We first wrote about Take Your Child to a Bookstore Day back in 2011 when Olive was four. We’re excited to learn founder Jenny Milchman is testing out something new to further literacy and get books into the hands of more kids.
Take Your Child to a Bookstore Day is traditionally celebrated on the first Saturday of December (this year, Dec. 5, 2015), but for the first time, Jenny is extending the event to include a field trip for young children in Johnstown, NY. Through the help of generous donors, the expertise of fellow author and grant writer Dan Barrett, and an elementary school teacher, Heidi Sprouse, who took to the streets to drum up support, a rural community in New York will be able to send 36 pre-K students to their town’s local bookstore on Jan. 15. Each child will be given a book–in some cases, the first the child has ever owned– take part in a youth writers’ workshop, and share the excitement of the day over pizza with classmates and teachers. If this pilot day is successful, Jenny hopes similar programs can be introduced in at-risk towns and cities nationwide.
TAKE YOUR CHILD TO A BOOKSTORE DAY
Read our interview with Jenny: “Jenny Milchman on How to Get a Book Deal After Only 11 Years of Bitter Rejection”
We first met Melissa Cistaro when she pitched her book to us at a Pitchapalooza we did for Book Passage (one of America’s great bookstores) in Corte Madera, California. We’ve been doing this so long we can usually tell when someone has a book in them and is capable of getting it out successfully. And we knew Melissa had the right stuff as soon as she opened her mouth. Arielle then made a suggestion to Melissa that she calls perhaps her greatest move as a Book Doctor: she told Melissa that she should get a job working at Book Passage. This is what separates the doers from the talkers. Melissa actually did it; she got a job at Book Passage. Eventually she became the person who introduces authors when they do events at Book Passage. Some of the greatest authors in the world come through that bookstore. Now Melissa gets to move from being the person who presents authors to the author being presented. So we thought we would pick her brain to see how she did it.
To read this interview on the Huffington Post, click here.
The Book Doctors: How did you get started as a writer?
Melissa Cistaro: This may sound odd, but I think that becoming a mother is what turned me into a writer. Even in college, I still considered writing one of my greatest weaknesses. But when I saw my own child for the first time, I knew I had to figure out how to tell the stories that had been hiding inside of me for so long. I started taking classes at UCLA Extension, and it was there that I caught a glimpse of my writing voice–and after that, I couldn’t stop writing. I’ve always believed that motherhood opened a portal inside of me that gave me permission to write. If I hadn’t become a mother, I don’t know that I would have become a writer.
TBD: What are some of your favorite books and why?
MC: In the house I grew up in, we rarely had access to books. I was not a child who discovered books early–they came late for me, and when they did, I had a lot of catching up to do. One of the first books to completely mesmerize me was Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things. The language was magical and the story deep, evocative and riveting. I am often pulled into stories through language. Fugitive Pieces is another book that I drew me in with its incredible poetic narrative. Divisadero by Michael Ondaatje and a short story collection by John Murray called A Few Short Notes on Tropical Butterflies. Oh this is hard! I could go on and on with favorite books.
TBD: What made you decide to write a memoir?
MC: I started this story as a work of fiction. It was easier for me to dive into it as someone else’s narrative rather than my own. For years, I wrote calling myself Paisley Chapin in the story, but eventually I realized that I wasn’t very good at drifting away from the truth, as I knew it. Early on, I showed my oldest brother some chapters, and he said to me, “Sorry Sis, but this ain’t fiction you are writing.”
TBD: How has your family reacted to seeing themselves in print?
MC: The book was very difficult to hand to my father. There were many facets of our childhood that he wasn’t aware of–and it was definitely emotional for him to take in our story on paper. He has been exceptionally supportive of the book and, ultimately, a proud father. My brothers also have been generous and supportive. Naturally, there were some details that we recalled in different ways, and we have since had some great conversations about our childhood.
TBD: You attended a number of writing programs, do you recommend this? What are some of the benefits and liabilities?
MC: Classes and workshops were crucial along the way, as was being in a writing group. But I eventually got to a place in the process where outside input began to stifle me as a writer. The feedback was always helpful, but I also had to take responsibility for what I ultimately wanted to write. If there are too many voices and opinions, it can get overwhelming. I’ve become less fond of workshopping and more of a fan of having a few select and trusted readers.
