An Incredible Book Journey: Time Was Soft There

Over the next six weeks, I will have the joy of visiting independent bookstores in 23 cities. Follow the trip and meet the many wonderful friends, book people and random characters I encounter along the way.

Sunday, December 18, 2005

10,261 miles (16,514 kilometers) later

The thing is over. Twenty-three bookstores in 44 days. A demi-circle of North America. A blur of friends and festivities. Sugary affirmation at most every stop. A constant lack of sleep. An abundance of fine meals and beverages. And even a few books sold.

How does one measure a tour such as this? Well, as with all things in life, the first question is whether it was a happy time. And the answer is ohmygodyesyesyes. I was able to see some of my dearest friends. I made new friends, several of whom I suspect might be keepers. I was able to visit a host of new cities. I was constantly inspired by the courage and dedication of independent booksellers. In short, it was pretty much pure joy, aside from that nervous gut-sore hour before each show. And that, of course, is a very small price to pay.

But the tour was not just for fun. I was promoting a book. How did that go? Who can tell. In some cities, the bookstores reported that they had sold 30 or 40 books. A lot of these stores would have only ordered a couple of copies but instead ordered a couple of dozen as I was visiting. I also met a lot of my readers, probably an average of about 20 per show, so close to 500 in all. And, I hopefully lodged myself in the minds of the booksellers so that they remember me when the guillotine book comes out in 2007.

Another objective was media coverage, and though it is hard to tell what spawned what, this too seems to have been successful. There were reviews or tidbits in a bunch of big papers and magazines - The Chicago Tribune, The Wall Street Journal, Newsweek, The San Francisco Chronicle etc - and also dozens of hits in community papers such as the Mercer Island Reporter and the West End Word. There was also some radio work, including spots on NPR and CBC. But was that a result of the tour? In England, I have been all over the media - The Times, The Independent, The Guardian, BBC radio and television - and I wasn’t driving from Portsmouth to Newcastle like a madman. It is all very mysterious.

In the end, the most important thing is that I got dirt on my uniform. I went out and played the game and gave it my best. That is the kind of feeling that makes for a good night’s sleep. As I always say, the one thing in life you can’t afford is to have regrets. I don’t want to end up at the age of 85 sitting in my pee-stained trousers and asking 'What if I’d ...'

I did a book tour. I had a hell of a time. And I am grateful for it. Thank you for reading along with me.


Saturday, December 17, 2005

Drinkin' In Canada

Yes, it is that cold here.

Friday, December 16, 2005

Homecoming Gig

Of all the readings on the tour, it was the final night in my hometown of Ottawa that made me the most nervous. There is something comforting about appearing before strangers: At the end of the event, whether it be a grand success or a dismal failure, you will never see the audience again. In Ottawa, it was family - my mother, father, sister, aunt, uncle, cousin - and friends - from high school, from university, from the newspaper, from the courthouse. It's not so much that I felt I had to impress these people, but at all costs I did not want to let them down.

I think things went fairly well. The event was held at Collected Works, a great independent bookstore in the Westboro neighbourhood. As Charlie Gordon, a great writer and an early inspiration, said, it's a great place to have a reading because it is so intimate it always feels like it is a full house. In the end, we had about 25 or 30 people and there was mulled wine and a generally festive atmosphere. Afterward, we had a little party at my parents' house with more wine and beer and a great spread of cheese and such. It was, despite my initial reluctance, a perfect way to end the tour.

My father Ross, my sister Beth, my mother Patricia.

My cousin Mike and his wife Laura.

Two of my dearest friends, Will and Julie.

This was particularly amazing. Helen and Albert fell upon the wondrous Atlantis Books while touring Greece this past summer. They learned of the reading from the Atlantis site and Helen actually took the bus down from Montreal to attend.

And this, of course, is the incomparable Jake Rupert.

From Car Home to Parents' Home

After six weeks of living out of the car, I arrived at my parents' house in Ottawa to spend the Christmas holidays. Many of my friends - Quinn and Dave are two examples that leap to mind - would have kept their car meticulously organized during those six weeks. I, on the other hand, am the type of fellow who has to chain his car keys to his pants in order not to lose them. Sadly, this is what happened when I unloaded the car ...

Thursday, December 15, 2005


You always hear writers mumbling something about how they don't read their reviews. I am starting to understand why.

