Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Paul Hemphill, R.I.P.

I have written one fan letter in my life, and it was to Paul Hemphill, who died this morning at age 73 after battling cancer for the last couple of years.

It was 1989, and I had just moved back to my hometown of Atlanta with the plans of opening a bookstore after years of managing one in San Francisco. Right before leaving the Bay Area, I stumbled upon a copy of Hemphill's first novel, Long Gone, and being an avid baseball fan, I was drawn to its subject -- the lowest of the low minor leagues, and going through a somewhat turbulent departure from San Francisco, I was comforted by the book's great humor.

Reading the author bio on the book's jacket, I immediately recognized Hemphill's first title, The Nashville Sound, and also being a fan of country music, I grabbed the first copy of that one I could find, too.

Before packing up my truck and heading home, though, I discovered Too Old to Cry, a collection of Hemphill's newspaper columns and other journalism--including some during his own ill-fated stint in San Francisco, and at that point, I knew I had found a writer who spoke to me as few others ever had or ever would.

Hemphill was a native Southerner who loved so much about his culture that he was secure in pointing out its obvious defects, and a natural journalist, whose writing embodied all the economy and simplicity of that world, but whose desire was to be more than that, to be a "real" writer, of books, at a time when those seemed to be things of permanence.

One of the first things I did when I got back to Atlanta, before buying inventory, before leasing a storefront, before coming up with a name, before writing a business plan (come to think of it, I still haven't written a business plan), I wrote a fan letter to Paul Hemphill.

I can't remember exactly what I told him in that letter, other than to say how much his work had inspired me at a time in my life when I was dealing with my essential identity as a Southerner despite most of the previous decade on the West Coast seeing if I could perhaps be something else.

Not long after I opened A Cappella in the cold of that winter, a skinny man in a fur-lined coat stepped inside my door and said, a la Johnny Cash, "I'm Paul Hemphill."

I tingled with excitement, and with a shaky voice showed him around my tiny new store, paying special attention to the first editions of all of his books that I showcased near the front.

I remained too in awe of Hemphill to ever even feel comfortable calling him "Paul," but over the years, we spent a good deal of time together, and in one of the career moves I take most pride in, I republished that first book, The Nashville Sound , to coincide with the edition of his great Hank Williams biography, Lovesick Blues, in 2005.

I have saved the email from when he agreed to let me do it, both because, like I say, it was a proud moment for me but also because its subject line is such a perfect example of Hemphill concision. It reads simply: "Let's Do Nashville."

Like most of my business endeavors--and most of his--the Nashville reprint was only a modest success. But, in our world, where Hank Williams always works as a soundtrack and failing to get a hit 7 out of 10 times at bat is as good as it gets--we were inspired enough by its performance to reprint the only remaining of his titles to, at that point, be out of print: Mayor: Notes on the Sixties, which he authored with Ivan Allen, Jr.

Soon, however, I received another classic Hemphill email:

"My life's on hold these days. Docs found cancer in my throat. Seems curable, and without too much pain. Excellent people on the case at Piedmont and Emory. No need to fret. Might be clear in couple of months."

That was two and a half years ago. By early this year, it was clear that he wouldn't be clear, and that Mayor would have to wait. Like everyone who knew the man, I've been prepared for this day for a while. I doesn't make the loss any less great.

It is possible to make too great a claim for Paul Hemphill's writing. It had its limits. It could be repetitious. But for anyone who ever fell under the sway of his words and his work, it was pure inspiration. Here was a man who did what he did, and did it damn well. It didn't make his life easy. But it made his city and his world a better place.

Christopher Dickey at the Carter Library

Last night, Christopher Dickey spoke to an intimate gathering in the Carter Presidential Libary's auditorium. He joked in his introductory remarks that he had seen his appearance listing in the AJC's section of "Cheap and Free" things to do around town and he also joked that, being the son of renowned poet and author and Atlanta native James Dickey, he was glad that not everyone in the audience was a relative.

It's a shame that being "cheap and free" might very well have been a prime reason that those who did come were there (and based on our book sales, it was). There should have been a much bigger audience because what Dickey had to say was very, very interesting and important. And without his wit and incredible mastery of his subject, any attempt I make to summarize will be inadequate.

Fortunately, for all those who missed his talk--and even for those who didn't--he's written it all down in his new book, Securing the City: Inside America's Best Counterterrorism Force-The NYPD.

