Those of us who labor in the crapshoot business of selling words for a living have heard all the fairy-tale stories. The ones that have people flocking to book signings by J.K. Rowling and Stephen King in such numbers that the fire marshals have to step in. The public’s vision is of long lines winding through the neighborhood Barnes & Noble, sweaty-palmed fans eager to get the favored author’s signature on the flyleaf of his or her latest best-seller. Pretty heady stuff for one who has toiled in grim solitude to produce the 300 to 400 hardbacked pages that cause the welcomed celebration.
Trust me when I tell you it’s not all huge crowds and smiling buyers. Me, I’ve spent more agonizing hours than I like to recall seated behind a stack of books in places where I wondered if someone had ordered the building evacuated. Book-buying throngs and I are total strangers.
Once, however, I did come close. Arriving for my time in the spotlight at a book fair, where numerous authors were invited to spend time meeting, greeting and signing, I was stunned to find the parking lot filled. Inside, the crowd was shoulder to shoulder. They were waiting, I learned, to meet Benji the dog, who, in the wake of movie fame, had “authored” a children’s book and was on hand to dip a paw into a ready ink pad and leave an impression on each book purchased. As I went to a back-of-the-store office to await my turn, I was certain some of Benji’s fans might remain to meet a human writer.
When my name was announced and I strode to the table that cute little Benji had vacated, the only other person remaining in the place was a young salesman who simply shrugged his shoulders and asked if I’d like a cup of coffee. Another hard lesson learned: Never, ever follow a dog act.
So frustrated have my various publishers become over the years that they’ve sought “alternate venues” where I might peddle my wares. There was the showroom of an auto dealership some years back, where more tires were kicked than books bought. I’ve had my ego flattened in grocery stores, at a couple of chili cook-offs, in high-school gyms, and at more than a few sleepy retirement villages.
And each time, I’ve sworn never again.
But what struggling author could resist the invitation of the mother-daughter team of Jo Ann and Karyn Miller to visit their Gourmet Gallery in Waco, Texas, and participate in something they were calling “Cooking the Books”? A lifelong sucker for outrageous puns, I quickly agreed to attend.
What I walked into was an aspiring cook’s dream come true. If patrons didn’t want to pick up a book, they could shop for shiny pots and pans, glassware, cutlery and a variety of spices and condiments. Or, most important, take a cooking lesson.
From a fully operational kitchen in one corner of the store, the lesson of the day was how to prepare tasty game-day tailgating cuisine — from a healthy pulled-pork wrap to meat-free nachos with walnuts and damn-the-calories brownies.
Never mind that my own culinary expertise ran no deeper than a dandy recipe for Frito Pie (mix chips and chili, stir and eat). I needed only tell a few stories about the football team whose season my book chronicled. Karyn Miller, the store’s 47-year-old owner, and her mom, a former high-school home-economics teacher, promised that their audience of aspiring cooks would love it. As a bonus, Carol Miller-Compton, Karyn’s school-teaching sister, was busing over a group of local eighth-graders with questions galore.
“We like to do things that are fun, different and educational,” Karyn explained. Such, she says, has been the goal since the store/cooking school opened four years ago on kitchen queen Julia Child’s birthday.
All in all, it was a pleasant way to spend a lunch hour. How can you beat hanging around in a sweet-smelling kitchen, sampling new dishes and talking with nice folks? I even signed a few books. Faith restored, I’ve now learned of a wine-tasting group that occasionally invites authors to attend a function it calls “Reading Between the Wines.”
I’m waiting for their call.
Carlton Stowers’ Where Dreams Die Hard: A Small American Town and Its Six-Man Football Team was the 2012 selection of the One Book, One Waco reading program.