Pump up the volumes

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Dozens of volunteers constantly restock shelves to keep the place bustling and worthy of repeated looks during the sale’s 10-day run, which could raise more than $100,000 for local libraries.

As Bill Davis leans against the table next to the basement entrance of the Gordon Avenue Library, a middle-aged woman walks up, smiles and deposits a paper bag full of books; a copy of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot balances at the top. While we chat during the next half hour, several more deposits come in. The table quickly fills with paperbacks, hardbacks and any other kind of backs you can imagine. Davis is unfazed by the near-constant stream of book-dropping biddies.

“Yeah, well. That’s what they do,” Davis says with a shrug and a smile.

   Davis should know. He’s been with the Gordon Avenue Library Book Sale for 20 years. Now serving as the director, he’s seen countless tomes come into the library’s basement. All year long, nearly every day, books come in by the bag- and boxful. And every March he sees most of them go right back out; he estimates that the 2004 sale offered more than 100,000 books of which 82,000 sold during the two-week event. The sales totaled an impressive $155,000. Roughly $100,000 of that went directly to the library system itself. That’s a lot of card catalogues.

   And since nearly every year’s Gordon Avenue sale has been bigger than the last, 2005 is expected to be the biggest year yet. Now celebrating its 40th birthday, the Gordon Avenue Library Book Sale has become one of the most successful events of its kind nationwide, and the place for local and not-so-local book fans to go for great deals on everything from dog-eared copies of Treasure Island to honest-to-gosh hidden treasures.

Not all the treasures are hidden, however. Over the years the Friends of the Jefferson-Madison Regional Library, who oversee the sale, have found themselves in possession of tons of legitimate literary collectibles. Davis goes to a glass case to display some of the more sought-after books available at this year’s sale. He pulls out a first edition of Kurt Vonneguts Slaughterhouse V, which he figures could sell anywhere from $250 to $2,500 on the Internet. The Friends of the Library price books below what dealers would ask, though, so “we’ll put a good price on it,” he says. He goes on to take out a first edition of a Harry Potter book (the British version), a biography of
the Von Trapp family signed by the singing sibs themselves and something called The Ugly-Girl Papers: Of Hints for
the Toilet
, published by Harper’s Bazaar in the 1870s. After showing off dozens of other prizes, he finally holds out what could be the most sought-after item this year: A bound portfolio of stunning Mother Goose lithographs by Feodor Rojankovsky. It’s currently priced at $400, much less than what it would probably fetch on the fair market.

   Of course, the Friends of the Library probably got it for free from a kindly donor. “They know that it benefits the library, for one thing, or they may not know that it’s special,” Davis explains. But if a book seems like it could be worth some serious scratch, sale volunteers do a little research. If it’s an authentic collectible in decent shape, it’s set aside and listed (without price) on the sale’s website, www.avenue.org/friends. Not surprisingly, few of the big-ticket items are left by sale’s end as many local book collectors and even some out-of-state dealers make the trip (Davis knows of people who have made the trek from Florida and even Minnesota), along with the hundreds of avid readers who check out the sale each year.

   The Friends don’t catch every prize find, however. Chris Oakley has owned Oakley’s Gently Used Books in York Place for nine and a half years. She could be the Gordon Avenue Library Book Sale’s biggest fan. Every year she arrives before dawn on opening day, sitting for hours in the cold for the doors to open at 9am. She says she does the majority of the buying for her 9,500-book store at the sale each year; last year alone she estimates that she took home about 1,500 items. And while most of them fit the interests of the general reader her store caters to, she’s unearthed a few diamonds in the rough during her marathon sale expeditions.

   “There are some books I’ve purchased there for less than $10 and I’ve resold them on the Internet for more than $200,” she says.

  There are plenty of treasures to be found in the non-collectible section, too. While most of the collection’s hundreds of thousands of books are priced at just a few bucks, many have priceless entertainment value. We’re talking about a People magazine retrospective of its first 20 years of covers, or Dolly Parton’s autobiography, My Life and Other Unfinished Business. No matter if you’re interested in children’s books, cookbooks, military books, comic books, textbooks, fiction or nonfiction, there’s bound to be something of interest on the shelves.

   The trick is to find what you want amidst the basement catacombs (some Friends call the main section “Middle Earth”). Orcs and Hobbits are nowhere to be found, but the dozens of volunteers constantly restocking shelves keep the place bustling and worthy of repeated looks during the sale’s run.