TBD: Which helped you more as a writer, being an equestrian or a mom?
MC: Whoa–this is an interesting question. I don’t know if I’ve ever considered how riding has informed my writing. Communicating with an animal requires a great deal of paying attention and observing, and I think that certainly translates into the writing process. I once had to throw myself off of a horse that was running at full speed back towards the barn. I could see the low awning of the barn ahead, and I knew I had lost control of the horse. I didn’t want to end up trapped under the awning or thrown dangerously sideways–so I made a decision to pull my feet out of the stirrups and make a flying dismount. I skidded and tumbled across the hard summer dirt, landing safely (and sorely) between two spindly birch trees. I think, whether we are parenting or writing or on a runaway horse, we have to make big decisions and sometimes we don’t know precisely what the outcome will be.
TBD: Did working at a bookstore help you as a writer?
MC: Absolutely. If you love books as much as I do and you want to surround yourself with likeminded people, go work in an independent bookstore. Bookstores are magical places. You get to meet authors and discover new books all the time. I also learned how sometimes great books thrive and other equally beautiful books can sometimes wither on the shelf. I quickly gleaned how subjective the world of books can be. This armored me with very humble and realistic expectations as I entered the publishing arena with my own book. I had a completed draft of my memoir when I started working at Book Passage, and I decided to put it in the proverbial drawer for a year so that I could focus on other books and writers. This turned out to be a great plan. Two years later, I met my agent during an event I was hosting.
TBD: You’ve now seen hundreds of authors do events as event coordinator at one of the great bookstores in America, Book Passage. What mistakes do you see writers make? What do you see successful writers do to help themselves?
MC: I have a wonderful job at Book Passage. I introduce authors, host their events and read their books. I find that, for the most part, authors are truly grateful and gracious when they come to Book Passage. I learn something new at every event I host. I take a lot of notes. We always appreciate when an author stands up and thanks independent bookstores for the hard work they do, because we certainly don’t do this work for the money (which is essentially minimum wage). We do this work because we love working in the landscape of books, ideas and creative minds.
TBD: What did you learn about finding an agent and publisher that you think unpublished writers would like to know?
MC: Finding that one agent who falls in love with your work takes a lot of time, patience and perseverance. Expect a lot of rejection. Grow extremely thick skin. And keep writing what you are passionate about. When you find that agent, he or she will help get your manuscript to the right publisher.
TBD: What was the most frustrating part of the publishing process from idea through publication for you?
MC: The publishing process is full of surprises, and I had to carry my publishing “Bible” with me everywhere. (That would be your book!). There are so many things you can learn in advance about how publishing works and all the ins-and-outs of contracts, deals, agents, etc. It was a tremendous and challenging education going through the publishing process. The landscape is changing so fast that it’s important to keep informed.
TBD: How can writers best use their local bookstore to help them in their career?
MC: Support your local bookstore. This means buying books from them. Attend their events. Introduce yourself to the booksellers and tell them you are a writer. Ask them for advice and book recommendations. Let them know you are not going to get a recommendation and then go purchase it for a few dollars less online. Today there are many ways a writer can professionally self-publish their books, and this is a perfectly respectable way to publish. Just make sure that if you self-publish, it’s on a platform that is compatible with independent bookstores. (This is kind of homework that authors need to do when looking into their publishing options!)
I love meeting writers at Book Passage, and I appreciate when they tell me they are a writer because I know how challenging this path is. I also know that one day they may come in and tell me that their book is being published–and guess who is going to make sure that they get a reading at Book Passage?
TBD: What advice do you have for writers?
MC: If there is a story you need to tell, you must do it. You must keep writing and writing until you are both empty and full. No story is too small for this world.
Melissa Cistaro‘s stories have been published in numerous literary journals, including the New Ohio Review, Anderbo.com, and Brevity as well as the anthologies Cherished and Love and Profanity. She works as a bookseller and event coordinator at Book Passage, the esteemed independent bookstore in Northern California. Between the years of raising her children, writing, bookselling, teaching horseback riding, and curating a business in equestrian antiques – Melissa completed her first memoir, Pieces of My Mother.
