Mar 07, 2023
Thom Nickels: The strange world of Philadelphia book signings
For the average city bookstore customer, things like author events, readings,
For the average city bookstore customer, things like author events, readings, and book signings constitute a world out of reach. For any given author, however, the politics of setting up a bookstore reading or signing can entail a series of steps.
At best, these steps proceed smoothly and without angst. The usual procedure involves a phone call whereupon the author sends the events coordinator information about the book. It then streamlines from there: a date is set for a signing or a talk, and that's that. That date can be near or far away depending on the volume of events. The author is then usually assured that advertising for the event will begin roughly two weeks before the date.
Enter Murphy's Law, when anything can go wrong.
READ MORE — Thom Nickels: Celebrity endorsements couldn't save Helen Gym
In the 1980s and 1990s, downtown Philadelphia had a wealth of bookstores. There was Encore Books, Atlantic Books near 13th and Chestnut Street, Borders, and the first Barnes & Noble right off Broad Street. There was Afterwords at 218 S. 12th Street, and Robin's Books (the original) on 13th Street near Market, although Robin's later opened an affiliate store near Rittenhouse Square.
There was also Giovanni's Room, a port in a storm for many gay and lesbian writers and readers when the "bigger" outlets limited the numbers of gay-themed books. In today's LGB-friendly market, people are likely to forget how difficult it used to be to get books labeled gay or lesbian in mainstream bookstores. Giovanni's Room also acted as a literary community center. It was where the national figure Edmund White gave an inaugural reading for his newly published biography of Jean Genet.
In the early 1990s, when my book "The Boy on the Bicycle" was published, the management of Barnes & Noble near Broad Street assigned me a talk and a signing, as did Borders on Rittenhouse Square.
"The Boy on the Bicycle" was a 500-page compendium of my Welcomat newspaper columns from the 1980s as well as short stories and essays of mine published in national gay magazines. "A highly stimulating volume," wrote The Gay Times of London, while the Philadelphia Daily News commented, "Nickels gives ample proof of his ability as a writer…"
What the Daily News didn't like was the cover of the book, a nearly nude picture of a handsome twenty-something man on a bicycle. The cover does the book a disservice, the reviewer insisted, given that the contents contained only two or three erotic tales out of some thirty stories and essays. I agreed with the reviewer's assessment but was powerless to argue with my publisher who insisted that the cover image was a tool to "draw people in."
Draw people in it did.
"The Boy on the Bicycle" was listed on the 2003 Register of Prohibited Publications in Ireland (samuel-beckett.net), but when a friend told me that he saw people reading it while waiting to be admitted to a theater in Amsterdam — a sin city where both male and female brothels were legal — I was intrigued and wondered if my publisher hadn't had the right idea all along.
Thick and thin: bookstore talks and signings can be great lessons in humility. What motivates an audience to come to a reading is anybody's guess.
Despite the controversy, Barnes & Noble, to its credit, created a large pyramid of "Boy on the Bicycle" in its front window display on Chestnut Street. The huge window display shocked me because I had never seen such blatant "in your face" advertising of a gay book in any downtown bookstore with the exception of Giovanni's Room.
The Barnes & Noble manager later told me that the "pyramid" display had generated multiple complaints and compliments, with people walking in off the street to share their views.
Attracting audiences in Philadelphia for bookstore readings has always been a dicey proposition. A Susan Sontag book signing in the 1980s at Encore Books on Chestnut Street near the Adelphia House attracted barely five people. This was long after Sontag had attained international celebrity status for her first novel and two books of essays, "Against Interpretation" and "Styles of Radical Will." Perhaps the poor turnout in Sontag's case had everything to do with advertising because everything hinges on getting the word out.
During the pandemic, city bookstores weren't doing any author events. While a few bookstores came around to doing virtual events, Barnes & Noble completely retreated from the game, meaning no author events whatsoever.
Years ago, I arranged a signing and reading with Glad Day Books in Boston for my book, "Two Novellas." After a lengthy mail and phone correspondence with the bookstore manager, a date and time was set, but when I traveled to Boston from Philadelphia for the event and went to the bookstore, the manager was nowhere in sight. Not only that, but looking around, I noticed there was no visible advertising in the store related to the event, not even a flier. When I asked the clerk on duty what was going on, he called the manager, at which point the manager rushed over to the store and apologized. It turns out he had forgotten we had set up an event, and made haste to drag out a table and a chair and to scrawl on a piece of paper with a sharpie that the bookstore was hosting a pop-up signing.
Pop-up, indeed. Nobody came, and I signed nothing, although the manager did buy me a cup of coffee.