   Oakley says she’s been to tons of book sales, some bigger, some smaller. She says she’s impressed with the operation the Friends run. “The purpose of the sale is to make money for Friends of the Library, and it’s well-priced—less than someone would pay in my store and yet more than I could afford to buy without checking each store. It’s a good balance for fundraising,” she says.

The current sale bears little resemblance to the original one that took place in 1966. That modest endeavor netted only about $700. According to Davis, the sale really hit its stride under the direction of Jane Hess, who ran the event for 14 years starting in the early 1980s.

   Hess recalls, “the biggest problem we had in the beginning [of the sale] was finding cartons to store the books in,” she says. “My husband would fish with his cane in dumpsters for cartons…that [shortage] has been taken care of, I hope.”

   Davis credits Hess with coming up with the sale’s sorting system and other innovations. “We’re kind of riding on her coattails,” he says.

   Hess, however, puts the sale’s success squarely on the local book fans. “This is really a literary community and there are lots of books around,” she says. “Of course the Festival of the Book certainly hasn’t hurt us. … But it is just, just wonderful and wonderful to see those books that come in.”

   Maybe too many have come in. Davis says that sometimes it seems that the sale has gotten too big, and that the Friends of the Library have bandied about the idea of a second sale, one every six months, but have yet to completely decide.

   “It’s a commitment for the volunteers,” he says. “And it ties up the library, and we have to consider their needs. But there’s a good chance we may do some sort of a limited thing, perhaps just a weekend.”

   That would no doubt be welcome news to customers like Oakley. “We’re so fortunate to have someone like Bill Davis and his staff of volunteers doing this,” she says. “It’s a wonderful resource and gets better every year.”

The Gordon Avenue Library Book Sale runs daily March 19 to 28, from 9am to 8pm, in the basement of the Gordon Avenue Library, 1500 Gordon Ave. (On Sunday, March 27, it runs noon to 8pm; on Monday, March 28, it runs 9am to 6pm.) For more information call 977-8467 or visit www.avenue.org/friends.

 

A novel idea
Locals tackle National Novel Writing Month’s 50,000-word challenge

By Molly Katherine Ness
feature@c-ville.com

While some writers agonize over their novels for years, Colin Steele penned his first book in a mere 30 days. That’s because what distinguishes this Ivy resident and stay-at-home-dad from, say, Christopher Tilghman or Ann Beattie, is not only publishing gold and critical acclaim, but speed. Steele is one of the proud winners of the National Novel Writing Month (a.k.a. NaNoWriMo) contest, an annual event that challenges writers worldwide to produce a monumental 50,000 words of fiction between November 1 and November 30.

   Granted, not all the winners are Hemingways: This contest isn’t for the painstaking perfectionist, but rather for the literary gonzo with a sense of humor who’s not banking on the Great American Novel. He just simply wants to see if there’s a book lurking somewhere inside him. The guiding philosophy here is quantity, not quality—and that quantity of writing reduces anxiety about its quality. One Pantops-based participant put it bluntly, referring to the writing he produced during the month as “word vomit.”

NaNoWriMo was started in 1999 when 26-year-old San Francisco-based writer Chris Baty decided to encourage a handful of friends to write novels “because we didn’t have anything better to do, and because we thought that, as novelists, we would have an easier time getting dates.” Today, Baty’s baby is a bona fide nonprofit organization, complete with a website (www.nanowrimo.org) that encourages writers to make small donations toward organizational upkeep.

   “Ninety-nine percent of us, if left to our own devices, would never make the time to write a novel,” the website asserts. “The structure of NaNoWriMo forces you to put away those self-defeating worries and start. Writing a novel in a month is both exhilarating and stupid, and we would all do well to invite a little more spontaneous stupidity into our lives.”

   Adhering, at least temporarily, to this sentiment, at midnight on November 1, 2004, the 37,000 writers participating in last year’s contest flocked to their computers, hoping that by midnight, November 30, they would have cranked out the 50,000 words needed to land them a coveted spot on the Honor Roll of Winners.

   The contest trusts its writers to tell the truth about sticking to the time constraints and has each winner submit his novel electronically for word counting. These are the sole criteria for “winning.” This year, when “Time!” was called, only 5,892 made the cut.

