As my debut novel, The Map of Lost Memories, entered the production phase at Random House, I was assigned the task of helping to find writers to blurb it. Blurbs are those lovely, self-contained snippets on the backs of novels, in which known authors assure readers that a book is “evocative” or a “tour de force.” Desperately wanting my own novel to be declared “compelling” and “unputdownable,” I contacted everyone I knew who knew someone who had published a novel.
I also made some big leaps, writing to überfamous authors such as Michael Ondaatje and Ann Patchett. The latter was easy since I could send my request to her newly opened Parnassus Books in Nashville. Of course, I didn’t expect blurbs from such heavy hitters. But if you’re going to dream, dream big, kid! Right?
I also didn’t expect to open my mailbox one day and find a postcard depicting a vintage Penguin paperback cover of D.H. Lawrence’s The Lost Girl. On the back of it was something I hadn’t seen come out of my mailbox in years, other than briefly in thank you cards—handwriting! The postcard contained a thoughtful note declining to read my novel for a blurb and ending with, “I will look forward to selling your book when it comes out this summer. Good luck and all good wishes. Ann Patchett.”
Perhaps it seems that this rejection would have disappointed me. But I can only imagine how busy Ms. Patchett must be, writing exceptional novels, tending her bookshop and deflecting pleas from people like me. And to say that I was touched is an understatement. I was moved, not just emotionally, but in my thoughts back to another place and time: the five years that I worked as an independent bookseller at the Elliott Bay Book Company in Seattle.
At this store (before the arrival of the Internet), I discovered how a brick-and-mortar shop can serve as an anchor for a community. It can be a gathering place as well as a place where ideas are discussed and explored. I spent many an evening with customers, sharing my passion for Graham Greene or being introduced to the gustatory pleasures of MFK Fisher … exchanges that dipped and soared with the revelations and educations those books contained. My fellow booksellers and I loved authors, those magical creatures who took words—simple words—and molded them into conversations that could be passed around the world. What an honor it was to be able to play such a crucial role in keeping those conversations alive.
Later, after four years in Vietnam, I moved to L.A. I was making my living as a writer by this point, but I missed being in a bookshop, so I took a Saturday job at Traveler’s Bookcase, a wonderful little travel bookshop that is still a home away from home for me. Next door was a companion store called Cook’s Library, and one morning I wandered over there to research a Vietnamese food book I was working on. While I was sitting on the floor with books spread out in front of me, I felt a tap on my shoulder.
I looked up to see a young Vietnamese woman studying my selections. It turned out that she had just finished writing a cookbook based on recipes from her childhood in Little Saigon, an hour south of Los Angeles, and when I told her what I was doing, she offered advice on which books I should buy for my research. Two hours later, we were still in Cook’s Library, talking away. Two weeks later, my sister took the photographs for her cookbook. This summer she came to my wedding, and last month I attended hers.
In the years since she and I met, Cook’s Library has gone out of business. I often wonder how many potential best friendships went away with it. Perhaps this is why Ms. Patchett’s note meant so much to me, for it embodies something that is alive and well for any reader who takes the time to look for it: the personal experience to be had in an independent bookshop. It is an experience that cannot be found anywhere else, an experience that is essential to the future of the planet if we are to remain sane, humane beings.