (who had facilitated our lunch meeting) was ecstatic about it as well, having read it in it's original magazine form and had no idea it was becoming a stand-alone. I think I must have raised my order to Spenser Lee (Maggie's longtime equivalent at FSG) three times, to the point where our initial order was 300 copies (oy, those were the days) and we still eventually ran out.

I love that book so much because Bennett, through his story of the Queen of England who becomes a passionate book lover, gets it. We book lovers are a different breed; we are a different bunch. They see us as crazy, and I guess I might say likewise.

Mark also had incredible charisma. Everybody wanted to be his best friend. I was certainly not exempt from that desire. When I got my Thanksgiving invite to visit Mark and his partner Steve in Madison, you be sure I jumped at it, even though it was probably given out of pity and I don't usually like holiday gatherings.

But do you know what was particularly special about Mark? You know how with most people when two good friends of someone meet, there's often this competition? Well, Mark had a way of making his separate friends become...friends. I am particularly grateful to Mary, Anne and Johanna for keeping me in the loop as Mark became less able to communicate.

I did get to visit Mark in Madison at least once, but my last meeting was at the bookstore, where Mark and Steve came to see Michael Perry (Coop), and buy a bunch of books, a last gift from Mark. He bought my passion, Little Bee, among other things, and only later did I learn that he wasn't really reading much anymore.

Here's Mark's obituary in Publishers Weekly and one in Shelf Awareness. He was PW Rep of the Year in 2006. And here's a link to the Wisconsin (Madison) Book Festival, a cause that was dear to Mark's heart. There are lots of other tributes around, but I'm sure his friends have already read many of them so I'm not going to link to them all.

I miss him. My sympathies to Steve, his family, his friends.


Amanda Okopski said...

Beautiful, Daniel. I'm smiling because a copy of Little Bee arrived in the mail from Mark and Steve last month and I devoured it. Dean will read it over winter break. Thanks for this posting. Stories of Mark are like oxygen right now.
-Amanda (wife of littérateur Dean Bakopoulos)

Sue Boucher said...

I finally got around to reading your note on Mark. It was just lovely, it got me thinking again and crying again about our dear friend. I had forgotten that Mark was behind In Sunlight in a Beautiful Garden, we sold tons of that and it is still a book I love to sell. And Maisie Dobbs is another books we have loved selling.You're so right about how Mark could pick the big books, he did that again and again. I remember Holes by Louis Sachar was a big book us. We sold lots of it in hardcover which was pretty good pre Harry Potter, and it went on to win the National Book Award. He made sure to let the folks know in New York that we were behind the book from the beginning. He always sang the praises of the little guys to the people in New York.

Claire Kirch, PW said...

Hey Daniel, I just read your note, you totally captured the essence of Mark Gates. I was terrified the first time I met him at MBA, and he told me i'd better do right by Midwestern booksellers or I'd have to answer to him! I count myself fortunate to have been assigned to write his profile for PW in 2006 -- it was a total blast, talking to him, hearing his stories, hanging out at his house in Madison, getting Amanda to take the obligatory Mark in his car photo. Appropriately enough, the last time I saw Mark was 2 years ago at the Wis. Book Festival in Madison, when he came to listen in on a panel I was on -- discussing the future of publishing. He was the one who should have been sitting up there, pontificating, not me. The book world did indeed lose one of its guiding lights with Mark's passing. and you know what I will really miss? His story ideas and industry gossip. He knew everything, it seemed.

Unknown said...

Perfectly lovely.

Thank you!