It can be worse than a crack trip. All up up up and then suddenly down and then up and then down and then ... well, you get the idea. When I was being interviewed on the BBC or by Vogue Australia or by NPR, I felt quite pleased with myself. Perhaps not a star, but a nicely glowing piece of space rock. Kind words in places like Newsweek, The Wall Street Journal, The London Times, The Ottawa Citizen and the San Francisco Guardian left me with a medicine ball head. Then, there was a distasteful review in Canada's leading newspaper and an article in The New Statesman that described me as something of a rube backwater Canadian. I almost let myself get depressed.

The truth of the matter, of course, is that I am blessed as hell just have my work discussed in so many distinguished forums. One of the reasons I write is that I want to have my voice heard when I rant about all the issues of the day. (Because, clearly, I could cure all of the ills of the world if people just listened to me.) Thanks to this book, my soapbox is suddenly a little bit higher, a little bit more sturdy.

And, as I have known all along, the true test of the book would be what people who know the bookstore and know George Whitman thought. From early readers, such as Luke Basham and Adrian Hornsby, to the dozens of people I have met on this book tour or received emails from, the people who really understand Shakespeare and Company generally agree that I did a decent job. Perhaps most amazingly of all, the other day my editor received a hand-written note from Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Ferlinghetti is one of the world's most important poets, one of George's oldest friends, and one of the people whose opinion I was most anxious for. I was even scared to go into City Lights while in San Francisco in case he didn't approve. Instead, I received some of the most soothing praise yet. This is a portion of what he wrote:

"Jeremy Mercer's tale of George Whitman and his beloved bookstore is
a book of revelations, for it tells the hard-to-discover true story of
George's life and of the twenty-thousand-and-one nights of this enchanted
place that continues to be for its habitées as well as for its creator, a
way of life." -Lawrence Ferlinghetti

So, there we go. Affirmation upon deception upon affirmation. I really look forward to escaping to the quiet island of Santorini ...

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

The last US tour stop

Has it really been 43 days on the road? And 23 bookstores visited? Tuesday night was my last American gig on the tour, at the famous Books & Co in Dayton. The owner, Sharon (red hair, seen here with Vivian the event manager) has made Dayton a must-stop for authors and is the most wonderful host. It was a good show with lots of positive feedback, but there was a lingering sense of melancholy. Sure, there is a homecoming show in Ottawa, but that is going to be more of a celebration with friends and family. This is the last time I will be up before strangers in a strange city for a while.

The people that you meet ...

On of the best part of visiting the homes of random and not-so-random strangers is that you are constantly surprised by the goings on of other folk. Take Jennifer in Indianapolis. Thanks to a Craig's List posting and an email correspondence, she invited me to stay with her on my way through Indianapolis. A lovely young woman with a fantastic sense of humour and a quick wit. But guess what she does at 3.30 in the morning. That's right. She plays with the bones of dead animals.

All right, I confess. This is part of her bio anthropology project for university, not some strange semi-Satanic ritual. But still, kind of odd.

Saint Louis Stars

Did you know Saint Louis is named after the French King Louis the 14th? I didn't. And he isn't the only celebrated personality connected to this fine city ... Introducing a portion of the Saint Louis Walk of Fame ....

You may not recognize this last fellow, but a star he is. I met AJ for the first time in Greece back in June 2004 at Atlantis Books. His brother Craig, who loyal readers of this journal will remember, is one of the founders of the bookstore project and Craig arranged for me to sleep at AJ's house.

AJ is in Saint Louis attending Washington University - one of the top ten schools in the United States, though the one on the list you are most likely not to have heard of. He lives in this incredible mansion-house with three roomates and epic rooms and stained glass windows. Among his other endeavours, he is an a capella singer and I have a fiendish idea. Remember my friend, the burlesque star Lily Vanderloo? She is currently putting together a new show. What would be better than a burlesque show with an old school/new school barber shop quarter performing between acts? I am totally getting on this idea ...

One final note of pride. As a rapidly again fellow, I was somewhat intimidated to be out carousing with vigourous young college men. I am pleased to report that I not only beat AJ at darts, I also drank him not just under the table but into the bathroom as well.