Dickey's admiration for the work done by Ray Kelly and David Cohen and the rest of New York City's counterterrorism force is no small recommendation. As a foreign correspondent for a number of top news publications (he is currently Paris Bureau Chief of Newsweek magazine), Dickey is truly a terrorism expert. One of his works of fiction, he reminded the gathering Monday night, involved a terrorist plot in Atlanta.

For me, one of the more interesting points Dickey made was how Kelly recognized what an asset it was to have so many members of the NYPD who were first generation Americans whose families immigrated from dozens of different countries, speaking dozens of different languages. This gives the NYPD a tremendous leg up on federal investigators, at the FBI, CIA, Homeland Security, etc. In addition, the city's police force doesn't get bogged down in the bureaucratic red tape that keeps so many potentially effective operatives from being able to work on the federal level.

As knowledgeable as Dickey is about terrorism--he pointed out that New York has been a target for terrorists for 100 years and that every day somebody is plotting an act of terrorism there-- it was comforting to hear him observe that, relatively speaking, there are not that many terrorists out there, there is very little support among U.S. Muslims for terrorism and, finally, that many terrorists are too dumb to succeed. Still, it's good to know that the counter-terrorism efforts of the NYPD pass muster with such an intelligent observer as Christopher Dickey.

Our official 20th anniversary is December 1.

It was on that day in 1989 that we first opened our doors for business with about 3000 used books, no employees, no cash register, no credit card processing, no computer, and pretty much no money.

We've got a lot more of all of the above 20 years later (except for money) and, of course, many amazing memories. I hope to write about some of these in the coming months.

But one memory comes to mind because of the day I spent yesterday.

At the end of that first day of business 20 years ago, one of my longest-lasting friends in the world, Chuck Reece, and I had a celebratory dinner up at the awful Chinese restaurant that was located where the Brewhouse is now in Little 5 Points. Afterwards we retired to his house for a nice glass of brandy and hopes for a long and prosperous future.

We've accomplished at least half of that.

Yesterday, I had the pleasure of visiting Chuck's office at the design firm at which he now works, Unboundary, for a day of sharing favorite pieces of writing among his fellow writers and artists. Along with us was another of my oldest and best friends, acclaimed singer/songwriter Richard Buckner, who was in town to play at the Earl.

Richard performed a couple of his songs as well as a section from Edgar Lee Masters' Spoon River Anthology, which he set to music years ago for his magnificent album, "The Hill."

Chuck and company read and talked about meaningful passages and opening lines from their favorite works (and many of mine) by writers including Flannery O'Connor, Philip Roth, Tom Robbins, Billy Collins, Rick Moody, Janisse Ray, Tim O'Brien, Pat Conroy, Jack Kerouac and dozens of others.

It's good to know that a firm responsible for helping such companies as Fed Ex and Charles Schwab communicate can take time to focus on what makes writing meaningful.

And, of course, it's good to know that good friends are, themselves, doing meaningful work.

Now, meaningful or not, my work continues to be trying to keep A Cappella Books moving forward as we approach our 20th anniversary, and some days the task seems more daunting than others.

When in doubt, lately at least, my answer has been: celebrate! Starting today, our 20th anniversary celebration commences with EVERY USED BOOK IN THE STORE on sale for 20% off its regular price.

We'll come up with more ideas as the actual date approaches, but for now, we hope this will encourage many people to come visit the store and check out our wonderful selection of always reasonably-priced books, now even moreso.

A Cappella and Eyedrum and a Whole Lot More

For almost as long as we've been doing what we do at A Cappella, Eyedrum has, in the words of Art Papers' Jerry Cullum "consolidated its position as Atlanta's premiere alternative art spaces." All the while, however, we've never done anything together. That all changes in the next several days as we head over there for two exciting book events, both (and I don't know what to make of this) dealing with stories of criminality.

Sunday night, former Atlantan Elyssa East presents her already-heralded new book Dogtown: Death and Enchantment in a New England Ghost Town. On Tuesday, current Atlantan Mara Shalhoup launches her new book, BMF: The Rise and Fall of Big Meech and the Black Mafia Family.

The AJC's Bob Townsend recently talked with East about her book for Access Atlanta, and Creative Loafing's Wyatt Williams reviewed his boss's work in this week's issue.

We'll also be in more familiar environs in the coming weeks. On Thursday, March 4, our friends at The Georgia Center for the Book at the Decatur Library presents an intriguing new book co-authored by CBS war correspondent Don Teague and his Iraqi translator Rafraf Barrak, Saved by Her Enemy.

