Ep 7: Kidnapped and Displayed as Circus Freaks in the Jim Crow South

New York Times best-selling author Beth Macy dishes with Roxanne about the film buzz surrounding some of her most popular books and catching the attention of one of Hollywood’s hottest leading men. Beth’s book Factory Man is now in development to become an HBO mini-series produced by Tom Hanks. Her latest book Truevine: Two Brothers, a Kidnapping, and a Mother’s Quest: A True Story of the Jim Crow South is already generating film buzz. Also in this episode, RJ Julia’s General Manager stops by to tell us just what it takes to become a bookseller.

Show Notes:

Truevine: Two Brothers, a Kidnapping, and a Mother’s Quest: A True Story of the Jim Crow South by Beth Macy

Commonwealth by Ann Patchett

Born a Crime:  Stories from a South African Childhood by Trevor Noah

The Women in the Castle by Jessica Shattuck

News of the World by Paulette Jiles

Episode Transcript

Just the Right Book Podcast
Episode 7: Title
Published 1/4/2017

 

Beginning of Recorded Material


He would tell you, “I had a silver spoon in my mouth at birth and no intention of taking it out.”

 

Roxanne: I’m Roxanne Coady and welcome to Just the Right Book. I recently spoke to Beth Macy and you’ll hear how this acclaimed journalist’s latest book is currently being negotiated for a film starring one of Hollywood’s hottest leading men. Later in this episode you’ll hear from the general manager of R.J. Julia on just what it takes to work in a bookstore. Only for Just the Right Book listeners we are giving away a copy of Beth’s bestselling book, Truevine. Just rate and review us on iTunes to be entered to win.

 

Beth Macy’s last book, Factory Man, is a New York Times bestseller, and is now in development to become an HBO mini series produced by, I think Tom Hanks. We’ll find out if all that’s true. Her latest book, Truevine: Two brothers, a Kidnapping, and a Mother’s Quest: A True Story of the Jim Crow South, is already generating film buzz. Beth, thank you so much for joining me today!

 

Beth: Oh, it’s great to be here Roxanne. Thanks so much for having me.

 

Roxanne: Well my pleasure. Truevine follows the story of two African-American albino brothers whisked away in the 1800s in childhood to be displayed as circus sideshow freaks. The saga of the brothers, George and Willie Muse, is even more enthralling than fiction. Beth, how did you come to tell this story that feels kind of lost to time and history?

 

Beth: Yeah, kind of lost to time but oddly somewhat relevant today as well I think.

 

Roxanne: I think so.

 

Beth: Yeah, sadly. I was a long-time newspaper reporter. I was 25 years reporting for the Roanoke Times in Virginia, and my first book, Factory Man, grew out of some reporting I had done on the aftermath of globalization in some hard-hit factory towns. Then this book grew out of a story I wrote even earlier.

 

When I first got to Roanoke I was in my mid-twenties, it was over 25 years ago. The photographers were always giving us story ideas, and one pulled me aside and told me about it. He had grown up in town and grown up hearing this incredible story. One of the brothers, Willie Muse, was still alive.  Astonishingly, he lived to be 108. So this photographer said, “You should try to interview him. This is the best story in town, but no one’s been able to get it.”

 

The reason nobody had been able to get it is because the family sort of clamped down and was really protecting the brothers in their older age. Particularly the care giver of Willie was not having any of it.

The first time I waltzed into her restaurant, she ran a little soul food restaurant in Roanoke, it was early 1990s, and I just kind of went in and said, “I am Beth Macy from the Roanoke Times. I’d love to do a story on your famous great uncles.” She pointed to a sign on the wall that a customer had stenciled for her, and the sign said, “Sit down and shut up.” Which was kind of funny, but she really meant it.

 

Roxanne: She meant it.

 

Beth: She really meant it. They had been exploited their whole lives and her goal in their retirement was to give them back the childhood that had been taken from them.

 

Roxanne: I think the two women in the book, Harriet Muse, the mother of the boys, and Nancy Saunders, who you come to adore, stand up as these kind of resilient, care-taking, bold, fantastic women and do you think-

 

Beth: Yeah, really tough women of their time.

