“Are you the Bob Levin who’s married to Adele Levin?”
“I am,” I said.
Mendel (as I shall call him) had been a boyfriend of Adele’s friend Rhonda (as I shall call her) before I’d arrived in Berkeley in 1968. A free-spirit, he had supplanted the income from a family trust by driving a cab then and, as the trust income had not increased along with inflation, by driving for Uber now. The age of the women with whom he had become involved with had not changed much either. The last one, 50-years his junior, had given him a son before returning to Thailand.
His rumpled khaki suit would have fit one of Graham Greene’s displaced. His eyes still twinkled – but behind glasses that slid halfway down his nose. His still curly hair needed a trim. “Isn’t Adele your cousin as well as your wife?”
“She is not,” I said.
Of the books before me on my table, he picked up “Most Outrageous.” This was the choice least commonly made. He looked at the photo of the smiling teenage girl with her arms around the smiling bearded man.
“The two principal characters,” I said. “A true crime story.”
He gathered his thoughts.
“$15,” I said.
“I look forward to discussing this with you, but now I’m late for shul.” He put down the book. “You know, I was once at a seder with Adele and Rhonda and Baba Ram Dass.”
I knew that Adele, when she had been a teenager and Ram Dass had still been Richard Alpert, had been at a seder together, but I had never heard of one that included Mendel or Rhonda. When I got home. I asked her.
“Never happened,” she said. “Mendel must have heard my story from Rhonda and decided he deserved to be a part of it.”
I wondered how many people in Berkeley Mendel had told of his seder with Ram Dass.
Then I wondered how many people he had told that Adele had married her cousin.
Now I wonder how many people I will tell about Mendel.
As I have called him.
“Which is your best?” She was a café semi-regular, Two days a week. Hispanic, UCB grad, a couple kids, manages a bike shop. Sometimes I gave her my entertainment section with the crossword.
“They’re all good,” I said.
She considered her choice. “Learning about the author seems a good place to start.”
She handed me two fives and put “Cheesesteak” in a clear plastic envelope. Growing up in the Valley, she explained, she had been too poor to afford books, so she had great respect for them.
I was touched.
“Is this you?”
The fellow had close cropped hair under a Red Sox cap. He wore a tight-fitting black mesh t-shirt, cut-off blue jeans, flip flops. I did not rule out that his curiosity had been drawn, not by my books, but the black leather motorcycle cap, which had led the joker in the locker room to ask if I was auditioning for a Village People’s tribute band.
“Are you from Boston,” I said, prepared to advance consumer connection with the banter that my wife was.
“Oh no, not at all. My past, in fact, is quite fragmented. It was a gift from a friend. It’s a good conversation starter.”
“I know just what you mean.”
No sale, there.
In other news, after reading the latest article by the always interesting Austin English at tcj.com, I scrolled down through the comments and, lo-and-behold, found myself quoted. True, it wasn’t so much me being quoted as it was the cartoonist about whom I had written in 2004, but the idea that something I had put in print that long ago had registered with someone sufficiently to be held onto and brought forth now was encouraging in a sort-of you-never-know-what-ripples-so-keep-tossing-pebbles kind of way.
To recap for new “friends,” ever since I started self-publishing, my primary marketing strategy has been sitting in a café with a “Buy Bob’s Books” sign on my table and two-to-five of my books beside it. This is not only a mercantile endeavor but an example of performance art, and each week I report on what has transpired, with occasional asides about other aspects of my literary career.
All books mentioned are available from www.theboblevin.com.
Sold a “Best Ride.”
I’d overheard a young man in the café saying into his iPhone that he was writing a book, which, upon inquiry, turned out to stem from his mother’s death from cancer, and since The-Book-Formerly-Known-As-Heart stemmed from my own non-death from cardiovascular disease, one thing led to another, and one of these “others” was my learning he was from Guam and had played basketball in leagues across the Far East and his learning BR concerned a basketball player in western Pennsylvania… I look forward to talking to him again.
Another fellow picked up both “Cheesesteak” and “The Schiz.” He was interested in self-publishing an anti-Trump coloring book “for children of all ages, 4-to-94.” He was rushing off to meet a friend, but looked forward to speaking with me again. Him, I was not so sure about.
I ought to get over judging people by whether or not they buy a book.
In other news, TBFKAH is now entitled “I Will Keep You Alive: A Cardiovascular Romance.” This was the result of much good-natured e-mail banter involving me, Adele, Milo, Marc, and Mary, with Francois, the cover designer, awaiting our decision so he could go ahead. Then there was further banter about whether to further describe the book on the front cover, aside from the already agreed to “celebrity” endorsement (There won’t) and even further about the nature of the design itself.
