Last night I was out with a bunch of friends and fellow book peddlers at a comfortable enough bar on Christopher Street called Kettle of Fish. The pour was good, but the conversation was a helluva lot better than that. I'll tell you why.
These days most conversations taking place in the book industry center around its problems. You know, woe is us, the paradigms are shifting. In every conference room in every big house, you hear the same words over and over again -- digital, vertical, niche, Amazon, electronic, rights, price, Google, death, layoffs, free, monetization, search, Apple -- words intoned like a burial liturgy, while some joker in the corner plays "Amazing Grace" on the bagpipes. Thinks he's being ironic. Late at night outside the bars of Manhattan, you hear normal people from good homes with solid educations walking down the street in a trance, chanting, "Deliver us from Google." In the middle of a sales meeting, you watch helplessly as a previously well-adjusted middle manager breaks into sobs and curses the day he entered the publishing business. "Sorry, bud, I forgot to take my meds." Ordinary readers in Wichita think this is an exaggeration. No way. This is effin gallows humor.
But not last night. Last night was an exception. The crowd was a beautiful mix of grizzled vets and young idealists -- lovely people who let the alcohol tickle their bellies without any need to drown their sorrows. Unguarded, smiling, relaxed and easy, they talked about the books they love, and about people, the people they care about even more than the books. A young woman who works at a bookstore in Greenpoint says she's reading Moby-Dick and Alex Ross's The Rest is Noise. She's not trying to impress me, she's just declaring her interest, and her passion. An old guy who used to be my sales rep nearly thirty years ago claps his hand on my shoulder and tells me he has no intention of retiring. I love it too much. An elegant and soft-spoken woman tells me how many years it took for the book she conceived and edited to become a reality. Her face radiates pride. I believe that there will always be books. I'm not gonna sentimentalize the evening, or claim that something momentous took place. Except that nowadays, a simple gathering of like-minded and bookish souls who have no agenda but to celebrate their camaraderie is a big deal. It doesn't happen often. Especially in this business, at this terrible time in its history.
I thought to myself, remember why you do what you do, and acknowledge what a privilege it is to work with books, and with these people, this community. Let yourself be buoyed up by their affection. Give thanks for your good fortune, for their gifts, and for all the gifts you've been given. These gifts that you too must give away.