Robert Gray: When the Magic Happens

There are special moments at every book trade conference that compel you to pause and consider the extraordinary business we are fortunate enough to be part of. Quite often these moments are subtle, existing within the fabric of a show like a well-made seam.

The New England Independent Booksellers Association's Fall Conference was held this week in Providence, R.I. I'll write about the show as whole soon, but for today I wanted to focus on one of those magical "seam" moments.

Water Street Bookstore in Exeter, N.H., won the 2017 Independent Spirit Award, given annually by the Book Publishers Representatives of New England to honor the region's indie bookstore of the year. During the awards banquet on Tuesday night, BPRNE president Megan Sullivan introduced owner Dan Chartrand. He began his remarks with an acknowledgment of Exeter native John Irving, who was there to receive NEIBA's President's Award: "I am painfully aware that I am one of the speakers standing between you and hearing from one of our greatest American writers."

Dan Chartrand and Stefanie Kiper Schmidt of Water Street Bookstore

And then the magic happened. Chartrand accepted the Independent Spirit Award "on behalf of our mission. About five years ago, [manager] Stefanie [Kiper Schmidt] went into a room with some of our core patrons and a couple of our best local authors and she came out with a mission. That mission was to build a vibrant and diverse community around the written word. Full stop. So, thank you Stefanie. We test everything we do against that mission, and I accept this award on behalf of it."

He expressed his gratitude to several people who were part of the bookstore's founding group, including co-founder Bob Hugo, who died last year ("I miss him every day.") and the late Rusty Drugan, the longtime NEIBA executive director "who was my New England bookselling mentor and who drove me to found my own store."

Smiling, Chartrand then looked toward the center of the Biltmore Hotel's elegant ballroom and a table that was occupied by Water Street booksellers. "You know, the bookstore is never closed except for weather events, but we closed our bookstore today at two o'clock because we have these amazing booksellers, who are here at the table." After an enthusiastic round of applause, he continued: "We closed so the angels that took that mission on five years ago and have made it their mission and their living could be here. I can't tell you how much I love you all and how grateful I am."

He offered more praise for Stefanie Kiper Schmidt's contributions, noting in particular that "what I love most about you is that you are one of the greatest and most discerning and tasteful readers that I have ever met. And you write beautifully about your reading. I've never met anyone who writes as beautifully about reading as you. So thank you so much for being a part of our store. it's yours and mine."

Readers and patrons of Water Street Bookstore were recognized: "Without them, obviously, we would not be a vibrant and diverse community.... And not just readers from Exeter, but readers from across the country and the world." Chartrand noted that when parents stop by the shop while visiting Phillips Exeter Academy students, "they walk away from our bookstore and they become lifelong fans. And that's really a testament to our booksellers. Having that diverse and vibrant and national and international patron group is just the most remarkable thing."

He thanked authors, beginning with Irving and A Prayer for Owen Meany: "Thank you so much for writing that book. It has been a guiding spirit for me, especially that spirit of Owen Meany, in my work in the bookstore." He cited Ta-Nahisi Coates, "who wrote a book [Between the World and Me] a few years ago that commanded us to begin a One Town, One Book program in Exeter. And I want to thank Roxane Gay, who attended the Academy a number of years ago and in her most recent book wrote a searing passage that made me realize we have much work to do to build that beautiful, diverse and vibrant community in Exeter."

Calling them "my two author mentors," Chartrand said Dan Brown and Joe Hill, while technically local writers, "teach us every day what it means to build community with their readers and their fans and they give us an opportunity to work in that space. I'm so grateful to both of them. And I'm also grateful to Howard Mansfield and Sy Montgomery, who are the very height of great New Hampshire authors."

Finally, he thanked BPRNE members, calling them "the leading edge of publishers. And publishing personnel are such an important part of our diverse and vibrant community. Without you, we would not have the voice we have within the houses, and those voices that are being developed in the houses would not be transmitted to us without you. You are part of our beautiful community, and to be honored by all of you... is just the highest praise for all of us."

Chartrand concluded with an inspiring observation: "We hear a lot about how what we do is hard. And there are moments when it is hard. But I contend that what we do is nothing less than to build the beautiful community in this country and around the world. The life of the mind. Finding dimension through these great works, like John Irving's work, is just the most beautiful work. And I believe that it is the closest we can come to heaven on earth."

It's nice to be there... when the magic happens.

--Robert Gray, contributing editor (Column archives at Fresh Eyes Now)
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