The original idea was to capture an image described within the book. But despite Francois’ noble efforts – and half-dozen proffered sketches – no consensus was reached. Consensus was almost reached on one sketch, but Adele strongly objected, and since Adele is co-author of IWKYA (and sleeping with the publisher), this objection carried weight. Francois then reversed course 180 degrees and came up with a design which swept away all opposition and wow-ed a hastily assembled focus group of family and friends [“Cool!,” “Perfect,” “A grabber,” “Startling (in a good way)”].
If I wasn’t a technological imbecile, I’d show it to you now.
Sold one “Cheesesteak.” The buyer – as twice promised – was the adult son of that West Catholic grad. (See previous “Adventures.”) A man of his word.
Another copy did not fare as well. It was picked up by a woman who has newly become a morning regular at the café, 25-years in the States, from Germany, a “healer” by profession, I believe. “May I look at this?” she said.
“Of course,” I said.
Back she went to her own table. She paged through my book while she had her pastry and her coffee. “Interesting,” she said, when she returned it.
You think I’m a fucking library, I did not say.
“To live it – and to write it,” I said.
In other news, “Heart” now has a publicist. Adele and I are excited. She seems a good fit with us. She is a professional with Bay Area contacts. She has life experiences that interesect with ours, and our story, she said, “touched” her. The emphasis will be on revierws, radio interviews, and, intriguingly, hospital grand rounds.
I was also on a phone conference with the distributor’s sales team. This was also exciting and fun – and the big takeaway was they hated our title. (People looking for the book on Amazon will be confused by similar-sounding titles, the team says.) The publicist says sales people like it if you take their suggestions, so I lay awake jotting potential titles on a notepad beside the bed. The next morning one or two didn’t seem that bad.
My article, “Creating Dangerously,” about the fine artist/UG cartoonist Guy Colwell is in the latest issue (#2) of FULL BLEED magazine. It begins:
On Thursday, May 20, 2004, readers of the San Francisco Examiner learned that, two days earlier, Lori Capobianco Haigh, the owner of a one-room art gallery in North Beach, a neighborhood that even within that proudly liberal city had long been known for its tolerance of dissent, had found the entrance littered with broken glass, smashed eggs, and the contents of several trash cans. This defacement had apparently been in response to the gallery’s display of a thirty-nine-by-thirty-inch acrylic-on-canvas painting entitled “The Abuse.”
Haigh, was thirty-nine. She was a twice-divorced mother of two children, aged fourteen and four. She had opened her Capobianco Gallery, on Powell, near Columbus, across from a Catholic elementary school, a year-and-a-half before. Since May 1, she had been showing the work of Guy Colwell, a fifty-nine-year-old, white bearded, round-faced Berkeley resident, whom the media would characterize as an “established artist… (of) realistic and quasi-abstract oils, known for their keen social observation and technical proficiency.” (He had also, it would point out, served seventeen months in federal prison for draft resistance during the Vietnam War and authored Inner City Romance (1972 – 78), a five-issue underground comic about drugs, revolution, prison and the ghetto.)
The story of the torture of Iraqi prisoners by American soldiers at Abu Ghraib prison had broken on April 29. On May 16, Colwell had placed his newly completed work in the Capobianco’s front window. It depicted three frontally nude males standing on over-turned buckets, their faces covered by hoods and electricity-conducting wires running to their fingers and toes. Two soldiers stand in the foreground, gloating. One holds an electrically charged baton. In the doorway, another soldier leads a blindfolded and handcuffed woman into the room. The painting is entirely grey and black and white, except for the red American flag patches on the upper arm of the two dominant soldiers and drops of blood on one of the soldiers and running down the chest of one of the nude men.
Adventures in Marketing: Week 112
Sold one “Cheesesteak” – and nearly sold a second.
The buyer was an older fellow, who had given up on stand-up comedy to become an MFCC. We had a “Hi!-How-are-you?” relationship, built from my friendship with his ex-wife. He came into the café, looking for someone else, and saw by books and sign. He offered a not-unfamiliar response, which, in his case, was nine other books waiting to be read, plus 16 “New Yorkers” and 60 NYT magazines. But curiosity got the better of him. “Support the arts,” he said, a sentiment with which I heartily agreed.
The “almost” was the fellow whose father went to West Catholic. (He was surprised I remembered, but I told him I took notes of all encounters as part of this very project.) We had a nice chat about steaks, hoagies and language specific to particular places. (He told me there is a web site where, if you answer its questions, can, like Henry Higgins, practically nail you to your block of origin.) Again, he had no money with him. “Getcha next time,” he said.
(In a less sanguine moment, a plump, smiley, white-haired woman, seated at the next table, took me and my wares in with a glance and said, “Cute.”)
In other news, “Weighty Tomes” received such a glowing response from a musician/writer reader at “First of the Month” that its editor assumed we had to be good friends. “Nope,” I said. “Just a fellow of fine taste.”
