For all you frustrated writers whose books are not appearing in bookstores around the country, we have a new program designed for you. It is called the Itinerant Book Show. This new project which is currently being funded by Sullivan Street Press was born out of the realization that too many small towns and neighborhoods are inadequately served by the bookstore industry and thus, too many books are ignored. Given these two ideas, that the bookstores are dwindling and that even where there are bookstores many good books are not available, a new form of distribution came to mind.
My life took a turn when the flood in Cedar Rapids, Iowa happened in June 2008. I decided to travel back and forth between Queens and Cedar Rapids in order to cover the story of how that town would recover from such a massive flood. When I drove there the first time, I realized I was a)pretty lonely showing up in towns not knowing anyone; and b) I had a new publishing company starting up and wondered if this would be a way to sell my own books along the way. But then coming back from the first trip between New York and Iowa I also felt that what we had started here in my own neighborhood, a monthly reading series, could also be applied to the towns I would be driving through during the years of reporting. In theory, this new form of book distribution could make the travel less lonely and allow me to talk to people about the things I find most interesting--books, publishing, the future of the book business and the radical changes in the business models occurring now.
What began as this theoretical notion turned into actually loading up my Toyota Prius with as many books as I could and looking for venues where I could share them. Each stop along my route gave me new ideas about how to present what I began to call the Itinerant Book Show. Consider this article an early report of an ongoing experiment.
At first, I thought I could set up these venues by phone and email. My initial efforts proved fragmentary. I had some people I could track down but nothing really settled. I had the books, but no one to talk to. But for my trip this past June, I had found two venues in Toledo, Ohio where I could try out my experimental book distribution ideas.
My first foray into book distribution was really like sitting at a book fair where I was the only book dealer. At Organic Bliss Cafe on Secor Road in Toledo, the owner had given me a three-hour period in which to come and talk to his lunch crowd. I walked in with very little in the way of publicity or promotion and set up my books, put out some brochures and hoped someone would show some interest. I had discovered this cafe while looking for a place to eat near the motel I had stayed at in March. When I walked into the cafe with arms loaded with books, I saw a man in a white coat in the entryway selling organic milk but also giving away free samples. I realized that this might not be the best venue for my meager wares. During my entire three hour stint at the cafe only two men were willing to speak to me. But not wanting to call this a waste of time, I began thinking how to improve my dreary looking display.
Not wanting to call this first attempt a failure, I looked forward to the performance I was to give at a recently opened coffee house nearby. But while trying to ease that sense of failure, I received an email from Jesse Lipman, the owner of that new coffee house. He wrote that he had mistakenly overbooked. He had just opened Ground Level Coffee and his email said that I was welcome to come but he could not promise me any time to perform. At first I wanted to throw my BlackBerry across the room and retreat in defeat. But It dawned on me that his problems were similar to mine. He was just starting out; he too was going to make mistakes; and I would be returning in September and many times after that so why antagonize a new contact? Instead of giving in to that angry frustration, I decided to show up at his coffee house and see what it looked like and what kind of performance space it was. That decision was a wise one and it gave me the opportunity to hear some remarkable high school students read from their work.
When I left Toledo, I still was not pleased with my efforts at putting this new distribution idea forward. But there was one more possibility of a show on my return trip. In Clarion, PA I had found Michelle's Cafe. It was a beautiful room, filled with wooden tables and book cases. The walls were festooned with a number of quilts chronicling the travels around the world of the woman who had made them. It felt just right, exactly the kind of space I had imagined while dreaming about this experiment on the road. But in order to accommodate their schedule, it turned out, I had to shorten my stay in Iowa. But it was worth it because it became the highlight of that first road show. Books were sold which meant authors would receive some money. The people who showed up were lively and engaging and it felt like we began a wonderful relationship that night.
Another unexpected invitation came when I met F. John Herbert in Cedar Rapids. I had met with him to discuss his gallery's flooding the previous June. (John runs the CSPS Gallery. Cedar Rapids has a large Czech population and this gallery's initials stand for Czech and Slovak Prudential Society, the original tenant of this building). His umbrella organization, Legion Arts, serves as a conduit for artists and performers from all over the world to come to Cedar Rapids and exhibit their work or perform. While I thought I was interviewing John about the flood, he was in turn asking me to perform in his space during my next visit.
John called me an evangelist as I described what the Itinerant Book Show meant to me. I prefer to think of myself as Johnny Appleseed. I am planting the seeds of my passion for books and helping people understand why reading is important in a democracy. Standing in front of people to talk about the books I carry is a wonderful way to explain this necessity. This experiment must be working because I have been asked back to each venue. Conversations have begun that people want to continue. That speaks volumes, don't you think, about how the world of books affects us all.