   After the deadline, winners are encouraged to post excerpts from their work on the contest’s website and celebrate their diligence at locally based “Thank God It’s Over” parties in bars and coffeehouses across the world. They’re forewarned, however, that NaNoWriMo’s connection to “the fiction publishing world ends at Kinko’s.”

   True enough, only four book contracts have resulted from the contest, including Jon Merz’s 2001 The Destructor (Pinnacle Books, 2003) and Lani Rich’s Time Off For Good Behavior (Warner Books, 2004).

   A writer of instructional manuals and mother of two, Crozet-resident Roberta Collyer came to last year’s contest with a portfolio limited to “lots of angst-filled poetry in my high school years, many 500- to 2,000-word projects that never got finished, and a failed attempt at NaNoWriMo [in 2003].”

   Accordingly, Collyer began the contest fully prepared for bad writing, yet hopeful. “I know from experience…that even though there will be a lot of drivel, there will also be some good stuff in it too, stuff that I wouldn’t have written otherwise,” she said last fall.

   The weekend before the contest kick-off brought last-minute errands, including the yard work and the laundry Collyer knew she’d ignore for the next month. Only three days before November 1, she hadn’t even narrowed down the genre of her book.

   “It could be chick-lit or fantasy at this point,” she said with a shrug.

   Colin Steele, on the other hand, made more literary preparations. He mused on plot and setting options and did some last-minute fiction reading for inspiration. But when the clock struck midnight on the first day of November, neither Collyer nor Steele had any more time for planning. At the end of day one, Steele had logged 2,200 words; Collyer, 1,792.

 

 While some participants consider writing to be a solitary activity, as the month progressed, a handful of Charlottesville’s NaNoWriMo writers reached out to each other for support. Twenty locally based writers made use of NaNoWriMo’s Web-based chat rooms. Others gathered for encouragement and inspiration at weekly writing sessions at the Barnes & Noble café in Barracks Road Shopping Center. They hovered there with open laptops and clean notebook pages, discussing storylines, chatting about books and excusing themselves to write when inspiration arrived.

   Collyer, a regular at the write-ins, attended out of fear of procrastination and her results were fruitful.

   “The best writing I’ve done happened at Barnes & Noble,” she claims.

   Early into the contest Steele, too, attended the write-ins. However, as the days passed, he found more success writing alone.

   Sixteen calendar days in and 33,000 words to his name, Steele had surpassed his midway mark. With this prolific output, ironically, came shaky confidence. With each new chapter, Steele hit a mini-writer’s block that, he bemoaned, “sometimes feels insurmountable.”

   A daily goal helped him through. “I start every day with the plan of 2,000 words. Then I chew slowly through the plot, scene by scene.”

   In addition, while slogging though both writing and writer’s blocks, a little healthy competition in the guise of the daily word count gave him inspiration.

   Steele checked the Web religiously, searching for other Charlottesville-based NaNoWriMo writers and monitoring their word-count rankings.

   “I live to be No.1 on this list [locally]. It totally drives me. I’m reluctant to admit it. Am I so shallow? So driven by competition?”

   Whatever the secret to his success, Steele’s diligence paid off: At midnight on the contest’s final night, he had written 57,613 words of Stormclouds, a science fiction novel. Three months after the official end to the contest, Steele was still going strong at 85,188 words. His current plan is to step away from the novel for a month or two, then pick it back up in May, edit it and start looking for an agent.

   Collyer, on the other hand, was not nearly as prolific. Her initial plan to write 2,000 words daily didn’t pan out. Twenty-two days into the contest, Collyer’s word count was lacking: 13,474 words of a novel about “a woman’s self-discovery after rehashing her past.” Her calculations revealed she’d have to pump out about 4,700 words a day if she was going to meet the 50,000-word objective.

   However, despite frustration with low word count and the time crunch, she discovered the project to be “more cathartic than I thought it would be,” both because of the empowering knowledge that she can write when she puts her mind to it, and simply because it’s “healing to bury myself in something besides real life.”

   In the closing moments of the contest, Collyer’s word count totaled 16,422. Even though she didn’t make it to NaNoWriMo’s Honor Roll of Winners, she is determined to “devote time every day, no matter what” to writing in next November’s contest. She jokes that she will definitely rectify this year’s mistakes next year, even “if I have to move to a foreign country for a month!”