Arielle Eckstut and David Henry Sterry are co-founders of The Book Doctors, a company that has helped countless authors get their books published. They are also co-authors of The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published: How To Write It, Sell It, and Market It… Successfully (Workman, June 2015). They are also book editors, and between them they have authored 25 books, and appeared on National Public Radio, the London Times, and the front cover of the Sunday New York Times Book Review.
One of my favorite authors, Sherman Alexie, has started Indies First. I IMPLORE ALL AUTHORS TO PARTICIPATE! Here’s the letter where he explains it:
Hello, hello, you gorgeous book nerds,Now is the time to be a superhero for independent bookstores. I want all of us (you and you and especially you) to spend an amazing day hand-selling books at your local independent bookstore on Small Business Saturday (that’s the Saturday after Thanksgiving, November 30 this year, so you know it’s a huge weekend for everyone who, you know, wants to make a living).
Here’s the plan: We book nerds will become booksellers. We will make recommendations. We will practice nepotism and urge readers to buy multiple copies of our friends’ books. Maybe you’ll sign and sell books of your own in the process. I think the collective results could be mind-boggling (maybe even world-changing).
I was a bookseller-for-a-day at Seattle’s Queen Anne Book Company when it reopened this past April. Janis Segress, one of the new co-owners, came up with this brilliant idea. What could be better than spending a day hanging out in your favorite hometown indie, hand- selling books you love to people who will love them too and signing a stack of your own? Why not give it a try? Let’s call it Indies First.
Grassroots is my favorite kind of movement, and anyway there’s not a lot of work involved in this one. Just pick a bookstore, talk to the owner (or answer the phone when they call you) and reach an agreement about how to spend your time that day. You’d also need to agree to place that store’s buy button in a prominent place on your website, above the Amazon button if you have one. After all, this is Indies First, not Indies Only, and it’s designed to include Indies in our world but not to exclude anyone else.
This is a great way to fight for independents—one that will actually help them. It’ll help you as well; the Indies I’ve talked to have told me that last year Small Business Saturday was one of their biggest days of the year, in some cases the biggest after the Saturday before Christmas—and that means your books will get a huge boost, wherever you choose to be.
The most important thing is that we’ll all be helping Independent bookstores, and God knows they’ve helped us over the years. So join the Indie First Movement and help your favorite independent bookstore. Help all indie bookstores. Reach out to them and join the movement. Indies First!
Yours in Independence,
Sherman Alexie, An Absolutely True Part-Time Indie
The book still lives.
And so does its ever-faithful lover, the independent bookstore.
Despite the economic downturn, book superstores, the ordering ease of Amazon.com and the surging popularity of e-books, independent bookstores in New Jersey have managed to stay alive.
Some have found niches — old and rare books, in particular — no chain bookstore can compete with.
Others concentrate on providing personal, first-name service as friendly neighborhood bookstores.
And when nothing else works, they bring in the occasional sword swallower or fire-eater.
“I like to indulge my impresario proclivities,’’ says a smiling Alex Dawson, co-owner of the Raconteur in Metuchen, which has hosted circus sideshow performers, arm-wrestling and beard-growing tournaments, jazz groups from Paris, radio serials and more — all free of charge.
The Cranbury Bookworm, on Main Street in that Middlesex County town, could fit an entire circus in its 10 book-jammed rooms, but right now manager Andrew Feldman is concerned with bringing the once-doddering aunt of a bookstore into the modern age. He’s adding new shelves and is turning a side room into an event space for readings and presentations.
Margot Sage-El, meanwhile, is worried about e-books.
“They’re the big threat,’’ said Sage-El, owner of Watchung Booksellers in Montclair. ”We have third graders asking parents for Kindle.’’ Sage-El smiles. “And nobody turns down their kids for books.’’
In 2000, there were about 3,000 independent bookstores nationwide. Now there are about 1,700, with about 25 true independent bookstores (as opposed to gift stores that may sell books) left in New Jersey.
It’s not an encouraging number, but Sage-El, for one, believes the worst is behind.
In January and February 2010, sales at Watchung Booksellers dropped so dramatically, it was “horrifying,’’ according to Sage-El.
“I thought, oh my God, is this it? Is this how we’re going to end?’’ she said.
But sales picked up that March and April, and the bookstore is now holding steady.
Oldie but goodie
If Bob Ruffolo hasn’t quite felt the pain of other independent bookstores, he still realizes that he can’t afford to be stubborn when it comes to prices.
