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Deal Safrit: Book Expo a great gathering

SALISBURY — For the sixth time in eight years, my wife, Sheila Brownlow, and I attended BookExpo America in early June, and for the fifth time it was at the massive Javits Center in Manhattan. Javits is on Eleventh Street and 34th, on the banks of the Hudson River, and encompasses almost 750,000 square feet. Book Expo uses almost the entire building for its four-day event, hosting authors, publishers, booksellers, librarians and other book industry people from around the world for the most significant book event in the Western hemisphere.
For the fifth time in New York we stayed at the Hotel Pennsylvania, ideally located directly across Seventh Avenue from Pennsylvania Station. One of New York’s grand old ladies, the 1,700-room hotel is in need of considerable renovation, but due to the threat of demolition for construction of a new office tower, the renovation has been delayed for years. Because of this, the hotel does not have a very high opinion among American travelers; domestic travelers used to luxury may wish to consider other choices. But the hotel easily fills with international travelers, which to us is part of the charm, and its proximity to both Penn Station and Javits Center, plus its reasonable prices, makes the Pennsylvania the perfect hotel for us.
More time to visit
Although Sheila and I attended Book Expo this year as owners of Literary Bookpost and as editors of our book blog, The Literary Outpost, the circumstance that I am now retired from day-to-day management of the bookshop allowed us to spend more time with our publisher friends and favorite authors. We were also able to “do” the show itself in just two days on the huge third floor exhibit hall where most of the action was. Although the show was still totally exhausting, it was a lot more fun than in previous visits. Because we did not attend BEA last year, and I went by myself in 2010, we both had the opportunity to renew old friendships within the industry and work out some publisher support for our blog.
For the first time ever, Sheila and I also worked out a system where we could keep up with each other as the day progressed, making the Algonquin Books booth our message and meeting point. Not only do we have an excellent Algonquin rep, Frazier Dobson, who is also one of the owners of Park Road Books in Charlotte, but many of the publicists and editors who man the booth for the show know me from years of dealings.
The same can be said of some of the authors that publish with Algonquin, such as Robert Goolrick (“The Reliable Wife,” “Heading Out to Wonderful”) and Jonathan Evison (“West of Here,” “The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving”). Evison kindly remembered me from the 2010 show, and I was happy to see he was still wearing his grandfather’s hat for his book signings. One other very important point about Algonquin, and their parent, Workman Publishing, is that they always have the best party on Wednesday night down on Varick Street, and it is the only party we never miss at Book Expo, no matter how tired we are.
The other two authors I was very happy to spend a few minutes with were Joseph Kanon and Chris Bohjalian. Kanon is the author of six novels, his newest being “Istanbul Passage,” and has been favorably compared to Graham Greene in his writing abilities and his subject matter. He worked for Houghton Mifflin and Dutton prior to going to full-time writing in 1995, and unlike many writers, does not churn out a novel every year,, instead spending time on writing only, in my opinion, good ones. I had not seen Kanon since 2009 when his novel “Stardust” came out.
Bohjalian’s book exciting
Chris Bohjalian is very familiar to many Salisbury residents, Bohjalian having been here twice for book events. He was signing his new book, “The Sandcastle Girls,” in the Random House booth, which was somewhat unfortunate as the Random House handlers were trying to push people, and authors, through like a bunch of Nazi guards in a camp. Chris did see me down the queue, and yelled out a greeting; when I got to him he actually took some time as we talked about the importance of his new book, much to the displeasure of his “guards.” Bohjalian is of Armenian heritage and “Sandcastle Girls” is a novel of the Armenian genocide. The book is not only his best writing but his most meaningful book, to date.
Meanwhile, back in the 29 lines set up in the designated author autographing area, Sheila has patiently waited for 90 minutes in line for Lee Child, the British author she fell in love with after I brought her a copy of “61 Hours” in 2010. She is ninth in line, and once the signing begins at 2, she has a chance to chat with Child and have a nice personal inscription written in her copy of “A Wanted Man,” his forthcoming book. What Sheila finds out later is that, at 1:30, I was standing out front being politically incorrect, having a cigarette with Lee Child!
Hidden treasure
On Tuesday, Sheila also scores the coup of the show, casually walking into the American Booksellers Association lounge (only available for independent bookstores) and discovering a roomful of unannounced authors all signing their books and chatting with people. She gets a chance to interact with, and get books from Ann Patchett, Andre Dubus, Jesmyn Ward, Maryanne McFadden and Jeffrey Eugenides, among others moving around the room, and frankly, I am jealous. As it turns out later, all of these authors are here because they are nominated for the Indies Choice Book Awards.
So, for two solid days this is how we spend our time, and by the end of the day on Wednesday, we have seen and talked to somewhere between 40 and 50 authors. There have been hundreds of authors at the show, but, the ones we saw were, for once, the ones we wanted to see. Many were well-known authors like Michael Connelly, Richard Ford, Ian McEwan, Alan Furst, Elinor Lipman, Linda Fairstein, Chris Hedges and Chris Cleave.
Others were far lesser known but with books we believe to be important in the coming year, books that we will blog about once we have read and mentally digested them.
Favorite moments
Who was my favorite person to meet this year at Book Expo? Without a doubt, it was Buddy Guy, who was there signing his new book, “When I Left Home.” I do believe this was almost as enjoyable as meeting Leonard Cohen in 2006 when he signed “Book of Longing” at the show. And Guy was much friendlier.
My favorite serendipitous moment was when author Steve Stern chased us down on 34th Street on Thursday afternoon. I had spent a bit of time with Stern in-booth, where he was signing his forthcoming book, “The Book of Mischief,” but Sheila was the one who remembered his 1999 book, “The Wedding Jester,” which won the National Jewish Book Award. We had quite a delightful conversation as we walked back to the hotel. We shipped four boxes of books back from the show, but, what book did I bring back on the train with me? Joseph Kanon’s “Istanbul Passage”; some things just can’t wait for UPS. And Sheila? Her favorite author meeting was with Lee Child, who had people lined up like he was a rock star, who was allowing anyone who wanted photo ops, and who kindly wrote a meaningful personal inscription in every autographed book. Her most serendipitous moment was the surprise group of authors she found in the ABA lounge, and the two-page inscription Jeffrey Eugenides wrote in her book, mentioning everyone in her family. Do we need to guess the book that went home with Sheila on the train? “A Wanted Man,” by Lee Child, of course!
Book Expo America 2013 is next June. Barring something unforeseen, Sheila and I will be there, with a full report!

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