Usually this type of post would be titled something like Spotlight on Bookstores: The Spirit of ’76 in Marblehead, Mass. But, how could I argue with the title written by the author, Brunonia Barry?!? Sock Puppets, Hedgehogs, and Full Time Writing certainly got my attention! Brunonia Barry is the author of The Lace Reader (my review, author event, and tour of spots mentioned in the novel; can you tell I enjoyed this one?!). Her recent novel, The Map of True Places, was published in May 2010; it is also set in Salem, which provides a fittingly quirky backdrop to this wonderful tale of a Hawthorne scholar, his grown daughter, and a mysterious family tragedy. The Spirit of ’76 bookstore, in nearby Marblehead, is mentioned in the novel – read on to learn why Barry has given it this place of honor.
There are many reasons that The Spirit of ’76 in Marblehead, MA is one of the best Indie bookstores out there. Just last week, for example, they hosted a poetry slam that drew eighty local teens to the store, and held them in captive attention until closing, a difficult thing to do these days. This local bookstore regularly hosts all sorts of programs: from a writing workshop by Laurie Stolarz to previews of upcoming titles for the local book clubs, diverse groups with even more diverse tastes and names that range from The Goddesses Who Read to The Orange Fur Bikinis. This is the kind of store where the staff learns your tastes and often puts a book or two aside for you. They also know when to stretch your reading horizons, suggesting books you’ll love but might never have found on your own.
The manager, Hilary Emerson Lay, is a treasure. A visual artist and writer who adores books, Hilary creates beautiful sock puppets which she occasionally sells at the store and of which we have purchased several over the years as gifts for just about everyone we know. One of them is sitting on my desk as I write this, a short red-headed geeky looking puppet that bears a disturbing resemblance to me.
Hilary has a pet hedgehog named Stanley who sometimes visits the store. He has met most of the local children and has fans of all ages. Hilary regularly writes about life with Stanley, who disappeared the other day only to be found hours later sleeping in her purse. All of his fans can find out his latest escapades by following Hilary’s postings or listening to her stories which people stop by the store to hear. It was no big surprise that one of Hilary’s recommendations to my book club was The Elegance of the Hedgehog.
As you can see, there is a real sense of community in this local establishment. But all this description is simply to establish location. What I really want to tell you about is how The Spirit of ’76 helped me to become a full time writer.
I had just finished the third draft of my novel, The Lace Reader, and I knew that it still needed to be tweaked a bit, but I was baffled as to what elements needed work. So, on a whim, and because they had always been so supportive of my efforts, I walked into The Spirit of ’76, manuscript in hand, and asked for help.
They already knew I was a writer, I had written for a ‘tween series called The Beacon Street Girls and had done a signing at the store a while back. The night of the signing, the store’s owner, Bob Hugo, asked me what else I was writing. I told him about The Lace Reader, and he told me to make sure I brought it by when it was finished. On the day I took my “book in a box” into his store, Bob wasn’t there. But Hilary was, and we started discussing my next steps.
“Do you have one of those many book clubs who might be willing to help a fledgling novelist?” I asked. “I don’t want to workshop this anymore. I need some opinions from real readers, and a book club would be perfect.”
Hilary thought about it for the next few days. The following Wednesday, she called to announce that she had found me a book club. Three weeks later, ten women showed up at my door. I asked them to be brutally honest about the story, and they were. I took copious notes when they agreed on what needed work. When they disagreed, I simply listened to their discussion. At the end, I asked the requisite focus group question: “Would you recommend this book to a friend?” I held my breath waiting for their answer. Overwhelmingly, they agreed that they would, and that, in fact, several of them already had.
With the help of this local bookstore, I was able to repeat the process with two more book clubs. Their notes and insights helped me with the rewrite, and when the book finally went into publication, everyone involved was passing the word. At initial publication, there were thirty-seven book clubs waiting to read The Lace Reader.
I think the synergy between booksellers and book clubs is a strong one, and nowhere is it stronger than at The Spirit of ’76. The fact that they are also supportive of local writers played a huge part in what was to become a great success and ultimately fulfill my dream of being a full time writer. And when my second book, The Map of True Places, came out this May, The Spirit of ’76 was right there to celebrate by hosting a great event.