On Wednesday, March 10, we return to the Carter Center for a discussion led by Oxford professor and author Paul Collier, whose most recent book is Wars, Guns and Votes.

All of these events are free; to attend the Carter Center talk, however, reservations are required.

Another new location we're very excited to be bringing our traveling book mobile to is Inman Park's Savi Urban Market, where, on Saturday, March 4, we'll introduce Kathryn Borel and her "full-bodied" memoir, Corked.

Finally, we really can't wait until Friday, March 12, when "Curb Your Enthusiasm" star and the voice of Captain B. McCrea from "Wall-E," Jeff Garlin, sees if he has lost enough weight to squeeze behind the counter at A Cappella to sign copies of his new book, My Footprint: Saving the Planet One Pound at a Time.

It's going to be a very busy, and we think fascinating, couple of weeks.

Hope you can join us for some of it.

Back Room Book Sale! 40% Off Everything New & Used

Have you visited A Cappella Books lately? If you have, you may have noticed some of the shelves looking a little thinner than usual, and that there's a lot of stuff piling up in the back room.

Here's the deal: if you've been around us for long, you no doubt know that our store today is very, very different from what it was when we first got started over 20 years ago. It's been a process of slow evolution, punctuated by occasional tectonic shifts. We're about to go through another one of the latter, as we attempt to stave off extinction.

On May 1, we will be downsizing, back to the original footprint of the store when we first moved over to Moreland Avenue five years ago. No more back room, where we have had so many wonderful gatherings in association with our wonderful neighbor Opal Gallery.

In the shop that remains will continue to be the smart blend of new and used and rare books that you have come to expect from us. What will be gone will be our online and events business. We're excited about a more stream-lined, less chaotic space (fewer stacks of boxes, no more book packing station in the midst of our sales floor...) in which you can continue to have "the A Cappella experience."

To make all of that happen, we've got to move A LOT of books. Beginning TODAY and continuing through April, we'll be having a BACK ROOM BOOK SALE, with EVERY BOOK IN THE BACK ROOM DISCOUNTED 40%.

That's 40% off the publisher's price on new books. 40% off our marked price on used books. That includes the rare and out of print books in the glass cases and behind the counter back there. That includes science fiction, mystery, horror, and literary mass market paperbacks, and that includes books from every section in the store that we will be bringing into the back room during the course of the sale.

We haven't put up the signs yet, so you'll have to tell me or Chris or Glen or Chantal that you read about all this here.

AJC Interview with "Curb Your Enthusiasm"'s Jeff Garlin

We're excited about tomorrow's visit from "Curb Your Enthusiasm"'s Jeff Garlin, in town to promote his new book, My Footprint and to perform at the 14th Street Playhouse on Friday night and at the Atlanta Jewish Community Center on Saturday. My Footprint is about Garlin's simultaneous attempt to lose weight and "go green." Like everything he does, though, it's also about making people laugh. Between his size, his popularity and the tight quarters of A Cappella Books, I'm thinking there might be some humor in simply seeing what transpires when Garlin makes a rare (for us) in-store appearance.

That particular subject did not come up in the otherwise fine interview with Garlin by Rodney Ho, which appeared in today's AJC. Enjoy.

Kathryn Stockett to "Help" Celebrate Susan R. White's New Novel

A little over a year ago, two young women who both lived in Atlanta but who didn't know each other both had debut novels published on the same day and both told the stories of strong young women grappling with the implications of their own privilege and their growing awareness of injustice around them, especially surrounding the issue of race, and both were written in highly original voices that reflected a forgiving and passionate spirit. Susan Rebecca White's book was Bound South, and not only was it one of my favorite books of the year, it's been one of the best-selling titles at A Cappella since it came out, and it's received great acclaim and strong sales regionally and even nationally. The only way it could have been a more successful debut would be if it were that other book published that same day by a young woman who lived in Atlanta: The Help by Kathryn Stockett, The New York Times Number One Bestseller, and the publishing sensation of 2009 (which we happened to launch at the Decatur Library).

So it is a great thrill that presenting Susan at the launch of her second novel, A Soft Place to Land, this Wednesday evening at the Carter Center, at 7 p.m. is none other than her now good friend, Kathryn Stockett, who called Susan's new book "A beautiful story of the complicated love between two sisters. Book clubs: this is your next pick. I loved this book."

White will be also joined on stage by another popular young Souther 519e n writer, Todd Johnson, author of The Sweet By and By.

This promises to be one of the most memorable literary events of the season.

If you can't join us, you can still reserve a signed copy of A Soft Place to Land here.