And Adele and I have connected with a potential publicist for “Heart.” She is perusing it this weekend to make certain its style and substance are matters she can work with. I told her for “Oprah,” we would be willing to leave Berkeley. She told me, “These days, Oprah is someone you have to pay.”
Sold one “Best Ride.”
The buyer, a manager of IT projects at UC, in lavender button-down shirt and dress slacks, while curious, was initially disinclined to purchase. But my charm (and the price) won him over.
In other news, “Heart” is moving forward toward publication. Formatted, while still being tweaked, it runs 192 pp. The catalog copy has been submitted. The price is within sight. A cover comes next, though a promotional blurb I thought I had lined up from a prominent cardiologist in return for a (purely voluntary) contribution to his foundation fell through after his hospital frowned at our arrangement. Now to decide about hiring a proofreader and/or publicist.
Milo says, “An author who is his own proofreader has a foll for a client.” On the other hand, don’t the blemishes, the errors, and the bone-headed stupidities more accurately reflect actual artistic vision?
As for a publicist… Some can cost more than I have earned in royalties from all my books combined. Thinking like this, these publicists’ web sites say, represents penny-wise thinking. Authors should not think in terms of one book but of an entire career. But I am 75 with a bum ticker. I don’t have a career. I have a bunch of quirky books. All I want for this one are some reviews, so people will read it. And I’ll do interviews, if I don’t have to leave Berkeley, except by BART.
My latest piece, a trypitch of book reviews is available at http://www.firstofthemonth.org/weighty-tomes-bob-levin-reviews-monography-blood-on-the-water-the-dying-grass/
I’ve already blogged the first two, but the third begins…
General Oliver Otis Howard (1830 – 1909) was a devout Christian and ardent foe of slavery. After the Civil War, in which his service to the Union cost him an arm at the Battle of Seven Pines, he headed the Freedmen’s Bureau and founded and was the first president of Howard University.
But throughout the summer and fall of 1887, Howard led 1500-2000 well-supplied, heavily armed troops 1100 miles, across what-is-now Oregon into what-is-now Montana, in pursuit of 250 less well-equipped Nez Perce warriors, half of whom his soldiers killed, and 500 women and children, many of whom they also slew, in order to heard them onto a reservation designed to extinguish their way of life and culture.
Howard also warred, with the same end in mind, against the Apache, Bannock, Modoc, Paiute, and Seminole peoples, and, reading William T. Vollman’s knock-out novel “The Dying Grass” (Viking. 2015), I wondered when Native Americans would demand his university remove his name.
No café sales.
But the construction worker who’s bought a “Cheesesteak” stopped by my table to say he was enjoying it, and the woman from the bicycle shop to whom I give the Datebook section of the paper, when I haven’t given it to the octogenarian aerobics instructor said, “Are those your books? I’ll have to pick one up sometime.”
In other news, I finally learned how the distributor did with “The Schiz.” The rumored 900 “pre-sales” seem to have turned into 548 actual orders, of which 280 (so far) have been returned. That looks like 268 copies sold, which seems pretty grim; but when you figure this was a book whose own back cover boldly declared it “much rejected” and “much reviled” and which had no advertising, no publicist, no reviews, and an author whose own former publisher had declared him someone “no one has never heard of,” it is somewhat astonishing it sold any copies at all. Then when you add the 80 or so books I sold myself, with no one else taking a cut, I am left less than a grand in the hole, which I can lose a hellova lot more than from my IRA in the blink of a tweet from the c**ksucker-in-chief, it’s pretty much “Pick yourself up; brush yourself off; and start all over again.” Besides, as my friend Robert the Glass Artist says, “That’s not the point, is it?”
Of course, it’s not. I know that. Yet the availability and convenience of numerical measures – sales, gross – even amidst others of more spiritual gradient, enables them to persistently weigh upon me.
Time to step up the meditation.
I recently received information from my distributor about sales of THE SCHIZ. Included was a list of stores which ordered it. This information was confusing since some of the buyers seemed themselves to be distributors (Ingram, Diamond) and some (Baker & Taylor, Bookazine) I didn’t know what they were. But some were clearly independent stores and I wanted to thank them for taking a chance on my book. If you live near any of these stores, I hope you patronize them. Those in the Bay Area are Books, Inc., City Lights, Dark Carnival, Green Apple, and Moe’s. Elsewhere, A Room of Ones Own (Madison), Atomic Books (Baltimore), Book Cellar and Quimby’s (Chicago), Changing Hands (Phoenix), Common Good (Saint Paul), Escape Pod (Huntington, NY), Forbidden Planet and Kinokuniya (NYC), Moon Palace (Minneapolis), Politics & Prose (D.C.), Tattered Cover (Denver), and Yankee Book Peddlar (Contocock, NH).