 

Roxanne: Yeah, really. I admire them enormously. Was Nancy responding to the exploitation that the brothers had endured in their years in the circus, or had there been press along the way? Because she was pretty distrustful of you.

 

Beth: Yes, she was very distrustful at first, and I wouldn’t even say now, even though she likes me much better now. She obviously trusted me enough to let me write this book. I wouldn’t say even now she trusts me all the way. Not until I delved into the research for this book, beginning, say, two years ago, did I really understand the way the press had treated the brothers and their mother when she got them back in 1927. There was a big brouhaha. Eight police officers and Ringling lawyers came. And yet Harriet Muse, an illiterate black maid from Roanoke, Virginia, stood up to them all. Not only that, she filed a lawsuit against “The Greatest Show on Earth,” and she won a sizable settlement.

 

When you look at the way the press treated the story, it made news all over the country, but no one ever interviewed the family. No one ever treated them with respect. No one ever even quoted them. When I later learned that some of Nancy’s first memories were of people banging on their door demanding to see the “savages that eat raw meat,” I realized why she had had to develop this really, really tough exterior, especially where they were concerned.

 

Roxanne: Take me back a little bit to exactly what happened with the brothers. You’ve got these two little kids living in Roanoke, Virginia and –

 

Beth: Actually they were living in a little, way smaller town than Roanoke, Virginia. They were living in a tobacco-growing community about an hour south in rural Franklin County, which is sort of the tobacco growing, Piedmont area of southern Virginia. This is around 1900, when they were whisked off. The family had always said, and Uncle Willie himself said, that he was kidnapped by a circus bounty hunter. There was some question about how they initially got with the circus, but there’s no disputing the fact that they were trafficked for 13 years. There’s lots of evidence for that. It was just a very poor, post-slavery, sharecropping existence, where people were basically working in exchange for the little shacks that they were living in.

 

Roxanne: That brings me to something. In the foreword to your book you have a quote from W.E.B. Du Bois that I’ll take a moment to read. This is from his book The Souls of Black Folk:

 

“For the first time he sought to analyze the burden he bore upon his back, that dead-weight of social degradation partially masked behind a half-named Negro problem. He felt his poverty; without a cent, without a home, without land, tools, or savings, he had entered into competition with rich, landed, skilled neighbors. To be a poor man is hard, but to be a poor race in a land of dollars is the very bottom of hardships.”

 

Beth: Yeah.

 

“I think it’s important to tell these stories while we still can.”

 

Roxanne: Beth, what did you hope to accomplish writing this story?

 

Beth: I hoped to give people more context for where we are with race relations today in America. I, of course, knew about segregated schools, and separate schools, and separate water fountains. I didn’t know the way sharecroppers were treated. I didn’t know the daily humiliations that people in Roanoke, Virginia, faced—just the omnipresent. They weren’t allowed to vote unless they paid a poll tax and passed a certain ridiculous test. All their rights were stripped away when these Jim Crow laws went into effect in the late 1890s, so that beautiful quote you just read from Du Bois just resonated so much.

 

I was also trying to bring the world of sharecroppers from Truevine to life in the book. One of the women had done it her first 48 years of her life. She had to drop out of school because they weren’t able to go to school when their crop was in. She said she remembered hearing the story about George and Willie being kidnapped when she was a little girl. She felt bad for them, but she also remembered the story with a touch of longing because she said, “Only in a place like Truevine for some of us could the notion of being kidnapped seem almost like an opportunity.” That comment just wowed me when I heard it. When I heard what the brothers’ lives were like, it sort of begged the question, Were George and Willie’s lives better off out in the circus than their families’ lives were back at home? I think that until we know this, history repeats itself.

 

Roxanne: Yeah.

 

Beth: I think you’re still seeing a lot of those tensions today, and now more than ever, I think we need to understand what’s happened before.

 

Roxanne: Well, you know in reading the book a couple of things occurred to me. One is just learning the history and really having that resonate. The way it adds to your understanding of what people who are descendants of families like that are like, what’s in their DNA. I think it is informative and helps us all be more understanding and empathetic about the circumstances of these families. Not 500 years ago, but also five minutes ago.

