Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Coffee with John Heartbreak

John Heartbreak, famous in the small world of booksellers and perhaps my oldest friend, attended the Arkansas Booksellers Show in Little Rock recently at my encouragement. John is famous because he is known to know more about books than most human beings. We are oldest friends because we've been able to forgive one another for more than half a century.

The book show was actually held in the convention center in Jacksonville, a suburb of Little Rock, and a dismal affair it was indeed. The temperature outside hit 106 degrees, enough to daunt even the most serious of book buyers and readers. No doubt they stayed home in the air conditioning and watched the Ladies Professional Golf Association on television. The convention center was exactly empty.

  "The modern world does not wear its heart on its sleeve," John said, to no one in particular, apropos of nothing. He sipped a cup of coffee and stared off into space. The rest of us didn't know where to stare. John finished up, "It wears it up its sleeve like a card shark."


  Tootie from Bismarck left the area. She specializes in cookbooks and has no stomach for a lot of what John dishes up. She hissed, "I've no time for your metaphysical crap, John." She wouldn't return until the cash bar opened up at six. The rest of the group trickled back to their booths.

  I sipped coffee in the 106-degree weather along with John, proving again that Scandinavians will drink coffee no matter what, and even in hell if Lucifer is kind enough to offer it up. "You stole that line from Chesterton," I said. Sip. Sip.

  "I didn't steal it. I borrowed it. Chesterton wasn't using it today."

  John drank more coffee. "I drove all the way down here from St. Paul on your recommendation," he said, "and the only thing I've sold is a set of Anthony Trollop. To a decorator who 'needed something green' for a client's den."

  "Your point?"

  "My feelings are hurt. I'm discouraged that no one will ever read that set of books again. I'm certain that they'll never be opened."

  "We're booksellers, John, not intellectuals or educational reformers. What people do with the books we sell is not our business."

  "Books are an unceasing parade of first impressions," John replied. "Selling a book to someone who won't read it makes no impression, on them, or on anyone they meet. The parade is over before it starts."

  "Trollop will make a fine impression on everyone who visits the client's den," I said. "They will be impressed by how well the green bindings compliment the mocha paint on the walls. People will gossip about the client's fine taste in books and how smart he must be."

  John sighed. "I'm not much for gossip, pal."

  "All literature is gossip," I said.

  "But not all gossip is literature."

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