Self-Publishing and Being Pleased with Yourself: A Brief Glimpse into the Life of a Small Town Bookseller and Writer
(Originally published on the Los Angeles Review of Books Blog.)
Will Peterson owns and operates The Walrus and Carpenter Bookstore in sleepy Old Town Pocatello, ID. It’s airy for a bookstore. It has high ceilings and it’s long. Compared to many other local bookstores around these United States, it’s big. It could be fuller, more … precarious, like many independent booksellers tend to indulge. Piles of books that the customer needs to dig through. Will keeps everything pretty organized, visible. He walks a thin line, profit wise. He’s a reseller and archivist. He gets up early and goes to the Youth Ranch to search for gold. He’s got a lot of books, not a lot of customers (true of most businesses in Old Town Pocatello), but he works for himself. He’s got a reputation, but it’s mainly positive. He’s been in town for 40 years, and though I know far less than everything about him, I like to think he’s my friend.
Will Peterson, more than anyone I’ve ever met, has a sincere talent for being pleased with himself. I say talent because I believe it is a learned attitude. I find it enviable, knowing I’ll never be as good at it as he is. It’s enough, though, to sit in his bookstore for an hour or two, to soak it up in his periphery. To try and say something clever so he’ll laugh, a burst of unrestricted pleasure. Going walking with Will, it’s not uncommon for him tilt his head back and howl, like Jack London might’ve done (or so I read in a biography of London as a young man).
Will is tall and still pretty handsome. He brags about how long he maintained his good looks.
“It wasn’t until I turned sixty that I started looking old” he says.
Will has a fondness for dark glasses, often wearing them well into the evening. He says he likes that people can’t tell where he’s looking. This is true — it is a good feature, especially for those of us who like to look too long and too much. But there’s another pleasure of dark glasses; to allow the white lie, the blank familiarity he presents to anyone who walks in his store. Of course, they’ll remember him. Will likely inquired about their life the last time they visited. These days, that kind of congeniality, walking into a place of business, it’s memorable.
No matter your measure, Will will risk being interested in you. Often, it pays off for him. Great lines of dialogue, profound thoughts coming from what one would assume are banal places. Writers in the American West have often been good about not underestimating the everyman. Will tells me that these are many of the people who buy and enjoy the novel(s) he wrote. Mechanics, ex-army, outdoorsmen.
Will is a novelist and his pages are filled with personal interactions and anecdotes. As a writer, poet, musician — artist — he has a flavor for the personal and unique. His novels (the second in a proposed trilogy was self-published this year) are expansive and, well, I think the only other word is non-linear. I shy away from a word like “plotless,” since, to me, plot is always the least interesting thing about any story, but there is an ambling nature. On purpose. Like Gaddis, but with everyday language.
In talking with me about the writing of the third novel he’s working on now, he says one of the things he appreciates about sitting down to write a novel is that, “In a novel, you know, it doesn’t have to go anywhere. It’s got so much space.” Unlike a song or a poem, there can be pages of experience. An exhibition of memory. Not trendy. It’s a compulsion towards the creation of a record.
Things happen in succession in his novels but what they mean and how they have anything to do with the progression of the story is difficult to parse. Partly at fault is the high percentage of dialogue. It can be fun, for a time. It’s just that while reading you have to resist some urge to paddle upstream. To try to figure it out. You float it like you do a river, looking forward, in the spirit of the moment. The things that happen in his novels are more or less autobiographical and form a thesis, a description of a life. The novels Will writes (like many great writers before him) accentuate some truism about how our lives really aren’t like stories. Dialogue happens and you learn something, but you’re not quite sure what.
In this most recent novel, The Ghosts, his character Errol travels in the backcountry, stops at a bar, and listens to a chatty bartender.
