I’m always glad to sell any one of my books any way I can. I’d sell them in dark, back alleyways if I thought that would work. Or maybe I could buy an old ice cream truck, one with a bell that still rings, and cruise through neighborhoods with bright, happy music playing. “How about a banana popsicle to go with that copy of The Dry Well? Or a Nutty Buddy?” So if someone buys a book of mine from a chain bookstore or an on-line store, I’m certainly pleased. But after working in two independent bookstores, long before I published a first book, I’ve always preached the gospel of independents. Independent booksellers know books. And they know their customers, can steer them toward books by new or little-known writers, and can be confident they’re putting the right book in a reader’s hand. Writers need booksellers like this. So do readers.
I was happy to be a such a bookseller. In November of 1990, not long after finishing grad school, I went to work at Capitol Book & News in Montgomery, Alabama, a store I’d been in and bought books from any number of times over the years. Capitol Book was a Montgomery institution, whose downtown store opened in 1950, and I couldn’t believe my good fortune to be working there for Thomas and Cheryl Upchurch, and in their newer store in an old Montgomery neighborhood called Cloverdale.
One of my jobs during that busy Christmas season was to mail special order books to customers who didn’t live in Montgomery. So one afternoon during my first week, I was in the back room with a large stack of books that needed to be packaged and addressed. Each book had a 3×5 card sticking out of it with the customer’s name and street address. I picked up a copy of A Season for Justice, a new book by Morris Dees, the Civil Rights lawyer and founder of the Southern Poverty Law Center, which is here in Montgomery. When I pulled out the card to see how to address the package, I was a bit taken aback. The name I read? Rosa Parks. Standing there in that dusty back room, I thought, “Wow. Rosa Parks is going to open this. How cool.” Then a few days later, it happened again. This time there was a stack of several books that needed to be mailed together. I pulled out the card and read: Harper Lee. Again, I thought, “Wow. How cool,” and made sure I taped the package tightly. (There may be more about Ms. Lee later. Okay, there will be.)
I realize there’s nothing particularly important or dramatic about either of these moments, but they’ve obviously stayed with me. I’ve always thought that books help to connect us, remind us of our common humanity, and maybe in these two moments I felt a connection to these iconic figures simply because I was helping deliver books into their hands, and putting a book in someone’s hand is a worthy enough undertaking, maybe on rare occasions even life changing for the receiver in some small, private way.
A few years later, while teaching at Clemson University and trying to write books that someone, someday, might just order and have mailed to them, I found further gainful employment working part time at the Clemson Open Book. My friend Sam Ramsey, a booklover if there ever was one, worked there and got me the job. (By the way, “Sam” was not short for “Samantha” as I’d thought at first.) At this point I’d published a handful of short stories in literary journals, and I’d been lucky enough to have one of them picked up for the yearly anthology Prize Stories: The O. Henry Awards. So one night I was working at the store by myself and a woman came in and walked over to the New Fiction display shelf where we had, face out and side by side, copies of both Prize Stories, with a bright red cover, and Best American Short Stories. And yes, it was the Prize Stories with my story in it. The woman, to my great surprise, picked up the red book, flipped through it, put it down, and then picked up the Best American. She went back and forth between them any number of times. I kept quiet there behind the counter but was praying that I’d get to sell a piece of my own fiction and hear that satisfying ring of the cash register mark the occasion. Alas, I ended up one disappointed boy, well, young man–well, younger than I am now. She walked out with the Best American, and I never said a word.
After returning to Alabama in 1996, I occasionally filled in at Capitol Book whenever Thomas and Cheryl asked me, happy to be back amongst their shelves. Now here’s where I need to tell you that Ms. Lee, as Thomas and Cheryl always called her, not only ordered books from the store, she sometimes drove up from Monroeville and shopped there in person, but I was never there when she came in. I can’t tell you how many times Eleanor Lucas, Thomas’s sister, with whom I often worked, would say, “Guess who came in yesterday.” I didn’t have to guess. I knew. (By the way, in the photo above, L to R, that’s Cheryl, Eleanor, and Thomas.) So I finally told Thomas, “Next time Ms. Lee comes in, if I’m not here, call me.” Finally, one Saturday morning, he did.
When I arrived, Thomas was walking up the hallway toward the front and told me Ms. Lee was in the office signing copies of her book for the store. Then she appeared looking just like, well, just like Harper Lee, but older, a bit heavier, I suppose, than in pictures I’d seen, wearing dark-framed glasses. I was certainly nervous standing there before her, not sure what to say, and so Thomas simply said, “Ms. Lee, this is Bart Barton. He works for us sometimes, and he’s a writer and a big fan of yours.” I managed to say something. I can’t remember what exactly, and she was nice enough to sign a hardback copy of her book to me. (And no, it wasn’t a first edition.) So I can’t claim any great association with Ms. Lee. We didn’t really have a conversation, not about writing or anything else, but what more did I really need other than that beautiful novel of hers, filled with enough humanity for us all?
I have to add here that something else happened in that hallway. A friend of mine named Roger Condon suddenly appeared from out of the children’s room just as Thomas was introducing me to Ms. Lee. Roger was a sharp, quick-witted guy never at a loss for words that were sometimes sharp and often funny if they weren’t too cutting. He walked right up to us, and without slowing a step, grabbed my hand, shook it, and said, “Well, I’m a big fan of Bart Barton’s.” With that he disappeared up front with the book he carried. I knew he didn’t realize who he’d just seen. So after taking my leave of Ms. Lee, I managed to catch up with Roger in the parking lot. “Do you know who that lady was?” I said, and he looked at me as if to say, Why would I care? “I heard the man call her Ms. Lee,” he said. “That was Harper Lee,” I announced. Roger’s face went blank and his mouth fell open but no words, sharp or otherwise, came forth. For once, he had been rendered speechless. Books like To Kill a Mockingbird are powerful things indeed.
I did finally manage to sell some of my own fiction. My very first signing for my first book was at Capitol Book, and I asked if I could work behind the counter for a few minutes before the literary festivities began. An older gentleman approached with a copy of The Dry Well, and I rang it up for him. He seemed quite surprised when I was the one who sat down at the writer’s table, ready to sign it for him. Maybe he didn’t think I was really the writer, only an imposter. I was happy to be both writer and bookseller. Valuable occupations both.