 

Beth: Yeah. Even some of the relatives of the older folks interviewed in the book have asked their older relatives, “Is she sensationalizing these conditions?” One older gentleman I just saw at a book event in Richmond, Virginia, last week said, “My niece asked me that question, and I had to say “No ma’am.” You grew up 35 years later than I did in New Jersey, and believe you me, it was very much the way she described it in Virginia in the 50s and the 60s, even as late as that.”

 

A lot of what I did is, I would ride around town and ride around these communities with older people and they would see things and it would sort of spark their memories. Just for these folks to be carrying around these stories for so many years, for their entire lives. Many have told me, they said, “People aren’t going to believe this,” they’d say. “I try to tell my kids and grandkids, and they think we’re lying.” One of them said, “Ain’t nobody making any of it up.” I think it’s important to tell these stories while we still can.

 

Roxanne: Listening to that quote where you said they might actually better off being kidnapped and being in the circus, were they better off?

 

Beth: Well I don’t think they were better off in the beginning, from the way they describe it and some of the photographic evidence holds this up. I don’t know if you remember the picture of them when they’re probably about 11 and 14. They’re clearly children, and they’re clearly being exploited as child laborers. This is in an era before we had child rights laws and things like that. The brothers are wearing these suits that are two sizes too small because they’ve been wearing them for too long, and they just look scared to death. Willie would talk about how in those early days they were told, “Quit crying, your mother is dead.” I think there’s no way you could say they were better off. They missed their mother and their older brother, who was just three years older, had to be like a father for them. They weren’t allowed to go to school, so they never learned to read and write. You can’t say they’re better off for that.

 

Once their mother found them in 1927 and demanded justice for her family, it really changed the course of the family’s story. They rejoined the circus in 1928, this time for pay, or supposedly for pay. But they continually took advantage of them, and she would have to step in again. They always said once they knew she was alive and they knew they could come home to see her on the off season, they enjoyed it. It was really the only world they knew. I surmise in some of my writings, or I’m extrapolating, that I’m sure there was some Stockholm syndrome was involved.

 

Roxanne: Yeah.

 

Beth: It’s the only world they knew, so they were comfortable in it and when they came home to Roanoke, Virginia, people would stare at them. One time somebody called the police and said there were savages loose in the park near their house. They looked different because of their hair and skin color, and people just weren’t used to that. It was rough.

 

Roxanne: The fact that they at least did come back to the community and ended up owning their own home if, I recall.

 

Beth: Yes, which was pretty rare. They retired in 1962 because of their mother was continually subverting the system at every turn and demanding that the brothers get paid against many odds. At that time, they were able to have a house all bought and paid for in their names when they retired, which was very unusual for African-American families in the early 1960s in Roanoke, Virginia.

 

Roxanne: Anybody listening, this book is, as I said, enthralling on so many levels. The story of the brothers, the story of the circus, the story of the South in the early 1900s, the indomitable women. I’ve been a fan of yours, Beth. I read Factory Man in what’s called a galley, meaning a copy of the book before it was published. To me is one of the most important books that I’ve read in a long time. To give it a quick summary it is the story of the Bassett family that actually owned a town, actually owned Bassett.

 

Beth: Owned everything in it except for the school.

 

“I wanted to tell the stories of the people left behind.”

 

Roxanne: You also use the story of John D. Bassett III to really talk about the manufacturing industry in the United States, the impact of globalization, the impact of family businesses, and what it looked like to the employees that were generationally employed. I think when we talk about globalization and manufacturing we use all these vague, anecdotal stories that half the time are not true, but as this –

 

Beth: – Numbers and economic studies, and it’s hard to get your head around at first.

 

Roxanne: But you do if you read Factory Man, I think that it made me a better citizen. It will make me pay attention and raise questions.

 

Beth: Thank you so much for saying that. When I wrote it, or when I had the idea to write it, I wanted it to be like that because I’m not a business writer, and I didn’t really understand it myself. I knew that all those factories had closed an hour south of Roanoke in Henry County, and I knew it had had the highest unemployment rate in the state for a dozen years, but I didn’t really understand why. The executives and the marketing people they were all still working; they were just traveling to China and Vietnam to have their materials sourced. I wanted it to be a book I could give to my mom, for instance, who used to work in a factory, so she would understand why her factory town looks the way it does now. Not through statistics or economist studies, but through people.