   Whether or not NaNoWriMo taps into everyone’s inner author, it’s gotten the creative juices flowing for those who give it a shot. Worldwide, the collective current word count for NaNoWriMo writers is 428,134,750 and counting…

 

Moment’s notice
Best-selling author of Blink opens the Book Festival with a bang

Every which way you look it seems Malcolm Gladwell is staring out at you, his face nearly lost underneath his distinctive combed-out ‘fro. The New Yorker staff writer and best-selling author of The Tipping Point and Blink is ubiquitous these days, appearing in publications like Business Week and New Scientist, and he recently graced the cover of Fast Company. This week you can see him in person as he headlines the 2005 Festival of the Book.

   It may be his current trademark look, but Gladwell’s hair hasn’t always been so flamboyant. According to his website, gladwell.com, he decided to grow out his curly locks just a few years ago. Once his Afro began developing, his life began to change. He got more speeding tickets, started getting checked by airport security and even got stopped by police because he resembled a sketch of a rape suspect. These experiences prompted the 41-year-old Gladwell to start thinking about the nature of the snap decisions the people harassing him were making. Thus, the premise for his most recent book, Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking was born.

   Blink explores the conclusions one comes to in the first two seconds after meeting a stranger, seeing a house for the first time, or starting a book. People might confuse those instantaneous reactions with intuition, Gladwell says, but they don’t arise from lack of thought. Rather, he says, it’s rational thinking—thinking that moves a little faster and operates a little more mysteriously than deliberate decision-making.

   A native Canadian, Gladwell first tried a career in advertising before landing a job at The American Spectator magazine. After getting fired from that gig, he worked his way to The Washington Post, where he stayed for nine years writing about everything from medicine to business before becoming New York bureau chief. Then, in 1996, The New Yorker came calling. As a staff writer at that magazine Gladwell developed what has become known as a “Malcolm Gladwell Story,” i.e. an idea-driven narrative that is interested in dissecting the common occurrences of everyday life as opposed to examining major issues or events.

   Book Festival-goers can make their own snap judgments about Gladwell at the two events he’s participating in this year. His breakfast at the UVA Business School has long been sold out, so instead head to “An Evening with Malcolm Gladwell” Wednesday, March 16, at 6pm in UVA’s Darden Auditorium to see the author in action, big hair and all.—Jocelyn Guest

 

Ladies man
Mystery writer Alexander McCall Smith rolls into town this week

Mma Ramotswe is one talented woman. She can break hearts, dispense precious words of wisdom, solve mysteries and put her nose where it don’t belong all at once, leaving fans musing, “Whatta woman, whatta woman.”

   As the star of Alexander McCall Smith’s best-selling series, The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, which broke out in 1998, Ramotswe has charmed her way past hungry crocodiles, out of witchcraft and into the hearts of millions of readers worldwide. Five books into his heroine’s trials and tribulations, and currently plugging away at a sixth, McCall Smith rolls back into Charlottesville this week for his second consecutive appearance at the Virginia Festival of the Book.

   McCall Smith attributes the wide appeal of his “traditionally built,” motherly Botswanian heroine to Ramotswe’s sense of decency, kindness, equality and good ol’ family values. Even her mechanic can’t resist her charms—he proposed to her at the end of the first book. Romantics continue to hold out hope for their future.

   With one mega-successful series to his name, Zimbabwe-born/Edinburgh-transplant McCall Smith has recently tried his hand at another. The Sunday Philosophy Club is a mystery series along the lines of The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency, except that it takes place in Scotland and stars the half-American, half-Scot amateur philosopher Isabel Dalhousie. While only one book in the series has been released in the United States, McCall Smith says he’s
got plenty of adventures for Dalhousie filed away in his head just waiting to
get written.

   The 56-year-old author offers young writers familiar wisdom: “write what you feel.”

   “Persist,” he says. “Carry on in the face of all difficulties.” That’s right: Poverty, writer’s block and repeated denials just build character and material. So stay strong, kids.

   Hear more of McCall Smith’s advice for yourself at either the Virginia Festival of the Book’s luncheon on Thursday, March 17, at which he’s a featured guest, or during teatime later that day. (Just be prepared to crack the mystery of how to get into a couple of sold-out events!) Otherwise, catch up with him during later on Thursday at “An Evening with Alexander McCall Smith” in the Newcomb Hall Ballroom. The event starts at 6pm and tickets are not required.—Sarah Cox

 

New sensation
The “intense and immediate” poet Robert Creeley, father to the avant-garde, reads on Saturday

“Poetry is like water. It finds its own level,” says poet Robert Creeley. That’s why, contrary to what cynics may suggest, the “end” of poetry is a moot point: It’ll always be around.