Monday, December 12, 2005


You know how people say you should get off the Interstate so you can see some real America? Well, you should, 'cause then you see cowboys.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

People and Animals

Ever noticed how happy animals tend to hang out with happy people? In Denver, I was hosted by a lovely woman by the name of Nancy who had this incredible friend Buddy (pictured). Nancy works with wildlife in Colorado and is a tremendous traveller, having just spent two months in Europe. I have been endlessly blessed to have these types of people open their homes to me.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

Onto Salt Lake City

The drive out of Vegas is incredible, with stretches of desert which become running hills which become red cliffs.

But I was more aware of the moral contrast, going from Vegas, a city renowned for its vice, to Salt Lake City, renowned for Mormonism. Having read Under The Banner of Heaven and heard Craig Walzer's tales of his Mormon inquiry last summer, I wasn't sure what to expect but the city welcomed me. First, there was the very touching gift of free parking for everybody for the entire month of December. Nice.

Then, there was the King's English Bookstore. This is a haven of good books, progressive politics, and stunningly good people. The founder, Betsy Burton, has just written a book about her store called The King's English: Adventures of an Independent Bookseller, a book which has quickly found a place in my heart. There was a Christmas party at the store, so I was sitting there drinking wine, talking death penalty with a district attorney who had just written a book about a famous Salt Lake City murder, being charmed by all these lovely bookstore people (see the photo). I decided Salt Lake City is a damn good place to be.

Friday, December 09, 2005

Will Murray

When I submitted my manuscript to St. Martin’s, my editor, Mike Flamini, was incredibly supportive. He only asked for a series of small fixes along with one major change: he wanted me to cut a chapter. That chapter was about my trip to Spain with my dear criminal lawyer friend Will Murray. In the end, I agreed with Mike that it was superfluous and since then Will has been dining out on the story of being cut down from a chapter to a few paragraphs. Though, of course, considering the scandalous behaviour I recounted in this chapter, he should be happy with that development.

Will flew out to San Francisco so he could ride along to Las Vegas with me. The times were suitably debauched, though Will greatly impressed me with his stamina when he worked the black jack table until 9.30 in the morning, pocketing an astonishing 125 dollars.

This is him in a cotton field a couple hundred miles outside of Vegas.

Las Vegas

When I was in Chico, Quinn told me an interesting story. Chico is a huge university town with tens of thousands of students. His ladyfriend Karisha is incredibly in tune with the natural energies and Quinn says that she suffers bouts of stress every December and January because she absorbs all the tension of the students who are frantically preparing for their exams.

I have always believed in the auras surrounding people so this story made sense to me. It made twice as much sense after Vegas. The second I got into the city, I felt irritable and annoyed. I needed an immediate drink to take this desperate edge off and then a bunch more to keep it off. I think I was absorbing the negative energy of the city.

The place abounds with pawn shops and loan joints and these places that will give you money if you sign over your car to them. My first night there, I was amazed by how many beautiful young women were sitting alone in the casino bars at two in the morning until I realized they were all working. Maybe gambling and prostitutes sounds glamorous in a lad’s magazine, but it is desperate and hollow when you see it up close. That part of Vegas has a total bad vibe to it and trying to mask it with the fake Eiffel Tower and all that other Disneylandesque crap is like putting lipstick on a decomposing corpse.

The only positive part of the city’s vibe was that when you encountered something good it stood out because of the contrast. That was the case with the Reading Room, the bookstore where I had an appearance. It is in the Mandalay Place casino and was put there because the casino’s former general manager was a literature nut who attended the writer’s program at the University of Iowa. The bookstore is a haven of sanity amid the gambling madness and it is staffed by tremendously kind souls. This is a picture of two of those souls, Michele and Heather. Sadly, there eyes appear demon red, but that is my damn lack of photography skills, not a reflection on them. They are both beautiful young ladies.

All in all, a bookstore in a casino is a pretty odd experience. My picture was up on the main casino neon board, alongside the Wayne Newtons and Howie Mandells. Just a few steps from the bookstore door were jangling rows of slots. (This is a fuzzy picture of Will in front of them. More on him soon.)

But, another tip of the cap to the power of a bookstore: once inside and browsing the shelves, the entire casino disappeared ...


Many people marvel at Kilometer Zero Issue #3 and wonder why it is so beautiful. The answer is this fellow. He was just travelling around Europe, happy as a lamb, when Quinn kidnapped him from Budapest and forced him to sleep on the floor of our Paris art squat so he could spend several weeks of 20-hour days designing the magazine. Amazingly, he has fond memories of the experience.