 

Roxanne: Exactly!

 

 

Beth: John Bassett is such a fascinating character, warts and all. To get to tell that story through, because he’s the one, Bassett, who took on China in a court of international trade while all of his relatives were shuttering almost all of their factories in Bassett, Virginia, He took his little company in Galax, Virginia, which is a tiny little town better known for bluegrass and barbecue, and filed a lawsuit against the Chinese for improperly dumping their product in the American market with an effort to put Americans out of work and capture our market share. He won his case at the International Trade Commission. It’s a great hero story, but did he really win? He’s still making Vaughan-Bassett Furniture in Galax, Virginia, with but it’s a struggle.

 

Roxanne: Yes.

 

Beth: I approached that book the same way I came at Truevine. I wanted to tell the stories of the people left behind. What happens to a community when half of its jobs go away? Because it wasn’t just the factories; you could count up all the factory jobs and that was significant in textiles and furniture, but then all the little mom-and-pop diners and all the little stores that depended on factory workers spending their money were affected. It was kind of a ghost town when I first started reporting from there. I really wanted to find out what had happened to all those people.

 

Roxanne: Well I think, Beth, having read both books, that’s your gift. The way you explain history, or business in the case of Bassett, or the arc of a community or a family by talking about real people and real circumstances that are not idealistic. The definition of heroes and villains is of course never black and white, and I think in both your books you manage to weave that nuance in a way that people can connect to them because it feels real. You’re not painting, “This is the bad guy and this is the good guy.”

 

Beth: Yup. Thank you for saying that. I have to hew to the truth, no matter what I find out, and I try to do just that.

 

Roxanne: Damn!

 

Beth: I know. I try to cast my net as wide as I can, chase down as many of the little story tendrils as I can. That’s going to reveal both difficult truths and pretty astonishingly amazing truths, too.

 

Roxanne: Yeah.

 

Beth: The thing is to just create as accurate as a picture as possible and let the reader decide, but I always try to start with what moves me. With the John D. Bassett story, it was just the fact that this guy had been born a multimillionaire, and he would tell you, “I had a silver spoon in my mouth at birth and no intention of taking it out.” He would tell you that. What makes a man like that go against everybody else’s family?

 

Roxanne: China!

 

Beth: And he said, “Uh-uh. They aren’t going to tell me how to make furniture.” The hair stood up on my neck the first time I heard that. In the same way the first time I heard about the story of George and Willie, I just thought, “Oh my gosh. There’s got to be so much more there to that story that I can learn about this complex maze of America’s original sin.

 

Roxanne: Yeah.

 

Beth: The way African Americans were treated in this country. This is a new way to talk about the aftermath of slavery and segregation and Jim Crow in a way that hopefully has relevance.

 

Roxanne: It really resonates.

 

Beth: Resonance and relevance today.

 

Roxanne: Is Factory Man really going to be an HBO series?

 

Beth: Well, it’s been optioned by HBO and Tom Hanks’ company, which is called Playtone. The option has been renewed and it’s in development. It’s kind of a slow process, so I don’t really have anything new to report, but I think it’s still on as far as I know.

 

Roxanne: Boy, I think it would be fabulous.

 

Beth: That would be exciting. I’m hoping they see what’s going on and the trade being bandied about every day in the news and say, “Hey, this is still a really timely story. Let’s get on with it.”

 

Roxanne: Yeah. I think John D. Bassett and his relatives and how that all worked out, my goodness. It seems to me they could get years out of that.

 

Beth: Oh, yeah. He actually wrote his own book. Well, he had a ghost writer, but it was called Making it in America, and it came out earlier this year. It was more a how-to primer for business people who might be looking to stay competitive with Asian imports. It’s his philosophy, and it’s got a lot of his cowboy grit and his country sayings. It’s real entertaining.

