911 said the sign as we edged into the central Oregon town of Sisters. We weren’t sure if that was the population, or a cry for help. It was Saturday afternoon, and we were booked into Paulina Springs Book Company as part of our Putting Your Passion Into Print Tour. In fact we had put together this event to sell our books Satchel Sez: the World, Wit and Wisdom of Satchel Paige, and Pride & Promiscuity: the Lost Sex Scenes of Jane Austen, because our publishers, Simon & Schuster, and Random House, had told us it would be very difficult to do a successful event in a bookstore revolving around Satchel Paige or Jane Austen, both of whom are dead, and most likely will remain so. But Kate Cerino at Paulina Springs seemed to think differently, and had insisted on doing an event about Satchel Paige, instead of Passion Into Print. So there we were.
We walked into the store at 4:40 for our 5:00 event, and apart from Kate, none of the 911 Sisterites were there. Our expectations, which had been extremely low to begin with, plummeted as we spied the 30 empty seats sadly facing one lone chair, which was staring off into space self-consciously.
As we strolled around Sisters, we noticed that all the shops were closed, and no one was around. It was like a Twilight Zone episode. We began to wonder if there really were 911 people in Sisters, or if we were going to be abducted by author-starved aliens who would make us write books day and night for the rest of eternity.
Well, imagine our surprise at 5:00 when we returned to find Paulina Springs Bookstore packed with 35 of its 911 occupants. 3% of the population. If this was LA there would’ve been 300,000 people there. Our jaws hit the floor. Those melancholy chairs were now full and happy, brimming with Sisters bottoms, all waiting for us to say something intelligent, insightful and witty about Satchel Paige.
I scanned the crowd, and it suddenly hit me: there were only two people under the age of sixty in the audience. Talk about your target audience. Afterwards, the crowd asked great questions, and many of them shared their own Satchel Paige stories. It was America at its best, oral history flying all around us, right there in Paulina Springs Book Company, Sisters, Oregon, population 911. Turns out almost everyone there had seen Satchel pitch, which is not as strange as it might seem, since he barnstormed North America from Moosejaw to Miami. One woman told a story about when she was a little girl and her father took her to Comiskey Park in 1948 so she could see Satchel pitch against the Cleveland Indians. As she told us, her eyes glowed like gold as she lit up the room.
Towards the end of the event the Oldest-Man-in-the-Room raised his hand. In a voice weathered with age but still going gangbusters, he said, “I was the batboy on Satchel Paige’s team. My uncle was his manager. I used to ride in his car with him. He was fast. He would have made a great race car driver, Ol’ Satch.” He stole the whole show in about twenty seconds.
After the event, the Oldest-Man-In-the-Room approached me. He had several hundred thousand miles on him, but his smile was wide, his mind was tack-sharp, and he had incredible posture. Made me stop slouching just looking at him. He thanked me for writing the book. Then he told me that he had one of Satchel’s old gloves. I said I would love to buy it from him. He said, “No, sir, I want you to have it. Give me your address and I’ll mail it to you.” I insisted on paying for it, but he wouldn’t hear of it. He gave me his pen, and I wrote down my address for him. He carefully folded the paper and put it in his pocket. Then he stuck out his hand and I took it in mine. It was old and thin, but the grip was strong, with a little pump at the end. I hope I’m shaking hands as well as that when I’m 80. After we said our heartfelt farewells, I was distracted by someone asking me to sign a book, and this led to another signature, then another. As I signed the books, I was so happy when the buyers asked me to make the inscriptions out to their grand-sons and grand-daughters. Then it hit me: this is why I wanted to write the book in the first place, so the next generation would know about Satchel and his 6 Rules for Staying Young. As I signed, I felt a tug on my sleeve. It was the Oldest-Main-in-the-Room. I smiled to myself. I figured he probably forgot something. “Sonny, you got my pen.” I cracked up, handed him the pen, and smiled as I watched him walk away slow but steady, overjoyed at 44 to be called Sonny.
We thanked Kate, she thanked us, then we all patted each other on the back for quite some time. We promised her we’d be back when my memoir Chicken comes out in February, and she said she was looking forward to it.
Everyone in the store bought a book. It was the most successful event on our whole 13-stores-in-15-day tour.
As we packed up to leave Sisters, population 911, Arielle turned to David and said, “You never know.”
D & A: Why did you buck conventional wisdom and bring an event revolving around Satchel Sez: The Wit, Wisdom, and World of Satchel Paige into Paulina Springs Bookstore, when most publishers say in-store events about baseball players don’t work when the ballplayer is dead?
K: Someone in the store heard David being interviewed by Scott Simon on National Public Radio, and thought it would make a good event.
D & A: Why did you think an event about a Negro Leagues legend would work in your store when there are so few African-Americans in your town?
K: I don’t really think about it like that. We try to only bring in great events, so when people come to see an event here, they know it’s going to be interesting. Like all independent bookstores that have managed to survive, we have very loyal customers, and they support us.
D & A: So, you don’t make automatic assumptions of which books will draw crowds, and which won’t?
K: No, not really. We just try to bring in high-quality authors we think will put on really good events.
D & A: Your store has such a nice feel in it, it seems very intimate.
K: I think that’s important. A lot of people are intimidated by writers. A woman came to an event here and she said she’d always wanted to go to one of these events, but she felt intimidated. We have a very casual feeling here, and I think that makes a big difference.
D & A: And you had books I’d never seen before.
K: We’re able to hand-select the books we sell. I think almost every book in this store has been read by someone on the staff, or was recommended to us by a customer. One of our customers lives most of the time in Berkeley, and she comes into our store to buy books. I asked her why and she said, “You guys always have seem to have great books I can’t find anywhere else.” And she’s from Berkeley, where there are so many bookstores!
D & A: Your event was the most successful on David and Arielle’s 13 stores-in15-days Northwest Tour. Why do think the event such a success, in a town with 911 people?
K: Well, that’s a little deceiving. There are actually about 10,000 people who live in and around Sisters. But I think Paulina Springs Book Company is in many ways an intellectual center here in Sisters, and, in fact, for the larger Central Oregon community. The store’s owners, Dianne Campbell and Dick Sandvik, have worked very hard over the past nine years to develop strong audiences for our in-store events. People really pay attention to who we bring in. Like a lot of small towns all over America, many well-educated, interesting people live here. People have chosen to move here because it’s such a great place to live. We really work hard to get the word out on our events, and we benefit a lot from word of mouth in the community.
D & A: Do you think that publishers sometimes underestimate small-town bookstores’ ability to sell books and stage successful events?
K: Most definitely! We have a very hard time getting publishers to send their authors here. We’ve been very persistent, especially at making direct contact with writers. Authors like Sandra Dallas, Barry Lopez, Ivan Doig, and Craig Lesley came to Paulina Springs despite reservations of their publicists – and had great receptions and wonderful experiences. We think it’s time publicists and publishers took note that their authors might make a bigger splash here, rather than being part of the background noise in the big city. I was cleaning the files the other day and I found a note from Pete Fromm addressing this very point. “…the entire way to Boise, where the Barnes & noble experience was pretty much a bust. Meeting you guys, the dinner and the reading at your store turned out to be one of the high points of the entire trip. Thanks for pestering the publisher to get me there.”
D & A: That was our experience, too, Kate. Thank you so much for talking to me, and thanks for making us feel so welcome.
K: Thank you.