Monday, October 12, 2009

A friendly smackdown between Victoria bookstores

By Tom Hawthorn

Special to The Globe and Mail

October 12, 2009


This city has four seasons — winter, spring, summer, and book launch.

It is the time of year when authors are flushed from their writing quarters and readers gather to gaze upon wordsmiths in the flesh. It is also when the city’s two largest independent bookstores square off in a friendly smackdown.

Munro’s Books, the downtown emporium occupying a renovated bank, invites the poets Lorna Crozier and Brian Brett for an in-store book signing.

Bolen Books, a sprawling store anchoring a shopping mall, launches the Thistledown Press fall list with a poet and two novelists.

Bolen gets humourist Arthur Black, while Munro’s grabs Rex Murphy and Peter Mansbridge. (I’ll see your CBC personality and I’ll raise you one.)

Munro’s books Will Ferguson and Adrian Raeside for $5 events at the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria. Bolen counters with Diana Gabaldon at the Alix Goolden Perfrmance Hall ($10 with $5 off the cover price of her latest in the Outlander series, “An Echo in the Bone.”)

This is what Robert Wiersema aptly calls “a gentlemanly competition.” Mr. Wiersema is events coordinator at Bolen. Asked the process for booking a writer into the store, he said, “Blatant sucking up to me.” He was joking. Sort of.

An author event is a rare meeting between creator and consumer. The relationship can be intense. When Jean Beliveau came to Victoria to sign copies of his autobiography four years ago, a Bolen customer rolled up his right pants leg to expose tattoos of the Stanley Cup, the Montreal Canadiens logo, and four portraits of goalies. Mr. Beliveau signed a bare patch of skin, which the fan intended to have permanently inked.

You never know who will show up.

On Saturday (Oct. 17), the band leader Dal Richards will be appearing at Munro’s for a signing. Joining him at the table will be the wordsmith Jim Taylor, who might be described as a “with-it” guy. He’s written “One More Time!” (Harbour) with the 91-year-old orchestra leader and he’s also co-authored books with a hockey player, with a football quarterback, and with a wheelchair athlete.

He pursued the legendary Mr. Richards for four years before getting him to sit down and recount his adventures. The goal early in the project was to capture the band leader’s nuances of speech.

“I put down every belch, hiccup and pause. After about five hours, I can talk Dal better than Dal.”

He needs to do so to ensure the book is given the voice of the subject.

“Rick Hansen can’t sound like Igor Larionov who can’t sound like Dal Richards, or I’ve screwed up,” he said.

Mr. Taylor suspects few customers will make the trek to the bookstore to get his John Hancock.

“It’s Dal’s book. Dal’s the story,” Mr. Taylor said. ‘Nobody there is going to want my autograph.”

He knows the as-told-to co-author is a second fiddle, a second banana, a sidekick.

He remembers a long lineup for a book singing with Wayne Gretzky’s father. A large cardboard cutout of the hockey player promoted the book. When the doors opened, the first kid through marched up to the older men and demanded to see the hockey god.

Told the book was by the father, the lad turned around to announce about The Great One: “He ain’t here and he ain’t coming.”

Mr. Taylor will never forget the scene.

“It was like somebody took a powerhose and flushed out the mall.”

Mr. Taylor, who began his career in Victoria and maintains a second home at Shawnigan Lake, was on tour last year to promote “Hello Sweetheart? Gimmie Rewrite!,” a memoir of his four decades in the press box as a sports columnist. Bolen booked him for that one.

If the author worries about attendance, the bookers worry about also satisfying author’s demands.

Early in his career, Mr. Wiersema was assigned to handle an event featuring Anne Rice, the vampire chronicler. He was excited by the prospect until temporarily flummoxed by a rider to her contract. She wanted Tab on ice. The problem? The diet soda was unavailable in Victoria. He purchased a six-pack in Seattle and had it shipped by courier north across the border.

Two years ago, Bolen snagged Chuck Palahniuk for a reading at the end of his tour for “Rant: The Oral History of Buster Casey.” The author was booked into the Alix Goolden hall, a renovated church with an upper balcony.

The author, known for “Fight Club,” has a dedicated fan base as well as a reputation like few others. He’s a Springsteen among the literary set. He brings props, flits in and out of the audience, cracks wise during readings that are raucous affairs.

He sometimes has paramedics in attendance.

“He’s one of the few writers,” Mr. Wiersema noted, “known to have casualties at his events.”

He did not disappointment in Victoria.

He distributed inflatable reindeer heads, tossing some into the balcony.

He planted the seed that he might read the story “Guts,” about which the descriptive “notorious” hardly does justice. “Guts” is so vile — so transgressive — that it has an online body count — a total of listeners who have fainted during a reading.

“He started reading this story,” Mr. Wiersema recounted. “Then, from up in the balcony, you heard this thunk, crack!, thunk.”

A patron, made lightheaded by the subject matter of the story, had made the mistake of getting up from his seat to leave the building. He did not make it, striking his face against a door as he collapsed. The bloodied man was aided by audience members.

“Normally this would be a terrible thing, except for this author and this audience.”

Mr. Wiersema got to schedule an event earlier this year at which he was the featured author. His novella, “The World More Full of Weeping,” was launched at Bolen. He sold several copies and, better yet, there were no known casualties.

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