   The author of more than 60 volumes of acclaimed poetry, Creeley is speaking over the telephone from Marfa, Texas. There he sits surveying the landscape (“it’s like being on the moon,” he says). He recently began a writer’s retreat in the Lone Star State, but he’ll be visiting Charlottesville this week as part of the Virginia Festival of the Book.

   Having started out as a prose writer, Creeley came to poetry in college. The relationship he now has with the English language, is, he says, “the closest association of my life.”

   “What words provoke, what they say, literally is to me absolutely fascinating,” he says. “[Words] are not fixed in a grid of determined meaning,” which makes them both “intense and immediate.”

   His turn to poetry worked out well. At 79, Creeley has won the Bollingen Prize and a Lannan Lifetime Achievement Award, among other honors, and served as Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets. In the mid-1950s he edited the now-famous experimental literary journal, Black Mountain Review that, under his guidance, published the likes of Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg, making Creeley a key figure in developing and defining avant-garde poetry. Along the way, he also racked up a pile of correspondence with William Carlos Williams, Ezra Pound and Charles Olson that verges on the legendary.

   As a poet, Creeley’s obsession is the individual’s unique experience of being human. He describes himself as “extraordinarily alert to how I feel. It’s where it all begins for me: The activity of one’s physical body in the outside world.”

   Creeley will read from his two latest books, If I Were Writing This and Life & Death, at the UVA Bookstore on Saturday, March 19, at 8pm.—Nell Boeschenstein

 

Bright young thing
Everything is Illuminated author Jonathan Safran Foer speaks on Saturday

Aspiring writers, don’t hate Jonathan Safran Foer too much. Yes, the 20something’s first full-length novel, Everything is Illuminated, is a critically acclaimed best seller. It will soon be a major motion picture, starring Elijah “Frodo” Woods as the author himself. But Foer’s paid his dues, working as a farm-sitter, jewelry salesman and morgue assistant at a veteran’s hospital in Washington, D.C.

   “Ay yi yi,” he says of that experience during a phone interview from his current home in Brooklyn. He recounts watching autopsies, and trafficking eyeballs and kneecaps to the pathology lab: “Those were some of the most scary and exciting months of my life.”

   Even scarier than creative smackdown. While everyone from Time to Esquire has dubbed him a “wunderkind,” Illuminated was initially rejected by five different agents and then by five different publishers.

   To be fair, the unconventional premise might have scared some off. What started as a nonfiction piece about Foer traveling to Europe to find the woman who saved his grandfather from the Nazis turned into a fictional piece starring a young writer named Jonathan Safran Foer traveling to Europe to find the woman who saved his grandfather from the Nazis, but instead finding himself on a journey of self-discovery with Alex, a Ukrainian translator who speaks hilariously cock-eyed English.

   And yet the book was a smash, thanks largely to Foer’s prodigious skill with the English language, as best evidenced through Alex’s complete mishandling of it. (Sample quote: “Many girls want to be carnal with me in many good arrangements, notwithstanding the Inebriated Kangaroo, the Gorky Tickle, and the Unyielding Zookeeper. If you want to know why so many girls want to be with me, it is because I am a very premium person to be with.”) Local Gogol Bordello fans, who enjoyed the gypsy-punk band’s show in Charlottesville last month, will be interested to know that in the film, Alex is played by Gogol lead singer Eugene Hütz.

   Foer’s follow-up, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, comes out April 4. It’s another identity quest, this time featuring Oskar, a 9-year-old tambourine-playing, French-loving aspiring inventor who traverses New York City’s five boroughs to find the lock that fits the key left to him by his father, who died on 9/11.

   Foer says that his initial success doesn’t influence how he approaches his subsequent projects. “I just work as hard as I can,” he says.

   He acknowledges that he’s been “incredibly lucky” in his literary career, but advises other young writers not to focus on making “the big break.” “The odds are too much against it, and it’s not a convincing reason to work,” he says. “Be convinced that writing is the right thing for you to do, or convinced that it’s worth finding out if it’s the right thing.”

   Foer will speak on Saturday, March 19, as part of the “Odysseys, Illumination and Forbidden Tales: Three Jewish Novelists” panel at Barnes & Noble (2pm) and “The Self and the Story: A Headline Event” at UVA’s Culbreth Theatre (8pm).—Eric Rezsnyak

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