Ruffolo is the owner of Princeton Antiques in Atlantic City. It’s an antique store in name only; his father, an antiques dealer, owned a shop in Princeton before moving to Atlantic City. He bought a three-story building on Atlantic Avenue in 1966, and lived upstairs with his librarian wife. “He was married four, five times,’’ his son said, smiling. ”I think my mother was No. 2.”
Books supplanted antiques long ago; Princeton Antiques is now home to 250,000 used and rare books. Most ordering happens online; browsing in-store is by appointment only. Of the 250,000 books, about 100,000 titles are computerized; the remaining titles are listed on index cards.
The store’s specialties include art, science, architecture, ships, and Arctic and Antarctic exploration. Ruffolo owns about 100 early editions of Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice.’’ Ruffolo has a two-volume first American edition of an Austen set priced at $9,000. An early illustrated edition of ”Price and Prejudice’’ costs $750, but the price is negotiable.
“Depends what bills are due,’’ Ruffolo said.
He recently sold a first edition of “A Christmas Carol’’ for $4,500 to an artist. His most valuable item is a collection of 150 books owned by a former president of Venezuela. Yours for $100,000.
But major sales are few and far between; the typical book is about $35.
“The last two years have been lean years,’’ said Ruffolo, who rents rooms upstairs to help defray expenses.
Once a month, he hits the road to check out private collections; most recently he was in Baltimore.
“The pleasure of this business is selling a book to someone, whether they paid $30 or $300 for a book, and getting a thank-you,’’ the bookstore owner said. “They are passionate about paying something for a book they’ve been trying to get for a long time.’’
Place to gather
At first glance, the Raconteur resembles a museum of oddities more than a bookstore.
The decor includes a stuffed pheasant, steamer trunk, Ouija board, a Christmas light made of shotgun shells, giant mounted bugs, a G.I. Joe lunch box, Underwood typewriter, a scarred but in-tune piano salvaged from a shut-down saloon, a knight’s helmet and three beer taps from the Plum Street Pub in New Brunswick, where Dawson once worked.
Oh yes, and 25,000 books, neatly arranged, although some are intentionally stacked on the floor because people “like sorting through the piles — that’s where they think the treasure is,’’ according to Dawson.
The former bartender, bouncer and Central Park carriage driver wrote and designed 15 plays for the New York stage, but could never get used to the “fleeting, ephemeral’’ nature of theater.
So he opened the Raconteur six years ago, envisioning it not just as bookstore, but a “free cultural center’’ and community gathering place.
Dawson holds about 80 events a year in the bookstore — author appearances, readings, musical performances (everyone from chamber music to hard-core punk), and film screenings. And let’s not forget the annual arm-wrestling competition, called the Santiago Armsport Tourney in honor of the arm-wrestling fisherman in Hemingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea.’’
There’s a record store of sorts downstairs, 4,000 DVDs for rent (“Mad Dog Morgan,’’ anyone?) and a children’s corner in the back.
Dawson is the author of an adventure book for young readers titled “The Rapscallion Club,’’ which manages to include french fry contests, bullet ants, umbrella combat, dead pirates, lost treasure and a Titanic survivor. The first ”draft’’ sold about 500 copies; a fuller version, the first in a projected series of 10 books, is due out in a month or two.
In the 1980s and 1990s, bookstores “didn’t have to be good to make money,’’ according to Dawson.
Those days are long gone.
“Recessions don’t affect independent bookstores because you’re always struggling,’’ he said wryly.
Last weekend, John Wesley Harding, the esteemed neo-folkie singer/songwriter, appeared at the Raconteur under his real name — Wesley Stace, author of “Charles Jessold, Considered as a Murderer.’’
The Raconteur is not your typical neighborhood bookstore, but there is still a bottom line to maintain.
“I don’t want to be a bright grocery store of books,’’ Dawson said. ”It’s all about creating a singular experience. You don’t get a singular experience online.’’
“We’re kind of purists,’’ Sage-El says when told of the dizzying variety of events at Dawson’s bookstore.
But that doesn’t mean just put out books and hope they sell.
Watchung Booksellers opened in 1991 above the old Bradner’s Pharmacy. In 2001, it moved to its present location, just down the street. Sage-El, who previously worked in educational publishing, calls Montclair “a town that really values the word.’’ Sixty authors, by her estimate, live in town.
