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On the Indie Bookstore Road with Jessica Keener

Let's begin with a moment from Jessica Keener's fine new novel, Strangers in Budapest (Algonquin): "Outside, seeing the road and the cars heading toward the city center, she thought of the many thousands of people living their lives, hauling their hidden stories. Hundreds of thousands. Millions. The entire planet was full of people hauling secrets, struggling to come to terms with them...."

That passage eloquently crystalizes the interwoven lives of the handful of characters who inhabit this story, each in their own way a stranger in a strange land. A December Indie Next PickStrangers in Budapest was praised by Linda Bond of Auntie's Bookstore, Spokane, Wash., as "a tight, well-written thrill of a story you will not forget." That it is. And Linda's prediction has been true for me. I continue to be haunted by these strangers and their secrets.

In addition to saying "You've got to read this!" (the handseller's mantra), however, what I'm focusing on this week is Keener's recent journey through a landscape in which she is not a stranger--the Northeast. Recently, she and her husband, Barr, embarked from their Boston area home turf on a three-day book-signing tour of 14 bookshops scattered across the region, rolling up 855 miles through five states in a small Zipcar, "eating oranges and organic potato chips out of paper bags," as Keener recalled.

Jessica Keener with Yankee Bookshop co-owners Kari Meutsch & Kristian Preylowski

The itinerary included the Bookloft in Great Barrington, Mass.; New York indies Oblong Books & Music in Rhinebeck, the Book House of Stuyvesant Plaza in Albany and Northshire Bookstore in Saratoga Springs; Vermont's Northshire Bookstore in Manchester, Bartleby's Books in Wilmington, the Yankee Bookshop in Woodstock and the Norwich Bookstore in Norwich; New Hampshire indies White Birch Books in North Conway, Water Street Bookstore in Exeter and Gibson's Bookstore in Concord. The home stretch featured stops at Maine's Bridgton Books in Bridgton and Print: A Bookstore in Portland before ending up at Jabberwocky Bookshop in Newburyport, Mass.

Northshire Bookstore Saratoga bookseller Molly Halpin & Keener

The genesis of the tour? "I was invited to attend the NEIBA conference in September and was blown away by the indie bookstore owners and staff that I met there," Keener said. "Talking to these people in person--seeing their faces, feeling their passion for books--it was inspiring. It made me want to visit their stores. So, the indie book signing tour became a chance to both celebrate the publication of my new novel and shine some light on these cultural oases that live in our neighborhoods and villages. Bookstores and the people who staff them are, in my opinion, purveyors of magic. Plus, the tour was a perfect excuse to get away from the city for a few days, breathe some country air, and go on a fun road trip with my husband."

The Bookloft (l. to r.): owner Pamela Pescosolido, Keener, Julia Hobalt (buyer), Tim Oberg (social media) & Giovanni Bovini (bookseller)

Highlights of the pilgrimage included "the unique beauty and tranquil atmosphere of these stores" as well as "meeting the staffs," Keener noted. "I met owners and part-timers. Book people have an endearing eccentricity about them. For instance, several booksellers made a point of showing me the craftsmanship of their store's custom-made bookshelves. I loved seeing this pride in the store's design as well as the books themselves."

An unexpected highlight was the "feeling of freedom of being on the road, following the trail of these beautiful treasures whose very existences enrich society," she said. "No two indies are alike--except that all are exceptional, and the people who staff them are incredible for their obvious love of books, stories, authors, and readers."

Keener & Jabberwocky Bookshop manager Paul Abruzzi

Keener credited her husband with keeping them moving: "In order to successfully visit all 14 stores in three days, we averaged about 20 minutes per indie store. It sounds short, but it was enough time to introduce myself, chat a little, sign books, take a photo and leave behind a small gift bag of candy by way of thanks. Plus, staff people need to tend to store business. I didn't want to interfere with that."

She also praised her hometown store, Brookline Booksmith, where she had her launch reading: "Brookline Booksmith is a 10-minute walk from my home. I go there several times a week. Sometimes I stop in for five minutes--it's almost like a checkpoint for my day. Maybe I'll have a specific book in mind. Maybe not. I like to browse the tables and I like to see other people browsing too. It's not a stretch to say that Brookline Booksmith is the heartbeat of our town. It's a place where you can let your mind wander or ponder, focus or drift. There's something there for everyone."

Keener & Oblong Books & Music co-owner Dick Hermans

The success of her book-fueled road trip has "inspired me to keep going," Keener noted. "I've visited several more in the Greater Boston area (Harvard Book StorePorter Square Books, Trident Booksellers & Cafe) and intend to visit more over the next few weeks." Last night, Keener read at Newtonville Books in Newton.

Book people, she observed, "shine in quiet and powerful ways. It was fun, a little unnerving the first day, but we got our bearings and were almost experts at getting in and out stores with pictures and signing by day three. It was great to see the stores busy and thriving. The trip was a wonderful chance to celebrate the unique oases of culture that we call indie bookstores. No two are alike--except that all are exceptional, and the people who staff them are incredible for their obvious love of books, stories, authors, and readers."

--Published by Shelf Awareness, issue #3139

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