World's Longest Bookstore Tour: Part 1

Jenny Milchman, whose newest book is Ruin Falls (Ballantine), embarked recently on a cross-country author tour. This is the first installment of notes from her trip:

We're on the road again, as Willie Nelson sings. Last year, when my debut novel came out, my family and I set out on a seven-month/35,000 mile tour, visiting more than 300 bookstores in almost every nook and cranny of this country. It was "car-schooling" for the kids and working from the front seat for my husband. And for me it was a dream come true.

Jenny Milchman (r.) and Carla Buckley arriving at The Golden Notebook in Woodstock, N.Y... with cake

With my second novel just released, we have set out again. And this time, fellow author Carla Buckley (The Deepest Secret) will travel with us, passing out snacks in the backseat. We're either good friends, or absolutely nuts. Possibly both. But the truth is, bookstores have led us to embark on this trip. The virtual world is a wonderful one for books, but that conversation comes alive when you enter a bookstore.

Please join us for the ride. For the first column in this series, Carla and I will alternate sharing our experiences at the various bookstores we visited.

Jenny: Some bookstores are like huge art installations while others are tucked away in cozy corners of the village in which they live and breathe. The first event I did took place at a library, because the Bookworm in Bernardsville, N.J., is minute. But if you poke your head into this tiny, faceted gem, the mysterious mathematics of books becomes apparent. Book lovers know how shelves can always expand to fit just one more volume. Like Chanukah oil, the Bookworm's cozy warren of rooms holds many more carefully curated titles than you might believe.

Otto Penzler's Mysterious Bookshop is one of the great mystery bookstores in this country. This bookstore is part sanctuary and part museum, containing first editions behind glass in addition to shiny new releases from big publishers and small presses alike. When this bookshop hosts a party, the room lights up like the New York City skyline.

I returned home to Watchung Booksellers, Montclair, N.J., where Carla Buckley's portion of the tour kicked off. Carla joined me for a conversation about publishing and writing today. Part of the reason the two of can go on this trip together is due to a deep resonance between our careers, and the attendees that packed this cozy space were interested in our long roads to publication, and in what it takes to keep a career going today. Watchung Booksellers is the place to have such a discussion: spearheaded by owner Margot Sage-EL, it hosted the literary series, Writing Matters, for more than four years.

Carla: Being able to pass out fruit snacks from the backseat of Jenny's car was just one of the incentives for me to decide to join her and her family for the first 2,000 miles of her four-month book tour odyssey. I also wanted to meet booksellers in parts of the country to which I'd never ventured before. Our second stop was at [words] Bookstore in Maplewood, N.J., which is deeply committed to employing people with autism. When we arrived, we were warmly greeted by Jonah Zimiles (co-owner with his wife, Emily Zimiles) who described the unexpected directions their lives took to bring them to owning [words].

Jenny: Oblong Books in Rhinebeck, N.Y., hosted a panel discussion featuring Kelly Braffet (Save Yourself), Therese Walsh (The Moon Sisters), along with Carla and me. Our topic? "Literary Versus Genre Fiction: Real Distinction or No Difference at All." The conversation was lively, thanks to an engaged audience of aspiring authors, booksellers who'd left their own store behind to come see this one, and one very special 13 year old who proved that books render the generation gap inconsequential.

Carla: Jenny's new hometown bookstore is the Golden Notebook, a gorgeous gem of a shop nestled amid the bustling and winding streets of Woodstock, N.Y. The owner is Jackie Kellachan, who describes herself as its current caretaker, a sentiment echoed in the way with which books are displayed, the children's nook is laid out, and the event space spanning the second floor, replete with breathtaking views of the Catskills. We had a great audience, filled with poets, writers, and artists, and it was hard to pull ourselves away to get back into the car and on the road.

A vibrant wall of books at The Book House in Albany, N.Y.

Stepping into the Book House of Stuyvesant Plaza in Albany, N.Y., was like being welcomed into someone's living room, with bookshelves and comfortable furniture. The sign in the restroom says it all: it asked the staff please to remember to use their indoor voices in the store. This was apparently spurred by a passionate book discussion one day between two staff members. That's exactly the feel of this store, where it's clear that everyone here loves books. Jenny and I couldn't help but linger to talk after our event with booksellers Rachel King, Courtney Kane, Khai Shaw and Alexis Sky. When we left, we felt we'd made lifelong friends.

We crossed the state line into Vermont--my first visit to this beautiful state! I didn't know what to expect when we drove into Manchester, a bucolic town perched amid the Green Mountains, except great outlet shopping. But when we turned the corner and saw Northshire Bookstore, all thoughts of rummaging through Michael Kors clearance bins vanished. Mary Allen warmly greeted us at the door, and we couldn't help but notice the display of our books front and center, among the works of so many authors I admire. I wanted to stop and peruse the shelves (what booklover wouldn't?) but readers were waiting for us upstairs, in a bright lovely space just beyond the expansive children's section. If I had lived here while my children were growing up, this is the place we would have made our second home.

Jenny: We then went to two terrific bookstores in Connecticut. An example of how bookstores are using their physical presence to create experiences that cannot happen online is the author's luncheons run by Bank Square Books in the seaport town of Mystic. To a crowd of three or 60, the booksellers serve salads, baked goods, and wine, while the guest author chats, reads and joins in conversation. In our case, it was two guest authors, and a lively circle of book lovers, which hardly left time to enjoy the homemade spread.

The event calendar at the renowned R.J. Julia Booksellers in Madison could make almost any author wonder whether they deserve to be included. Okay, maybe that's just me. It's easy to feel insecure on the road! Having two authors is a wonderful remedy for nerves. Carla and I contrasted our differing reasons for making this trip, and why in her case it's a juggle, while for me it;s more like a circus car full to bursting. After all, my whole family--and life--packs itself into this trip. Carla, on the other hand, had to leave a lot behind. The avid attendees at R.J. Julia were interested in it all, and their questions were some of the most thought-provoking we'd heard. One example: "What does it take to make it as an author today?"

We head south from here, and will check in again as we hit the wild west, or at least Chicago. Till then, here's to books, and please let us know which bookstore you visit. Perhaps it can be added to next year's trip!

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