There are bi-monthly “Writing Matters’’ panels where local authors talk about writing and publishing, and an annual event where children write for an in-house magazine, then read from their work at the store.
Sage-El also donates $8,000 to $10,000 in books a year to schools, churches and civic groups.
But hard-core punk bands in her bookstore? That’s where she draws the line.
Many customers who order from her online pick up their books in person. They want the personal touch, the connection.
Sage-El says publishers are paying more attention to independent bookstores. She is encouraged by the “renaissance’’ of indie bookstores in Brooklyn, with five stores opening there in the past three years.
The future of her bookstore?
“I am concerned,’’ she replied. ”So far we’ve been able to ride out any other obstacle. I’m proud I’ve never had to lay anyone off or cut anyone’s hours.’’
The old-fashioned way
After all these years, the Worm still turns.
For many years, the Cranbury Bookworm was a cheery chaos of a place, with books scattered on the floor, jutting from shelves, housed in a warren of 10 rooms that Alice in Wonderland would have appreciated. One upstairs room is smaller than a bedroom closet; even the bathroom has been turned into book space. When it opened in 1974, the Cranbury Bookworm occupied just one room in the Victorian home; the other rooms were occupied by municipal offices, a dress shop and a Venetian blind shop.
The original owner, Ralph Schremp, died in 2002. Today, Feldman and his father run the bookstore; Schremp’s widow, Ann, owns it, and the building.
There are about 100,000 books in all, and some are on the floor — but in post office crates. Books on the back porch are six for a dollar. The books inside are in alphabetical order by section, but nothing is computerized. Prices are marked in pencil inside each book; most hardcovers range from $5 to $8, all paperbacks are 50 cents.
Feldman, who started working here when he was 15, goes on estate calls: Orange, Lakewood, Robbinsville in recent weeks. And he and his dad are regulars at flea markets and garage sales.
The 30-year-old has gotten used to first-time customers walking in, spotting him and asking, “Can I talk to the manager?’’
“ ’08 and ‘09 were trying years,’’ Feldman said. ”There were weeks we made $500. You can’t make payroll that way. It was scary. But we made it. We survived.’’
Novelist Ellen Meister Gives The Book Doctors the Skinny on Switching Genres, Independent Bookstores and Thick Skin
One of the questions we get asked all the time is: What if I want to write more than one kind of book? Can I write a cookbook and a cozy mystery? Can I write a dark literary novel and a vampire romance? When we met Ellen Meister, we discovered that she was on the brink of changing courses, genre-wise. Her new book, The Other Life, is a literary novel, which comes on the heels of two novels that are squarely commercial women’s fiction. So we were excited to ask her about her experiences with this change. And in the course of doing so, we were able to find out some other great tips and information about Ellen’s publishing trajectory.
THE BOOK DOCTORS: Many writers come up against brick walls when they change genres or styles. With your latest book, you’ve moved from fun, sassy, upbeat women’s fiction (i.e. the perfect beach reads!) to a more literary premise and story. Did you have any difficulties with this change? Did your agent or publisher want you to stick with the voice you’d already established in your first two books? Did you, yourself, feel you had to stick with what you’d done so well?
ELLEN MEISTER: I was pretty worried about that when I came up with the idea for THE OTHER LIFE, which was clearly a major departure from my previous books. But I fell so in love with the high concept “what if” story about a woman who has the ability to slip through a portal to the life she would have had if she never got married and became a mother, that I knew I had to write it, even if my agent said she wouldn’t be able to sell it.
Of course, I hoped she would adore it, and prayed she wouldn’t tell me I had to stick with what I had been doing. So I wrote a proposal and sent it off, then spent an incredibly anxious week waiting to hear back.
When she called, her response was even better than I had dared dream. Not only did she love the idea, but she had shown the chapters to everyone at the agency, and the reaction was unanimous. Fortunately, several editors felt the same way and the book wound up selling at auction.
THE BOOK DOCTORS: Can you tell us how you got your first book published? Did you encounter rejection? If so, was there anything you learned from this rejection?
ELLEN MEISTER: Oh, the rejection! Pure anguish.
When I finished writing GEORGE CLOONEY IS COMING TO APPLEWOOD (later titled SECRET CONFESSIONS OF THE APPLEWOOD PTA), I attacked the chore of finding an agent as a full time job. I spent my days researching literary agents, honing my query letter, and sending it out again and again and again.