Technically, I was going to sleep at his new place in San Francisco but I was drinking late and then I had to get up at 4.45 in the morning to drive Cody to the airport, so I just kind of didn't show up. He is worried and I should call or email him, but instead I'm just blurbing it out here.

San Francisco

Another whistle stop. Arrived in town at about six, read at seven, then some drinks, a few hours sleep and the road to Vegas. What was special here was a chance to spend a bit of time with a special friend and some fellow Shakespeare veterans.

One of the people who made a great impression on me at Shakespeaere and Company was Chris Cook Gilmore, a writer who split his time between Morocco, Paris and Margate, New Jersey. He started writing while in an Italian prison for drug smuggling in the 1970s and had his first success with ‘Atlantic City Proof’, a coming of age adventure novel set in Atlantic City during Prohibition. I wrote about Chris in my book, so I won’t go on too much here, but suffice it to say he was an inspiration: a working writer who’d lived off his wits for the better part of 40 years.

Chris died last year, shortly after visiting me in my Marseille apartment. For two days of his visit he was the Chris I knew - peppy, funny, dashing off to Chateau d’If so he could see the setting for the Count of Monte Cristo. The other two days he was laid out on the couch, a ghost of himself. It turned out to be brain cancer and he was gone a month later.

Everybody who knew Chris misses him, but nobody more than his wife Anita. She is a tremendous woman, a total spark. She gave me Chris’s watch when I passed by Margate to pay my respects last year and I wear it with pride. She also came out to my reading in Philadelphia and then completely surprised me by showing up in
San Francisco too. She now runs an underground speakeasy, so if you are ever Atlantic City way, look her up ...

One of the reasons she came out here was to visit Karl and Jordan, friends of ours from Shakespeare. They live in a great art squat, a natural continuation to their Paris bookstore life. It was good to empty a few glasses with them.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Win a lottery/Meet Cody Ellerd

While driving through Iowa, I received a phone call from a reporter from Seattle who was doing an advance piece on my Mercer Island Books gig. This reporter was intrigued by the tour and wanted to follow me on a couple of stops to put together a second piece, this time something for NPR. I thought for a moment. Publicity, obviously, is a good thing for a book. But sharing my car, my friends, my life with a stranger for three days?

Well, when in doubt, say yes, that's my philosophy and it paid off this time. What were the chances of this random reporter being fun, adventurous, well-read, and a wonderful navigator? About the same odds as winning the lottery, I figure, and I certainly did win some kind of cosmic lottery by having Cody Ellerd drop into my life for three days. This jack-and-coke drinker got along with Tom, Quinn and Will, a winning trifecta of my friends; she had no qualms about sleeping on floors; she wasn't bothered that most of our interviewing took place while intoxicated between 3 and 4 in the morning; and even a bad pork taco couldn't take her down (though there was some very operatic vomiting).

I should note that this fine taco truck wasn't the one that made Cody sick; she wanted to climb back on the taco horse the day after so we stopped here.

Quinn's World

How does one describe Quinn? His first toy as a child was a claw hammer he called nana. He grew up in a California junkyard with warm hippy love all around him. He never knew what he wanted for Christmas because he was raised without a television. He is a self taught computer genius. He left America, travelled the world, and, thankfully thankfully thankfully, ended up in Paris where he was one of the founders of Kilometer Zero. He juggles five balls and walks very well on stilts. He can go into the Paris sewers and turn the water back on in our squat when police cut the pipes. He bicycled from Paris to Marseille to visit me in October. He is love.

So clearly, anytime I am within six or seven hundred miles of this fellow, I make every effort to visit.

This is his lovely house which has a lemon bush out back.

This is his vicious attack parrot named Boobie who bit my finger and drank my blood.

This is his mother Paulette and his brother Casey

And this is his lovely lovely love Karisha.

Monday, December 05, 2005

Lemons, Oranges, & Persimmons

California in December. Smite me now.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Thomas Pancake

Seared into the mind of anyone who took part in Kilometer Zero or attended the Venue series in Paris is Thomas Pancake. He was the MC of our shows and a soulful musician, the best showman I have ever had the joy to work with. (Anybody who would like to see Tom play can watch our promotional video for the Squatter's Cookbook at Tom was a vital member of our collective, the hawk among a bucketful of doves who kept a real world edge to our utopian dreams. For me, he was also one of my best friends, a gentleman who attempted to live by a gentleman's code and inspired those around him to do the same.

