Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Wild Mushrooms from Mary Oliver and Other Adventures in Bookselling

Working the Provincetown summer season is the kind of extreme experience which bonds the people who have done it, and which is hard to explain to those who have not. Working long hours non-stop to make the majority of your annual income in about 100 days, while trying to maintain a positive attitude toward the tourists who are both bringing the money and making your life hell, you seem to enter a tunnel that excludes other realities until the light of Labor Day dawns. Or maybe this is just my lame-ass excuse for not posting on this blog for four whole months.

In any case, the day after Labor Day, the whole town seems to exhale a sigh of relief that's nearly audible. Suddenly everything is easier, lighter, slower. And perversely, as things go in this bi-polar little town, this new, quieter reality quickly becomes boring. Along with fewer crowds and less stress, there's also less money and a lot less happening. So one day in late September, I was sitting at the Provincetown Bookshop feeling bored. This, I thought, was really a nothing day -- not much business, no excitement. Then I realized that in that same day I had had face-to-face conversations with not one, but two Pulitzer Prize-winning writers, Michael Cunningham and Mary Oliver! So much for the boring life of a Provincetown bookseller.

Michael Cunningham is known chiefly as a fiction writer. He is the author of The Hours, as well as By Nightfall and A Home at the End of the World, among other novels. He also wrote a lovely, book-length essay that was far and away Provincetown Bookshop's biggest best seller of 2012, called Land's End: A Walk through Provincetown. It is probably the single best book about Provincetown, certainly the best book about Provincetown as it is now (or was around the turn of the millennium). At the height of the season, we were ordering it by the carton and selling 4 or 5 copies a day.

Michael first came to Provincetown as a fellow at the Fine Arts Work Center, and he still spends summers here. As is typical of a small town, I know Michael to say hello to, but I didn't know how to contact him to ask him to sign his books. So -- again taking advantage of that wonderful small-town thing -- I sent him a note addressed to "Michael Cunningham, Provincetown, MA 02657." Our intrepid postal workers worked their magic, and Michael dropped by the bookstore to sign some books and chat. If, like me, your heroes are writers, then you know it doesn't get much better than this. 

But wait. There's more! That same day, I had gone by Mary Oliver's house (notice how casually I drop that line) to pick up a big load of books that she signed for the Provincetown Bookshop. This is doubtless the single biggest perk of my job: I'm the lucky woman who gets to deliver and pick up the literally hundreds of books that Mary Oliver graciously signs for the Bookshop. At the same time, I get to pet Ricky, the new dog, and schmooze a little.

Mary Oliver is, of course, Provincetown's national treasure, the great nature poet of our time. She was described by The New York Times in 2007 as the best-selling poet in America. (I just looked on Amazon and saw that her new book, A Thousand Mornings, is their number two best seller in poetry, after Shakespeare.) Her nature-centered poetry is accessible and inspirational, in the tradition of Frost and Dickens. She is also famously private, letting her work speak for itself. The opportunity to interact with her -- as a townie and a bookseller, decidedly NOT as an adoring fan -- is a wonderful thing. As a token of thanks after she signed the first load of books, I brought her flowers from my neighbor's garden. Perhaps in return, or maybe just because she had too many, she offered me wild mushrooms she had picked that morning. I know nothing about mushrooms, but I believe these were Golden Chanterelles, bright orange, big and meaty. At her suggestion, I sliced them, sauteed them, and ate them plain for breakfast.

They were delicious!