Before the bestselling author became an enormous success, he couldn’t even give away the 5,000 copies of his first novel. But a supportive little neighborhood haven in Arkansas helped change his life. John Grisham on the early days of his career in an essay from My Bookstore: Writers Celebrate Their Favorite Places to Browse, Read, and Shop, edited by Ronald Rice.
When my first novel was published in 1989, I hit the road with a trunk full of books in a valiant but misguided effort to create some buzz and launch a new career. After a month or so of miserable sales, I had learned the painful lesson that selling books is far more difficult than writing them. While libraries, coffee shops, and grocery stores were generally more welcoming, most bookstores could not be bothered with an unknown author’s first novel published by a tiny company too poor to even produce a catalog. The first printing of 5,000 went unsold, for the most part, and there was no talk of a second printing, no dreams of paperbacks or foreign editions. The fledgling career was on the rocks.
However, a handful of wise booksellers saw something the others did not, and enthusiastically pushed A Time to Kill. There were five of them; one was Mary Gay Shipley, of That Bookstore in Blytheville, Ark.. I’ve always suspected Mary Gay had a soft spot because I was born in Jonesboro, Ark., not too far away. When I was a kid I visited my grandfather’s music store on Main Street in Blytheville, so Mary Gay and I had some common ground, shaky as it was.
I soon abandoned all dreams of seeing my first novel on the bestseller lists. I got tired of hawking copies of it from the trunk of my car. Instead, I concentrated on finishing my second novel, The Firm. Mary Gay read an advance copy of it and said things were about to change. I agreed to do a signing in her store and arrived there on Sunday, March 17, 1991, St. Patrick’s Day. Her husband, Paul, had found some green beer to go with the green popcorn and the like.
It was a raw, windy March day, not that pleasant, but Mary Gay had called in the chips and there was a nice crowd. I signed books, posed for photos, chatted with each customer, and, in general, had a grand time. The book was selling, and I was on top of the world. The day was significant for another reason: The Firm debuted that Sunday on the New York Times bestseller list at No. 12. I suspected life was about to change, though it was impossible to know how much.
In the rear of her store there is an old potbellied stove surrounded by children’s books and rocking chairs. Late in the day, we gathered around the stove and I read from my novel. I talked about the writing of it. I answered questions with little regard for time, and the crowd showed little interest in leaving.
As soon as The Firm “hit the list,” I was inundated with requests from bookstores to do signings, but I declined, and not out of some sense of revenge. I’d rather spend my time writing, and besides, book tours are not that enjoyable. However, it’s always been easy to remain loyal to those first five stores, especially That Bookstore in Blytheville.
I returned the following year with The Pelican Brief, then The Client. By the time The Chamber was published in 1994, the signings were going on for 10 or more hours and everyone was working far too hard. We changed the rules and shrunk the crowds, but the signings still felt like marathons. Eventually, we stopped them altogether, and for the past several years I have sneaked into Mary Gay’s back door and signed 2,000 copies of each new book. This takes a few hours and we enjoy the quieter times. There’s a lot of local gossip, and I’ve picked up more than one idea for characters. Old friends stop by, and on several occasions, I’ve had lunch with my mother and her three sisters.
Blytheville is an old, declining cotton town, and many of its Main Street stores are empty. Mary Gay has kept hers open through hard work and the sheer will of her personality. With independent bookstores vanishing at an alarming rate, I wonder how long she will hang on, or if someone will take her place. She and others like her had a huge role in the early success of my career and the careers of many rookie authors. Without their encouragement and support, it will be even more difficult for first novels to have a chance.
Over 20 years have passed since that cold Sunday in March when we sipped green beer by the stove, celebrated all things Irish, and toasted the country’s newest bestselling author, but it remains one of my fondest memories as a writer.
Excerpted and adapted from My Bookstore: Writers Celebrate Their Favorite Places to Browse, Read, and Shop edited by Ronald Rice. Copyright © 2012 by John Grisham. Used by permission of Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers. All rights reserved.