Writer Martin Duberman, author of over 25 books and a number of plays, writes of his bookstore experiences in his latest tome, "Almost Ninety":
"…When I arrived at the entrance to Borders [in Boston], I was greeted by a frantic employee who blurted out, ‘Where were you?!’ It turned out the reading had in fact been scheduled for 6:00, and by 6:30 only seven people remained in their chairs. Later, I asked the employee how many people had originally shown up. ‘No less than nine,’ he said. Crestfallen, I asked him if the promised ad in the Boston Phoenix had been placed. ‘Oh, yes,’ he reassured me. Yet when I later saw the ad, it contained no mention of an upcoming reading at Borders."
Traveling to Arlington, Virginia for yet another Borders reading, Duberman says he was informed that no ad had been taken out, nor was there any sign or book display in the store's window. "Net attendance: a perfect zero. I thought briefly of forcing the store's manager to sit alone in the front row while I read the entire book aloud, but decided I preferred to go to sleep. Never again, I swore, would I subject myself to a publicity machine designed (unless you were Toni Morrison) for minimal exposure and maximal notification…."
Several years ago, I learned another lesson, this one having to do with the placement of recently published books in and around the bookstore.
READ MORE — Thom Nickels: Progressive advocates should be protecting children, not endangering them
Up until that point, I hadn't realized that the books one finds on a bookstore's front and center tables (and displayed prominently in the front window) are usually paid for by major publishing houses. Smaller, boutique bookstores may operate differently, but certainly in the early 1990s when Center City's Barnes & Noble put "Boy on the Bicycle" in its front window my publisher made no such arrangements. The early to mid-1990s was before big bookstores went totally corporate. It was a time when local bookstore managers still had some power to overrule corporate interests.
That's no longer the case.
Books with local themes in chain bookstores are clumped together in a maze of "sameness," like dominoes or boxes of Chex cereal in a supermarket. A good example of this are books published by Arcadia, which all have the same covers: A book about Akron, Ohio, looks like a book about Pittsburgh, and so forth.
A science fiction novel with one or two gay characters or a gay subplot gets put on the "gay shelf," even though 80 percent of the theme may be unrelated to sexual orientation. Despite the advances made in social acceptance, there are still plenty of readers who are reluctant to be seen browsing in the "gay ghetto" section of the bookstore.
I’ve given readings and signings in a number of cities, including Ottawa, Montreal, NYC, and Santa Monica. In the early 1990s, I gave a reading at A Different Light bookstore on Hudson Street in New York, appearing right after Quentin Crisp. The California reading attracted the best audience, despite the fact that nobody knew who I was. Philadelphia audiences are harder to grapple with. When my book "Legendary Locals of Center City" was published, the crowd at Barnes & Noble was overflowing, but I attribute this to the fact that many in the audience were also people I featured in the book. Similarly, when I gave a lecture at the Athenaeum of Philadelphia on "Literary Philadelphia," over 200 people crammed into the hall there and some had to be turned away. Paradoxically, after the pandemic, when I appeared at Barnes & Noble for a talk on my religious cults book, only two people showed up.
Thick and thin: bookstore talks and signings can be great lessons in humility. What motivates an audience to come to a reading is anybody's guess. Sometimes it has to do with politics. Certainly, I have to wonder if my writing for conservative outlets has had any affect on my public audience numbers.
The strangest book signing I ever had was in 1989 or 1990 when the AIDS crisis was still prominent. I was signing my book, "The Cliffs of Aries," at a table in front of a small bookstore located in the Gallery. It was around noon and there wasn't much foot traffic in the Gallery.
A man came up to me; he was in his twenties and wanted to know what my book was about. We talked for fifteen minutes before he disappeared into the back of the store. Twenty minutes later he left the store when the clerk, a woman in her twenties, rushed up to me in a panic and said she had an emergency question. It seems the man in question was a shameful exhibitionist who had done something with one of the books (not mind) and then left the book on the front counter for her to pick up.
I can still see the fear and fright on her face as she asked me if I thought she needed an AIDS test. "What do you think the chances are that I’ve been infected?" she asked.
I was able to calm her, and that was that.
Thom Nickels is a Philadelphia-based journalist/columnist and the 2005 recipient of the AIA Lewis Mumford Award for Architectural Journalism. He writes for City Journal, New York, and Frontpage Magazine. He is the author of fifteen books, including "Literary Philadelphia" and "From Mother Divine to the Corner Swami: Religious Cults in Philadelphia." His latest, "Death in Philadelphia: The Murder of Kimberly Ernest" was released in May 2023.READ MORE — Thom Nickels: Celebrity endorsements couldn't save Helen Gym READ MORE — Thom Nickels: Progressive advocates should be protecting children, not endangering them