 

Roxanne: Well, you know, it did crack me up when in Factory Man you realize that you had some factory owners who thought that they were too clever by half, and they let the Chinese come in and start videoing their factory processes thinking –

 

Beth: Yeah. They taught them how to make it.

 

Roxanne: It’s like, really? Do you really think they’re not going to just start manufacturing it for their own good?

 

Beth: Right. Do you remember one of the very first quotes in the book is a woman remembering that her mother, who was a long time African-American black furniture worker at Bassett furniture? She came home from work one day, and she said to her daughter, “Naomi, what were all them little people doing at work today? They were watching us and taking pictures,” And Naomi said, “I think there’s going to be more to this story.” Sure enough there was.

 

Roxanne: Sure enough. Beth before we close I have two questions that I always like to ask authors. What’s the book that changed your life?

 

Beth: Oh, gosh. You mean the book that I read that changed my life?

 

Roxanne: Yup.

 

Beth: Oh. Well, when I was a little girl my favorite book was Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh. Do you remember that book?

 

Roxanne: I sure do.

 

Beth: I was a kind of a tomboy and a bit of an introvert, but I loved to watch people. That book really made it okay, and I used to hide in this little stand of lilac bushes at the end of my street. You could get in the middle and nobody could see you sort of watch and take notes on what was going on in the neighborhood. I think about that little girl being sort of junior reporter, even back then.

 

Roxanne: Don’t you think Harriet made you realize that girls could be strong and independent?

 

Beth: Absolutely.

 

Roxanne: Yeah.

 

Beth: Yeah. They could be the ones asking the questions and the ones making the decisions. I never even put together that the hero of Truevine is also named Harriet.

 

Roxanne: Yeah, yeah.

 

Beth: That’s an important name for me.

 

Roxanne: That’s right. What are you currently reading?

 

Beth: I’m actually reading two books right now. One I can’t remember the title but it’s the first novel by the guy who wrote A Man Named Ove, which was wonderful. Have you read that yet?

 

Roxanne: I have not, but lots of our customers have.

 

Beth: It’s wonderful. Then I just finished Anne Patchett’s new book Commonwealth. I loved that.

 

Roxanne: Commonwealth. Didn’t she do a great job?

 

Beth: Yes! She does a wonderful job.

 

Roxanne: Yeah.

 

Beth: I just fall into her stories. They have a lot of characters, and I wasn’t sure I could keep up with them all at the beginning, but she, of course, pulls it off. She always just has those lines that zing you that are forever stuck in your head. I’m also reading Christina Baker Kline’s new book A Piece of the World, a sort of fictional take off of Andrew Wyeth’s famous painting.

 

Roxanne: Oh, yeah.

 

Beth: I’m enjoying that a lot, too. We’re reading Trevor Noah’s new memoir which is called Born a Crime, and it’s quite good.

 

Roxanne: I’m loving it. I’m reading that also, and I think he did a fantastic job.

 

Beth: Yeah! You can tell he wrote it because it sounds like him, right?

 

Roxanne: Yeah, it does.

 

Beth: So many of these famous people have ghost writers, but he definitely wrote it.

 

Roxanne: And what a brilliant title!

 

Beth: I know! He’s impressive.

 

Roxanne: Yeah.

 

Beth: Really impressive.

 

Roxanne: It made me like him even more. I mean, I’ve liked him. I haven’t been addicted to him the way I was to Jon Stewart but –

 

Beth: Me, too.

 

Roxanne: It’s making me want to watch him more after having read that book. He just seems smart and thoughtful and funny.

 

Beth: Mm-hmm (affirmative). And kind.

 

Roxanne: And brave.

 

Beth: Yeah. He couldn’t leave the house with his parents because he wasn’t supposed to be there, a person of lighter skin in the township.

 

Roxanne: Yes, exactly.

 

Beth: He spent a lot of time alone reading, observing people around him, and … Boy.

 

Roxanne: Yeah, I’m liking that also. You know what I forgot to ask you, is it true that there’s a movie adaption of Truevine already underway?

 

Beth: Yeah. It’s actually being negotiated right now so I’m not allowed to talk in detail about it but I’ll just say … You probably read it.

 

Roxanne: Oh, it’s just us, Beth.