For nine months, the rejections poured in. And then it happened. A wonderful agent called to say she loved the book and wanted to represent me. I went to her New York City office to meet with the whole team. A dream come true.
Ironically, after all those months of rejection, another big agent called the next day to offer representation. It was stressful to turn down a major player … but validating.
I wish I could say I learned something from all the rejection–that my skin got a bit thicker and my fragile heart a little stronger. But I’m afraid this hyper-sensitivity is an incurable condition. Steelier types have lectured me about bucking up and growing a tougher hide. But that’s like telling someone who sunburns easily to go outside naked and ignore the UV rays. It’s just not going to happen. We thin-skinned types just have to nurse our wounds and hope for the soothing balm of success to make it all worthwhile.
THE BOOK DOCTORS: You established your own sales promotion agency. How did the experience with this business help you with being an author? What tips do you have for other authors on embracing the promoter within? Are there any unique promotional ideas you’ve employed as a result of your experience?
ELLEN MEISTER: That experience helped me in so many ways. First, being a copywriter was great training. I learned how valuable it is to grab the reader’s attention from the first sentence and never let go.
Also, my background in marketing helped me understand how difficult it is to stand out in a crowded and competitive marketplace. So I never sat back and expected my publisher to do all the heavy lifting in terms of promotion and publicity. There are so many thousands of books in stores vying for attention that an author has to work tirelessly to help the sales effort. Once the book is finished, my floppy artist hat get tossed in the closet and replaced by my rigid marketing hat. (Or perhaps I should say helmet. Yup, it’s that rough out there.)
My advice to other authors is to keep trying and learning and figuring out what works. The Internet is such a dynamic and ever-changing medium that you have to stay agile and quick.
THE BOOK DOCTORS: We met through Book Revue in LI, near where you live. Can you tell us how your local independent bookstore has helped you become a more successful author? Any tips on how newbie authors can embrace their local independent?
ELLEN MEISTER: Book Revue has been so good to me! I’ve done several events with them, and just adore that store.
My advice to newbie authors is to understand the toll this economy has taken on the publishing industry. And indies, in particular, have taken a big hit. That means they’re often understaffed, and you have to be willing to roll up your sleeves and do a bit of work.
For instance, if you drop into your local indie to sign stock, know that the staff will probably be busy helping customers. So offer to round up the books yourself, and tell them you’ll be happy to affix the “autographed copy” stickers. When visiting smaller indies, it’s a good idea to bring your own stickers in case they don’t have any. (You can buy these pretty cheaply online. The source I use is Alpha Business Forms.)
Another tip: Indies are often happy to supply books for offsite events, but can’t spare the personnel to send out. So if you’re doing a non-bookstore event, contact your local indie ahead of time and ask if they would be willing to supply the books and sales slips. Then line up a friend or relative to lend a hand and write the orders.
THE BOOK DOCTORS: You’re on book #3. How has your approach to publishing your books changed from book to book? What have you learned that has only come with time and doing it over and over?
ELLEN MEISTER: On a practical level, I’ve learned that breaking down my deadline into manageable chunks is critical. For instance, if I’m contractually obligated to turn in a manuscript on a specific date, I look at the calendar and calculate how many pages I’ll have to write per week to meet that deadline. Then I make that my weekly writing goal and stick to it. I recommend weekly writing goals even to authors who aren’t on deadline. If there’s a book you want to finish, this is the best way to accomplish it.
On a more philosophical level, I keep learning the same lesson in karma again and again. And it’s a good one. Throughout this journey, I’ve been fortunate enough to meet some of my literary heroes. A few of them were disappointingly cold and stingy souls, but most were warm, supportive, appreciative and generous. These are the ones I try to model myself after! And I’m happy to say that I never regret it–being kind and helpful to my fellow writers is always worth the effort.
New Orleans opened her beautiful, battered and FREEZING arms to us (it was as cold as a polar bear’s ovary in January in New Orleans, DO NOT come without your woolies!) as we made the next stop on our coast-to-coast pilgrimage listening to book pitchers from America’s citizen authors.
