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John Benditt in conversation with Nancy Pearl - University Bookstore Wednesday, February 25th, 7:00pm
From time to time, The Open Bar finds itself in a new city and has no idea where the nearest TGI Fridays is. (Have you had their Patron Cosmo Rita Shaker? It’s a steal at $14.95) When this happens, we usually call up an author friend to point us in the direction of the party.
For the initial installment of Book Clubbing, our reoccurring look at some of the best bookstores around the country, Tin House’s very own rumpshaker (and 2011 Workshop Instructor), Steve Almond, drops some knowledge about one of his favorite Boston area booksellers , Newtonville Books.
It was 1999, maybe 2000, and I’d been in Boston for a couple of years, lonely ones. I was trying to write and mostly failing. I can’t remember exactly how it happened, but at some point a fellow named Tim Huggins contacted me about reading in his book store. I’d never read in a bookstore before, but I was dating a woman about twice as beautiful as I deserved, so I immediately said yes. I drove out there to Newtonville, to this tiny bookstore, and you could see right away that it was a real bookstore, the product of one person’s particular crazy, and not a structured retail environment. No coffee or cakes or mugs or Big Helpful Signs. It was more like: Take a look around. Get lost maybe.
Anyway, there’s these chairs set up in front and maybe eight or nine people there and the story I read was just filthy, really awkward stuff in a group that size. It went great. I could see that Tim liked the filth. He was from Mississippi originally, had come up to Boston to go to business school and his thesis had been a business plan for a bookstore, which probably made everyone in business school laugh for a month, but damn if he hadn’t opened the thing. Tim had that certain vibe Southern guys have, where they flirt, basically, by giving you shit. He also had a surplus of charisma. He liked to drink and flirt. He wanted the room to be full. And he wanted the room to be full of lucrative sexual tension.
So he basically created this bookstore that was like a place to hang out. He’d figured out what readings are for, actually, that they’re about lonely people wanting to feel less alone. The reading was only phase one of the evening. The point was to create a celebration around the reading. So he coupled up with the bar down the street and gave everyone a free drink to loosen things up. If things turned sexy enough, everyone piled into cars and headed back to Tim’s house for the serious debauchery. That’s what the whole thing was about — catapulting the energy of the literary art into social mayhem.
Along the way, he created this lovely community of drunk, lonely, horny folks, many of them authors or aspiring writers, but also civilians eager to get a break from the zombie life of marketing. And lest I make Tim sound too much like a gigilo — though I can’t imagine he’d mind — I should emphasize that all this boozy talk centered, always, around books, of which he was a passionate advocate. Books were his rap, his sweet talk, and he sold a shitload of them simply by singing their praises without embarrassment or pretense. He made them sexy. It took me a few years to figure out how unusual Newtonville Books was, but more established writers recognized it immediately. Brad Watson. Margot Livesey. Jennifer Egan. Tom Perrotta. The list goes on forever. His shop became a destination, and it still is.
Tim hung up his spurs a few years back, but he passed the reins to Mary and Jaime, friends of his who loved the store and shared his vision of the place as a community of readers, an emotional watering hole rather than a commercial outlet. I get there whenever I can.