John Heartbreak, famous in the small world of booksellers and perhaps my oldest friend, attended the Arkansas Bookseller's Show last week 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 show was actually held in the convention center in Jacksonville, Arkansas -- a raggedy, worn-out suburb of Little Rock -- and a dismal affair it was indeed. Rain fell hard all day long and the wind blew enough to daunt even the most serious of book buyers and readers. No doubt they stayed home 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."
Edna Burgereon, from Monroe, Louisiana sniffed. Edna specializes in cookbooks and has no stomach for a lot of what Heartbreak dishes up. She hissed, "I've no time for your metaphysical crap, John." She got up, left, 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 rain along with John, proving again that Scandinavians will drink coffee shine or rain. "You stole the card shark 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."
"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."