Food. Let’s talk eating first, since this is, after all, N’Awlins. Our first meal was at Cochon (that’s French for pig), recently voted #1 restaurant in New Orleans by the people who live there. Our amazing concierge from the W Hotel (best customer service this side of Zappos btw) snuck us in, otherwise we would never gotten seated.
Alligator. Pig’s feet. Hog’s head. Just reading the menu was an adventure in culinary exotica. We had smothered collard greens whose vinegar greenness melted in the mouth and intoxicated the taste buds. Creamy grits that made you want to cry for joy. Boudin balls crispy fried on the outside and mushy with flavorful sausage and rice on the inside. Black eyed pea and pork soup. A pork pie that made you rejoice to be alive, bursting with thick textures and deep dark gravy flavor combinations all set off by a crisp, crunchy crust. Dessert was a key lime pie that was to die for, with homemade butterscotch ice cream. Plus lime coconut sorbet that was extraterrestrially splendiferous.
On our last night we went to Commander’s Palace. It was the polar opposite of Cochon.
Upscale and formal as opposed to down-home and funky. A hidden kitchen versus the openness and excitement that comes from watching the chefs bustling, hurrying, and slaving over hot stoves. Vests and ties, not t-shirts and jeans. The food was also reflective of this schism. Whereas Cochon took traditional dishes and put contemporary spins on them, Commander’s was strictly old school. We had an appetizer that was simply spectacular – shrimp skewered with a slice of pork smothered in pepper sauce and accented by okra so fresh you expected it to grab your ass and woo you with a snappy pick-up line. But the last meal was sadly pedestrian. The grits were leaden, the gumbo was just above average, and the lamb no different than the lamb we’ve had at upscale joints across the country. Dessert salvaged the meal though: soufflé light and lovely set off by vanilla/whisky sauce; shortcake long on delicate buttermilk goodness and complimented by succulent strawberries and wicked whipped cream. One other important difference: Commander’s was $150; Cochon $60!
Okay, now to the secondary news: our event. Garden District Books is one of the delightful, intimate indie bookstores that reeks of charm and is run by a serious book person: Britton Trice.
The staff is warm, friendly, welcoming, and knows books inside and out. Actually we were scheduled to go there in September 2005 for an event, but were waylaid by Katrina, So it was joyful to finally make it there and to see the bookstore, and indeed N’Awlins not only up and running, but flourishing. It was a freezing night, but to our delight 75 people showed up to pitch.
A very stylish slow talker gave her pitch about a memoir of continually saying the wrong thing at the wrong time with the charming title: The Bumble Gene. Another writer told her story of ½ human, ½ alien hybrids. A trust-funded rock critic gave a lovely presentation about her coming-of-middle age memoir. But our winner blew us away. He pitched his middle school novel called Peaches, starring a “blaxploitation Pippi Longstockings.” It was unique yet familiar, funny and poignant, magically delivered. One of the things that sets this Pitchapalooza apart from dozens and dozens of others we’ve done was that lots and lots of the people told stories in which New Orleans herself was a main character. People there take a real pride in their crazy mishmash of a culture and history. It was way, way cool!
Again, we were blessed with a set of slammin’ judges. Susan Larson, who has her own NPR show after being the book critic at the Picayune for two decades, had a gentle wisdom and wit while dispensing pearls of valuable 411. Kathleen Nettleton of Pelican Publishing was wonderfully no-nonsense, with a real tell-it-like-it-is POV that comes from being in the family book business since she was 12 years old. She told the writers there how critical it is to research a publisher to make sure you fit perfectly on their list.
Writer tip: be nice, not bitter. We were confronted by a writer after the event who was hostile and angry, disgruntlement shooting off her like poison arrows. She complained about how we sucked because she didn’t get to pitch. As we said, there were 75 writers there; we would’ve been at the bookstore until 3AM if we stayed to hear everyone’s pitch. To offset the disappointment some feel, we offer a free one-on-one consultation for everyone who buys a book. But this was not enough for this lady. She snarled and huffed away. An incredibly handsome and snappily dressed doctor approached us full of thanks and gratitude. He didn’t get to pitch either, but said how much he learned by watching and listening. Immediately we wanted to help this guy. So he told us his story. He was a doctor who had overcome drug addiction while treating patients. Great story, told with style and heart.
We were sad to leave New Orleans, but there’s already talk of bringing us back down for the Tennessee Williams Book Fair. We can’t wait!