Sunday, May 23, 2010

Purple Crow Books and the Indie Spirit

The number of independent booksellers in the U.S. is on the rise and thriving according to reports from the American Booksellers Association (ABA) and BookExpo America, the annual convention of the publishing industry which kicks off in New York City this week (May 25-27). 

This is great news for hard-working independent bookstore owners like Sharon Wheeler at Purple Crow Books in Hillsborough, North Carolina, a lovely, historic town west of Chapel Hill

I had the chance to visit her store while passing through the area last week. Wheeler is smart and savvy to have set up shop in downtown Hillsborough, a literary and artistic enclave, which is home to prominent authors Lee Smith, Hal Crowther, Annie DillardAllan Gurganus, Frances Mayes, Michael Malone, and Jill McCorkle to name just a few. 

The shop is quaint and small, but it is boundless in reflecting Wheeler's passion and enthusiasm for books -- and local writers. Each title stocked on the shelves at the Purple Crow appears carefully selected, and every detail (down to purple feather bookmarks and a whimsical children's book room) is well thought out, reflecting Wheeler's warm and welcoming nature. Clearly, Wheeler takes pride in offering the personal touch, which has obviously contributed to the success of her business. In addition to regular inventory, the Purple Crow features books (many signed) by local and regional authors, sponsors readings and book events by these authors, and eagerly fulfills special order requests.

In the northeast corner of my home state of New Jersey, there are many outstanding independent booksellers, as well. Among them are Shaw's Bookshop (Westwood), BookEnds (Ridgewood), Womrath's (Tenafly) and Books and Greetings (Northvale). Each of these stores regularly hosts events with authors -- notable heavy-hitters and some first-timers. In Montclair, Watchung Booksellers, like the Purple Crow, boasts books and signing events by a diverse crowd of local writers who reside in and around that literary hub.  

In this day and age, there is so much talk that the trend in book publishing is veering toward the digital market. Therefore, it's refreshing to witness the dedication of indie booksellers like Sharon Wheeler at the Purple Crow and those in my own local region and around the country who are seeing to it that writers and the printed page remain at the forefront of the industry.  Bravo!

Photos (above) of the Purple Crow Bookstore and Sharon Wheeler by Kathleen Gerard (c) 2010

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Mrs. Darcy and the Blue-Eyed Stranger

“No person is a cliché. If you actually get to know them (him/her)…there will be many things deep down that are particular to them (each). That’s what I look for.” Lee Smith, interview in the Citizen-Times

The month of May has been declared as National Short Story Month . . . And Mrs. Darcy and the Blue-Eyed Stranger, a book of new and selected stories by Lee Smith, is a perfect way to celebrate. For me, a satisfying short takes a reader on a journey that lasts for only a short time, but the people one meets and the places one visits linger much, much longer.  With that as the criteria, you can sit back and relax with Lee Smith as your literary tour guide.

It's been thirteen years since Smith released a short story collection, and Mrs. Darcy and the Blue-Eyed Stranger (which, by the way, has nothing at all to do with Jane Austen) was surely worth the wait. Smith's dialogue is spot on, and her narrative voice (in first person p-o-v or third) is as strong as her characters and plots.  In each story, Smith peels back layers of the human psyche in order to expose the absurdity of people and situations, entertaining her readers while enlightening them along the way.

I've been a fan of Smith's writing since her first novel, The Last Day the Dog Bushes Bloomed, and I've enjoyed and admired her work ever since. With Mrs. Darcy and the Blue-Eyed Stranger, Smith has assembled some of the best stories from her previous collections (Cakewalk, Me and My Baby View the Eclipse, and News of the Spirit), and she's included seven new works. As a whole, the theme of "change" is a thread running through each story. In some instances, change has already been inflicted upon the lives of characters and in other stories, change is about to crest. Smith, a true craftsman of the short form, makes all the right decisions in deciding just where and when to start (and end) each piece. She paints with a full palette to flesh out her smart, quirky characters, and she has an incredible gift for dotting the often sad, bittersweet canvas of life with just the right strokes of humor.

In an interview in Indyweek, Smith recently spoke to that point: "I consider myself a realist; I have always tried to tell the truth as I saw it. Paradoxically, I guess, I have found it easier to do this in fiction than in nonfiction. You can make things up and switch facts around to make your points. But a lot of times, the truth is not pretty—it's hard to bear—I guess that's where the humor comes in. We have to have something to lighten the load a little bit, don't we?"

Most of the stories in Mrs. Darcy and the Blue-Eyed Stranger focus on women - what it means to be a wife, a mother, a daughter, a lover. 
In "House Tour," a woman's home is overtaken by a group of boisterous, Red Hat Society matrons who mistake the woman's house for one included on a neighborhood historic house tour. The unpredictable presence of these ladies (they are hilarious!), who push their way into the woman's home and begin to explore the nooks and crannies, ultimately force the protagonist to contemplate a deeper meaning for her own life.

In other stories in the collection, Smith tackles aging ("Happy Memories Club", "Between the Lines"); how some members in families appear to be helpful when they are actually only catering to their own self-interests ("Mrs. Darcy and the Blue-Eyed Stranger"); what makes for a long and enduring marriage (the outstanding, "Stevie and Mama"); coping amid unraveling relationships ("Bob, A Dog"); and the power of love ("Ultima Thule," where a hospital worker makes a love connection with a psych ward patient).

Smith is often characterized as a "regional" writer.  But in reading (and savoring) the rich gamut of stories and excellent prose presented in Mrs. Darcy and the Blue-Eyed Stranger, Lee Smith once again proves that her range far exceeds the constraints implied by that label.  Small towns and close-knit communities--and the challenges fraught therein--are cornerstones of her fiction (the majority of her stories take place in the south). However, in Smith's world, small moments have the potential to change lives. And such moments of personal clarity and revelation serve to broaden the scope of Smith's stories as they open out into more universal themes found in the larger, broader world.