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In Search of John Boy

No matter how many times you’ve seen it, is there a movie that—if your channel surfing lands on it —you have to stop and watch? One such movie for me is You’ve Got Mail. Not only is it a thoroughly engaging Rom-Com, but I want to be the main character, Kathleen Kelly.

You see, ever since I was a little girl, I yearned to live in a New York high rise like Kathleen, overlooking the hustle and bustle—in an apartment with floor to ceiling bookshelves bursting at the seams and radiators that hissed, hardwood floors and heavy front doors with enough brass locks to remind you that you’re in the big city. And I wanted to own a bookstore—one with bells that jingle when a customer appears. There’s nothing like that sound.

The “Shop Around the Corner” in the 1998 movie seems so genuine I can smell the books. In the movie Meg Ryan plays the shop owner, Kathleen Kelly, whose small, family owned bookstore is being forced out of business by a behemoth operation. It’s not unlike what happens in today’s real world, as independent bookstores everywhere struggle to compete against the convenience of Amazon.

Until I landed a book contract and started down the publishing path, I didn’t understand quite how fragile the indie bookstore’s existence is: I took it for granted.

According to the American Booksellers Association, more than one independent bookstore has closed each week since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. These 1,700+ independent bookstores across the country are often the hubs of their communities—where groups gather, where sticky-fingered children eagerly await story time, where people linger and browse, discovering new topics and authors. According to Allison Hill, CEO of the American Booksellers Association, “Shopping local now will ensure that the places you love, like the corner bookstore where you met your partner, taught your child to read or discovered the book that changed your life, will still be there in the new year” (Los Angeles Times, October 2020).

This is what Kathleen Kelly knew that perhaps we’ve forgotten.

With my first novel, Mt. Moriah’s Wake, coming out in two months (!) I’ve started traveling to independent bookstores within a driving distance, requesting they carry my novel. My first voyage was to Cincinnati where, accompanied by an old college friend and fellow author, I explored a five-story bookstore with an impressive collection of books about Eleanor Roosevelt—and that delicious musty scent in the air that seemed to have come from the Roosevelts’ house!

I have to say that taking my Advanced Reader Copy into a bookstore, promoting the novel at all in fact, does not come naturally. It’s only slightly less terrifying than modeling a bikini in Times Square would be. You see, the act of writing is a solitary endeavor but promoting the story demands community. It requires the author to be a marketer, and writing skills and marketing prowess are often mutually exclusive. Shielded by a keyboard, a writer is at home. Promoting her work—not so much.

Certainly writing Mt. Moriah’s Wake was harder than I expected. Isolating. Yet those characters became so real to me I could smell their shampoo. I hope you like them if/when you read the book but, if not, be gentle: They are my friends.

Many of you have pre-ordered Mt. Moriah’s Wake on Amazon, and I’m so grateful. We’ll be doing a big pre-order campaign in late July, to increase Amazon sales. Stay tuned! I’m not against Amazon and the significant role it plays in our society, and certainly the Prime driver knows my house well. But don’t forget to frequent the independent bookstores in your community—and while you’re there, ask if they are carrying Mt. Moriah’s Wake or can pre-order it for you. To find an independent bookstore in your area, follow this link.

Somewhere along the way the publishing industry exploded and we moved away from every naive idea I had of the process. Truthfully, most of my preconceived notions came from fictional characters like Jo March and John Boy Walton. They plopped a stack of loose-leaf pages on the scratched, heavy desk of an editor who fell in love with their stories, and their future was sealed. Jo and John Boy had no celebrity, no platform… simply words and tales that begged to be told. How different our world is now that celebrity and over-queried agents and the sheer amount of competition stand between many writers and their dreams.

This is where you, the reader, come in. Visit your local bookstore. Try out a new author. Go to Goodreads and post a review of a good book you’ve read or name one you want to read (hint hint). Behind the trill of those door bells is a cadre of writers wanting, needing, to be read. Their voices are important, but they may be too timid to ask.

Go find that next John Boy.

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