By Mark Alpert
Back in the summer of 1981, between my junior and senior years of college, my roommates and I drove to California in a friend’s dad’s Cadillac. We left New York City at 9 p.m., watched the sun come up over Indiana, spent the afternoon in the Wisconsin Dells and kept on driving till we hit South Dakota. Over the next three days we toured the Badlands, gawked at Old Faithful, and somehow ignited a thingamajig on the Caddy’s underside, littering sparks on I-15 as we crossed the Mojave Desert. After delivering the battered car to its owner, Mr. Grisanti (who was none too pleased when he saw its condition), we spent the following two months in various parts of Los Angeles, mooching off our friends in Westwood and playing volleyball on the Santa Monica beach and working temp jobs at a Zody’s Department Store. I loved every laid-back minute of it.
Strangely enough, though, I never returned to the L.A. area until two weeks ago, when I attended the American Booksellers Association’s Children’s Institute conference in Pasadena. I was there to promote The Six, my Young Adult thriller about terminally ill teenagers who give up their dying bodies and download their minds to U.S. Army robots. The Six will come out in July, and my publisher wanted me to showcase the novel for the benefit of the booksellers from all over the country who come to the conference to see what’s new and exciting. The conference organizers stage a ritual that’s a bit like speed dating: while the booksellers eat lunch in a hotel ballroom, the representatives from the various publishers hop from table to table, describing their spring and summer offerings to each group of bookstore owners and buyers, summarizing their lists in a wild rush before moving on to the next table. And then a few hours later the authors of said books come to an evening reception to sign advance copies and answer questions from booksellers who are already eager to read the novels. Needless to say, I had a blast at the reception. It was an incredibly gratifying and flattering experience.
What struck me the most was the enthusiastic, entrepreneurial spirit of the booksellers. Many of them were young and new to the business, and many were longtime owners of revered stores, but all of them were upbeat and passionate about books. Their optimism stands in stark contrast to all the dismal prognostications about the future of book publishing. One conference participant pointed out a strange consequence of this disconnect between expectations and reality: a few customers at her bookstore act like mourners at a funeral. “They come up to me with very concerned looks on their faces and ask, ‘Are you all right? Is everything okay?’ And they’re genuinely surprised when I say, ‘Yes, business is great!’”
My favorite moment from the conference was when a bookseller showed me a review of The Six written by a fourteen-year-old boy in her town who’d read an advance copy. He loved the book but felt obliged to add that it was a bit scary.
And it was good to visit Southern California again after a 34-year hiatus. I had some fantastic sushi at a restaurant a few blocks from the Pasadena Hilton. After dinner I strolled over to the campus of Caltech, which is a shrine for science nerds like me and probably the least laid-back place in the whole state. I admired the bronze bust of Robert Millikan, the legendary physicist who was the first to measure the charge of an electron. I peeked into the windows of the labs and saw frazzled students still hard at work at midnight. It’s definitely not a good college for partying; there was no music blaring from the dorm rooms, and the only socializing I glimpsed was a rather pathetic klatch of half a dozen students standing around a pony keg. Worse, I overheard one of the students lecturing the others: “There are several types of fun, you know. There’s Type 1 Fun, which is very different from Type 2 Fun but somewhat similar to Type 3…”
I didn’t stick around for the full explanation.