As another BookExpo America approaches, my thoughts have turned to celebrities. Not author celebrities, but celebrity celebrities (who, for BEA purposes, often mean celebrity authors). This year's BEA Book & Author Breakfasts include a generous helping of speakers whom you might be forgiven for considering celebrities first and authors second, including Neil Patrick Harris, Anjelica Huston, Jason Segel, Alan Cumming, Martin Short and Lena Dunham.
I'm not complaining, having watched booksellers, myself included, stalk celebrities in our own quiet way for a long time, including a pair of occasions when I witnessed Oprah Winfrey being engulfed by an adoring, bookish entourage. The first occurred in 1993 at the ABA convention in Miami, where I happened to attend a lush, downtown rooftop garden launch party for Oprah's soon-to-be-canceled memoir. Shielded by bodyguards, she moved across the floor within what was quite literally the eye of a party storm as the book crowd swirled around her.
And in Chicago eight years later, the scene was repeated when she attended a BEA Author Breakfast where her friend Quincy Jones was speaking. Afterward, she left for a quick tour of the trade show. Her passage through the corridors from banquet room to convention floor became a procession, with Oprah leading and booksellers trailing in her wake.
On their home turf, most booksellers are generally more circumspect. The first unwritten rule at the bookstore where I worked for many years was that if you spotted a celebrity in the stacks, you left them alone and respected their anonymity unless they broke the ice first. The second rule was that it didn't count as a genuine sighting without credit card name confirmation.
Auntie's Bookstore, Spokane, Wash., sums up the "celebrity browsing" dynamic nicely: "Over the years, we've learned to expect a bit of celebrity here at Auntie's, and not just our own! Many community figures, actors, singers, artists and other performers are also avid readers. We don't stalk our visitors while they're here, but once in a while we feel comfortable requesting that we be allowed to take a photo."
I've noticed recently that the gossip media tends to be inordinately thrilled when it catches celebrities in bookstores:
"Amber Heard celebrates birthday with Johnny Depp, couple visit a bookstore."
"Ellen Page strolls arm in arm with rumored girlfriend... Together, they hit up several neighborhood spots, including the McNally Jackson bookstore."
"She's one literary lady: Geri Halliwell wears grey trouser suit to visit a book store in North London
"Selma Blair cruises to the bookstore in carnival capri pants to pocket some great summertime reads."
|Julianne Moore, BEA 2013|
Generally, indie booksellers are content to practice a bookish version of catch-and-release when it comes to celebrity sightings. It's not that we don't care. No one could deny the buzz that sweeps through a bookshop when a celeb is on premises, so we're not completely jaded when it comes to celebrity encounters.
I remember a great conversation I had several years ago at BEA in Chicago during a Farrar, Straus & Giroux dinner with Paul Yamazaki, head book buyer at City Lights, San Francisco, Calif., and Billy Corgan, the Smashing Pumpkins lead singer who was about to publish a collection of poems. We discussed books and places to eat; just three dudes talking poetry and the best bratwurst vendors on the streets of Chicago.
|John Stockton at BEA 2013|
I'll even confess that last year at BEA, I made two special, somewhat star-struck pilgrimages to hover briefly around the signing tables of National Basketball Association legends Kareem Abdul Jabbar and John Stockton.
My all-time favorite celebrity-turned-author moment involved Bill Murray's appearance at a BEA Author Breakfast panel in Los Angeles 15 years ago for his book A Cinderella Story. After confessing that he "became a writer back in 1999. I had approximately, uh, the rest of the month to finish it," he offered a little Murrayish retail perspective for the indie booksellers in attendance: "I've never gone to the Internet and sat down and read anything, but I've never gone to the Internet and shoplifted, either."
Ultimately, I can only hope my strategy for dealing with celebrities in the book world falls well short of stalker territory and more in line with that sense we often get while on vacation of not wanting to be mistaken for a tourist. Pretend like you belong and it's all part of your everyday routine. Maybe you'll at least fool yourself.
--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #2253.