 

Beth: It’s been widely reported that Leonardo DiCaprio wants to attach to a movie and is interested in the story. He had actually long been a fan of George and Willie Muse, having read about them before, which is interesting.

 

Roxanne: That really is interesting.

 

Beth: That would be another honor, just to have that story be more widely told. Think of all the millions that will come to it who maybe wouldn’t have read the book—just another way to get that history out there that’s so relevant today.

 

Roxanne: Well, Beth, I want to thank you for being on Just the Right Book, and I particularly want to thank you for writing books and telling stories in such a compelling way that inform us. I think they really can, both books, Factory Man and Truevine, can really change the way people think. In the meantime, they’re having a great time reading a great book.

 

Beth: Oh, that is so kind. That’s my goal. I’m trying to figure these things out myself and trying to tell people what I’ve seen and witnessed. Hopefully, they’ll feel the same emotions that I experienced when I was learning these new things. That’s always the goal.

 

That’s the wonderful thing about being a reporter. You get to go out and get paid for basically a graduate degree in whatever you’re interested in. Not only that, you get to then tell it to others. There’s always this moment where I feel like I’m almost pregnant with a story, and I get really excited. How can I tell this in a way that’s going to make the hair stand up on the back of my readers’ neck the way it did for me? That’s a real privilege to get to do that.

 

Roxanne: Well, mission accomplished.

 

Beth: Thank you so much!

 

Roxanne: Thank you so much for taking the time to be on Just the Right Book. I look forward to our meeting one day.

 

Beth: Me, too! It was a real privilege.

 

Next Up: Running a Successful Independent Bookstore

Roxanne: If you ever wanted to work in a bookstore like R.J. Julia’s but weren’t exactly sure if you have the chops, then this next segment is for you. I am thrilled to have a very special guest in the studio today. Lori Fazio has been the general manager of R.J. Julia for over five years, and she’s been with the store for nine. I am incredibly lucky to have her there since she’s the one who takes care of everything and makes sure the train’s running on time. Now she’s on Just the Right Book so, Lori, welcome.

 

Lori: Thank you.

 

Roxanne: I think a lot of people think they want to be a bookseller because they think of the idea, “Oh, boy. I’m going to be in this building with all these books, and I’m going to get to read and this is going to be the perfect job.” What does being a bookseller really entail?

 

Lori: Well those first thoughts is exactly what I thought. When I started, I came in thinking that I know a lot about books, and I can’t wait to be able to read more. Then within five minutes I realized I don’t really know anything and you learn. Being a bookseller is expanding your mind, listening to people, listening to the people you work with as well as the customers that come in, and just really being able to take the information that’s given to you and go further with it. As far as you want, really. You can go as far as you want.

 

Roxanne: Do you think that your reading has changed since you’re a bookseller? In other words, do you not finish as many books? Do you read more? Do you read less?

 

Lori: Yes. I do all of that. I really don’t like when I can’t finish a book but because we’re constantly reading. It’s the job that you’re reading to supply the customer.  There are times that if I don’t think it’s really worthy to recommend, I have to put it down. I may tell myself I’ll get back to it someday.

 

Roxanne: But really …

 

Lori: But, I usually don’t, sadly. If it doesn’t catch me, if it’s not the right thing, then it probably isn’t the right thing for me to get back to anyway.

 

Roxanne: I’ve been at the bookstore for almost 27 years, I find I read more but I finish less.

 

Lori: Yes. I read more and finish less as well, but I read way more. I thought I was a big reader back in the day and now not only am I bigger reader,  but my genres have expanded.

 

Roxanne: Yeah.

 

Lori: I thought I liked one thing, and I don’t even know that I’d go near those books anymore. I’m open-minded to all kinds of books now, and I’m thankful for that.

 

Roxanne: Yeah. That to me is one of the best parts. You see a book come in, you think, “I don’t really read science fiction,” and then you love it. Or you don’t really read a graphic novel or history or whatever, and then all of a sudden, you’re doing it.

 

Lori: That’s right.

 

Roxanne: What would you say to somebody that said, “Oh, my dream is to be a bookseller?”