“Now my Daddy? He had a donkey name of Buster … You know where Chamberlain Basin is? It’s the farthest from any road in the Lower 48. We’d hire a Tin Goose out of McCall to bring in supplies. It was a big old steel plate tri- motor. Ford built it. Had a prop in the nose and on each wing. Big plane. They kept the engines running ’cause it was a hand-crank starter and if it kicked back on you it would break your arm. The Tin Goose’d be stand there going Ka-whump-whumpa! Ka-whump-whumpa! and Buster would run up and lean his fat body against its steel-plate sides and bray to the farthest transports of love. Wheeh-huh! Wheeh-huh! Wheeh-huh!”
It’s the kind of story you’d tell around a campfire. Which is often what it feels like talking to Will. Eight months out of the year he runs a gas fireplace near the front of his store. He’s got an old leather reading chair near it, where he sits next to piles of books and a long wood end table which acts as his checkout counter. He’s usually got another straight back wood chair to rest his feet on, but it serves double purpose as invitation. He pushes it out towards you as you walk in the door. Though, frequently, someone will already be sitting there chatting with him, warming by the fire.
Will’s thoughts on the nature of books are very practical, physical. Of his novels he tells me, “I’m just trying to create artifacts.” For so much of my adult life I’d considered books, as the objects, an irrelevant necessity to the transference of the words inside them. But in recent years it’s become clear to me they’re so much more than that. Mass-trade paperbacks with their corny covers, old hardbacks with marbled outer edging. Will has hundreds of photocopied and hand-stitched or stapled chapbooks. Nearly a hundred more letterpress chapbooks, which are still being created as we speak (so to speak). Will tells me of the letterpress process, the whammy pressing the form to the page, drawing out the ink. I like the sounds these phrases make. And the objects themselves, a chapbook with glittery end sheets. Many of the poems and stories inside these creations are not that special, but that’s entirely beside the point. Each book — each thing — is like an individual: a personal world you can hold in your hand, even if only for a moment, before you put it down and move on to something else.
The old adage “Never judge a book by its cover” is about people, not books. A bad or ugly cover can be fun. Truly great covers are rare. Whatever judgment that happens also happens in relation to what you may or may not want it to be.
Maybe I’m still talking about people.
I have come down with a mild case of bibliomania, and Will is partially to thank. He has nice sounding stories about the small pleasures of self-publishing: doing it for yourself and the parties. Keeping pleasure in your life without needing some form of external validation.
“It’s fun to publish a book. It’s there and then it’s done.”
Though not without its trials. I ask why he chose “The Ghosts” as the title for his second novel. It had initially been “Requiem for the Wind.” He lists a few reasons for the change, not least of which was that typing “Crawl On Your Belly Like a Man,” the title of his first novel, at the top of each page, “That got old. The Ghosts was easier.” We both laugh and I don’t maliciously inquire why he did not simply copy-paste. It’s not like he uses a typewriter.
There’s a lot of little failures — wonderful failures — in self-publishing. All those dusty cases of unsold, perhaps never to be sold, books, sitting in their cardboard boxes, straining the wood of his loft. Will uses a loft space above the small studio area in the back of his bookstore as both his apartment and storage.
There’s no stove. A crock-pot perpetually on. Dozens of old Planter’s Peanut containers stashed above his fridge and on his shelves, filled with dried beans and rice. “What else do you need?”
I tell Will of one of John Steinbeck’s quotes: “Beans are a roof over your stomach.” These days we might call beans a safety net.
One evening I sit with Will and talk about his life and writing.
Why a trilogy instead of independent novels? The second book picks up right where the first let off, including page numbers.
“It’s a big story, it begins with me at 48 but it’s all this stuff from my life. It’s like The Iliad or War and Peace. I think of it as this one thousand page story.”
I lean forward in my chair, beginning to giggle. Already I can’t hold back my joke. I ask for a pen and piece of paper. I’d like to write it down: Will thinks of himself like Tolstoy or Homer.
“You motherfucker,” he cackles. “I just gave you a beer.”
Will likes good beer. And on that matter, so do I. We’re almost always drinking it when we sit and talk. It was probably this mix of yeast and good feelings that convinced me I should self-publish a book as well. To allow myself to find some pleasure in it. It is a separate kind of talent to be happy, and Will tries his best to encourage it.