 

Lori: Come in with an open mind and be prepared to work more than you thought you would. It’s work, and as you know, we’re sales people, which means we have to get the right thing to the right person. We might love a book, but you can’t recommend that same book to every single body that walks in the building.

 

Roxanne: What skills does somebody who wants to be a bookseller need?

 

Lori: They need to be able to multitask, even though I’m not a big fan of that word.

 

Roxanne: Right!

 

Lori: They need to be able to listen to what the customer really wants and point them in the right direction.  If you don’t know the exact book to recommend, then be able to find the right person who works at the store that can. You need to be able to juggle a lot of information at any given moment.

 

Roxanne: Right. One of the things that you and I have talked about a lot in the store is the ability to engage somebody. Somebody comes into the store and at R.J. Julia’s we don’t like to say, “Can we help you?” We like to say, “You finding what you need?” Because sometimes people feel like they can come in and look around, which of course they can, and they think they’ll find what they want. The skill of knowing how to engage a customer so you really have an understanding of what they’re looking for is a skill that I think you and I have learned is not so easy for some people. How do you help them learn that?

 

Lori: I give them tools and, not a script, but I give them ideas of how to start an open-ended question with someone. If they come in and if you’re really uncomfortable, if they have a child with them and the child has a soccer shirt on, you can even just open up the conversation saying, “Oh, did you just come from a soccer game?” Then just talk. Everybody who works for us at the store loves books, so once they can find a way to open up with a book or some sort of a recommendation they usually can settle in and feel at ease.

 

Roxanne: Do you think that working in the bookstore has changed you outside the bookstore?

 

Lori: That’s an interesting question. I think that I still view the world the way that I have in the past. I think if anything it makes me want to suggest that people think outside their comfort zone, whether it’s reading or something else. I know, for example, my mother is a prime example. She likes to read a certain genre, and of course I get her those books. I buy her those books for Christmas or her birthday, but I always push her to try something else. I think it’s because I’ve expanded myself that way, so if someone gives me an open door, I will try to do that for them. Other than that, I think retail, and I appreciate it. I appreciate other businesses and the people who are working there more, especially during the holidays and busier times. But, I still look at the world the same way.

 

Roxanne: One of the things that I think that I’ve learned is that maybe you can judge a book by its cover, but I don’t think you can judge people by how they look. You could get the punky looking kid with the piercings and the green hair come in the bookstore, and he wants the most classical kind of book. Then you get an older woman who looks like she might want romance, and in fact, she’s reading some edgy kind of fiction. The other thing that I’ve been struck by, and I think you’ll remember this story, Lori. Do you remember a couple years ago we had an older woman who got faint?

 

Lori: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

 

Roxanne: I don’t remember if she fell down or was falling down, and we had her in a chair and she was really embarrassed that she was in that position. We got her water and called 911 to make sure she was okay, because if I remember she was in her 90’s.

 

Lori: Yes, and by herself, I believe.

 

Roxanne: Exactly. She was by herself and then as we got to talk to her we learned that she had been the first woman who graduated college with a degree in physics, and she was not only very accomplished, but had won all these awards. I love the idea as we talk to customers, we get to see them in a more multi-dimensional way without getting personal.

 

Lori: Right.

 

Roxanne: Although sometimes people are coming in and they’re asking for a book because they’ve been diagnosed with an illness or they’ve lost somebody, so we do end up with those kinds of conversations. I love the idea that we have a fuller view of who the people are.

 

Lori: Yes. The diversity is fantastic. What people like to read and what they don’t always want to admit they like to read is always fun. I agree with you on that. It’s a great part of the day.

 

Roxanne: Two last questions. Would you encourage somebody to become a bookseller?

 

Lori: Of course I would.

 

Roxanne: And they could come work for you!

 

Lori: Well they would have to come and interview, but of course I would. If you enjoy reading and you enjoy recommending what you read, sharing what you like to read with your friends or with the people around you, then a bookstore could be the right place for you.

 

Roxanne: Tell us about the book that you’re crazy about now because I know there’s one that you can’t stop talking about.

 

Lori: Well lately right now it’s a book called The Women in the Castle. It comes out in January.

 

Roxanne: Oh.

 

Lori: Yes. This is a story that takes you back to around World War II. There are three women characters who are very different, and they have great backstories. I’m still learning what the backstories are.

 

Roxanne: Fiction?

 

Lori: It’s fiction.

 

Roxanne: Yeah.

 

Lori: I read a lot of World War II historical fiction, and there’s always another aspect when I read a historical fiction book that I’m also learning.

 

Roxanne: Tell me the name of the book again.

 

Lori: The Women in the Castle

 

Roxanne: Oh, I like that already.

 

Lori: Yes.

 

Roxanne: How about a book that’s out now that you’re loving?

 

Lori: News of the World

 

Roxanne: Oh.

 

Lori: It’s a little book that’s fiction as well. This story takes place right after the Civil War in Texas. It’s about a retired Army captain who literally goes through Texas on his horse and cart. He goes to these little towns and everybody in the town who wants pays 10 cents, and he reads to them the news of the world.

 

They’re learning what’s going on in Paris and what’s going on in Italy, and at one of his sessions, one of the locals comes to him and has a little girl, who’s 11, and she has been rescued back from an Indian tribe. For the past four years she’d been living with Indians. Her family had been murdered and they ask the Army captain to deliver her to the very bottom of Texas to her other family, her aunt and uncle. The story is about their journey. You get a little adventure along the way. The girl doesn’t remember English, so how they communicate, how her English comes back, and just their intimate relationship is very beautiful. It’s one of the nicest stories I’ve read in a long time, but there’s plenty of action in there as well.

 

Roxanne: Well, we need nice stories these days.

 

Lori: We do.

 

Roxanne: We definitely do. Lori, one other question. What kind of crazy requests do you get from people coming in the store that is sort of like trying to solve a puzzle?

 

Lori: We get that a lot. We get customers coming and they have a portion of the title or …

 

Roxanne: Or the wrong title!

 

Lori: Or the wrong title. Sometimes they’ll even point to a place in the store, and they’ll say it was right on this table. One that stands out is several years back the book Three Cups of Tea was very popular, and we really couldn’t keep it on the shelf. Everybody wanted to read it. A customer came in, and this was sort of, not the tail end, but when things were trailing off just a little bit, and they literally said the letter “T” was in the title, and I said, “The letter ‘T’?” They didn’t know much about it and at that point you just have to ask a lot of questions, but we love those challenges. It’s always fun when we can send them out with the book that they’ve actually been trying to find.

 

Roxanne: Yeah. Sometimes they’ll say it was reviewed in the New York Times and really it was an ad in the New York Times.

 

Lori: Right.

 

Roxanne: Sometimes they’ll literally say, “It had ‘the’ in the title and it was blue.”

 

Lori: That’s right.

 

Roxanne: Then we just have to go from there. Lori, if I wanted to get a job in bookselling, and I’m anywhere in the country, how would you recommend somebody start?

 

Lori: There is an industry newsletter called Shelf Awareness. You could certainly go on to ShelfAwareness.com/jobboard and see listings throughout the country of places that are looking for all kinds of things. It could be in the publishing world, it could be in the book selling world, but that would be a great place to look.

 

Roxanne: Of course you could walk into your local bookstore and see if they’re looking or file an application.

 

Lori: Absolutely.

 

Roxanne: We’re always looking for great booksellers.

 

Lori: That’s right.

 

Roxanne: Well, Lori, I am delighted of course that you’ve joined us on Just the Right Book.

 

Lori: Thank you.

 

Roxanne: Lori and I sit next to each other at the bookstore. We spend a lot of time together, so I’ll see you in the store.

 

Lori: Sounds great.

 

Roxanne: Thanks Lor.

 

For a complete list of books that we’ve talked about today please go to BookPodcast.com. Also, please email us at info[email protected] Remember to subscribe to us on iTunes and rate and review us for a chance to win Beth Macy’s book Truevine.

 

Just the Right Book Podcast is produced by Collisions, a division of CTN International. Our original music was created by Mark Berman and many thanks to our producer Christina Torres and our sound engineer Pat Keough.

 

Thank you all for listening.

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