On his planet, everyone is one of the greats. The great musician, the great writer, the great painter. The amount of times Will has introduced me to someone of greatness I cannot count. It’s all pleasure and it’s all good. It’s not fake, it’s a pleasant exaggeration. Like the howling on his walks (which are usually “the best ever”) or every meal. He hums and moans with pleasure, even if the meat is a little overdone and the potatoes a little under. Every meal is great. Often in these moments he makes me feel persnickety. Grilling out in the back of his store, I point out minor variations for possible improvement of the meal. Mouth full, he says, “No, it’s great. Anyway the last meal you had will always be the best one.”
Who can argue with philosophy like that?
Two Writers Pile the Back End of a ’93 Jeep Full of Books
Will and I have breakfast, then a couple beers. A woman, 75, only seven years older than Will, has to move out of her home. She can no longer live alone. We are going to take the books she couldn’t get rid of at her garage sale off her hands. It’s one and a half large bookcases full. At first she tells us that she’d like to keep some of her books on Idaho. A quick survey of her shelves reveals that this would leave a substantial portion of books. She settles on keeping only her cookbooks, which she still reads as recreation.
Will and I have two cardboard boxes we use as transport from the house to the Jeep. We pile the books into the back. Will’s trunk won’t stay open on its own and it presses into my spine. The books vary in size and stacking is haphazard. It’s the first physical work I’ve done in a while that I actually find interesting. Physical work which includes thought, each book’s universe, there, piled on top of each other. As a bookseller (or one making a pretension at it) there’s an indulgence towards physicality and mentality colliding.
Regional literature is an interesting type. I’d hazard that it’s the most plentiful form of writing, at least by sheer number of books — books you’ve never read, never will read from cover to cover, but which are lovely little artifacts for a place and time. A few interesting pieces catch my eye, yet I can’t help but notice there’s nothing I’d ever go out of my way to buy. In these moments I appreciate Will, that there are booksellers like historians, who don’t concern themselves too much with profit.
Will gives the lady $500 for all the books when we’re finished, which I think is generous. It’s not that all the books aren’t worth that much, technically, but how long will they sit on his shelves? He doesn’t have that much space left. What’s the turnover? Who’s coming to buy these rather specific pieces of regional writing (and the complete works of Zane Grey)? It’s questions like these, about practical sales figures and possibilities, which run through my head as we drive away from the house.
When I ask Will about it he tells me it’s not really about the money.
“Everything I do is about ego.”
Partially, I come to figure that giving the lady the money was about the story. Getting to tell people he gave her the money, where the books came from. There’s a quiet genius to this tactic, where things get more valuable because he says it. He proclaims their value. It’s a classic form of value measurement, going a little out of style these days. But it’s classic for a reason.
It’s probably part of why he’s so damn positive all the time. If he makes people feel good they will feel good about coming into his store. Maybe buying his novels.
I worry, though, there is a darker, “coping mechanism” aspect to his feelings. He’s getting older, and has no health insurance. No external validation from the larger world. He has a small community who appreciates him and who he appreciates back, but the biggest asset of his store, as far as I can tell, is himself. Will. Which is both the eternal reality of being alive and a significant amount of pressure that most people go out of their way to avoid.
A couple days after helping him move the books I come back to check if he’s found storage for all of them. He’s piled them near his chair creating a mini fortress of words and paper. He is not sitting in his chair, though. The store is empty. So I walk down the aisles toward the back where all of a sudden, behind the door, I hear a string of profanity. I ask if everything’s alright.
“Fuck, I was hoping no one heard that,” Will says, as we walk back down, returning to our seats near the fireplace. He broke a glass shelf. We move quickly past it into my favorite topic, books.
Yet later, the mistake still lingering in his mind, during a lull in our conversation, he says, “You know I’m glad you came in. I’m glad I broke that thing.”
Why be glad? Why not? There are worse habits than being pleased with yourself.