I hadn't seen Tom since August 2002, when he and his cat Pudding walked out of the Paris squat and flew back to Portland, Oregon. Coming into his city the other day, I was somewhat nervous to see him, as I am somewhat nervous to encounter anybody who I have written about in my book. He is working as a chef in a very hip Portland nightspot, a restaurant called, appropriately enough, Voleur. I walked in at about 4 in the morning and from the moment I saw him it was all good.

As anybody who knows me can attest, discretion is not my strongest virtue. Hence, I gleefully report that there is now some competitive scribbling underway. While Luke the Night Man hastens to finish his vampire epic on Santorini, Tom has leapt into the horror game and is crafting a book that begins with the disappearances of family pets ... May they both end up wreathed in laurels.

Tom's Left Side

Tom's Right Side

Tom's Best Side (Ladyfriend Tanya)

Saturday, December 03, 2005


There is a most tangled apartment tale in our little Kilometer Zero family. Once upon a time, the young lion Adrian found a wondrous apartment at 10 rue Legouve in the 10th arrondissement of Paris. He lived, wrote and celebrated there for a a year or so, and then the lovely Musa joined him in co-habitation. When those two left, the apartment was passed to the Mighty Quinn and his ladyfriend and it became the temporary office of Kilometer Zero. They too enjoyed the apartment until an event that shall not be spoken of occurred, at which time the apartment went to our dear friend Sparkle Hayter. She too lived in the apartment for a nice moment until circumstances forced her to leave. That was when Mik came into the picture.

Mik is an actress who once performed her Jackie Kennedy piece at the Venue series and went on to work with Adrian on Three Parts. She had our cherished apartment for barely a month when the landlord - and I will resist the urge to use pejoratives here - decided she had enough of writers, jugglers and actors and announced she would be selling the apartment. Of course, she never sold the apartment, she just used it as an excuse to evict us. So, I, at least, am a little sad and bitter about losing the family apartment.

All that is just an exhausting way to say that I met Mik in Seattle and she is as wonderful and charming as ever and is currently working with her new performance, Split Second, which is certainly sublime. (

Friday, December 02, 2005

Mercer Island Books

Sadly, I have already filed my piece for the Guardian on my top ten favourite bookstores in the world otherwise there would be new entry on the list. Clearly, I was especially excited about this stop because it is my namesake. Mercer Island is in the middle of Washington Lake, just outside Seattle. It is a beautiful place, and not just because we share a number of vowels and consonants. The bookstore proved to be especially sensational, notably the incredible collection of vintage typewriters that grace the tops of the bookshelves. We had a great crowd and the bookstore team - Tonya, Roger & Cindy - threw a little wine, cheese and chocolate party afterward.

Sadly, I could never really afford to live on Mercer Island - it is home to the likes of Jeff Bezos and Paul Allen - but I look forward to returning.


One of the great influences in my life has been my mother's brother Bruce. He is a tremendously talented painter who has devoted his life to his art. His very existence has been an inspiration as there was somebody in the family who was completely outside any traditional structure or system. When I was growing up, I would hear stories of Bruce painting in Mexico or living in Florence. More importantly, he scraped through the bad times, suffering the whims of artistic poverty yet managing to get by and keep his art moving. My path away from the newspaper and regular life was that much easier for my family to accept because Bruce had already cleared the way.

Now, as I roam the country, rootless and homeless, Bruce proves to be an inspiration again. I have been passing time with many friends who stayed in the system and now have homes and partners and retirement savings. In melancholy moments, this makes my poverty feel more acute and my future seem more terrifying. But, look at Bruce. He managed to make it through to his 50s living the life, and it is only now that has he bought his first property, an apartment in East Vancouver. It shows that you can sacrifice for you dream and still look forward to an old age that doesn't involve cardboard boxes, an alley, and pee-stained trousers.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Our friend Catherine

One of the best parts of this whole book adventure is that a lot of old friends are contacting me. Yesterday I got an email from Catherine Abel, an Australian artist I met in Paris. Catherine was the first artist Kilometer Zero ever worked with, trusting us - us! - with a selection of her canvases which we hung at the Bistrot des Artistes back in spring 2001 to launch our Venue series. It was the ideal start - a fiery, creative, bold and talented artist who also appreciated our raw but good-hearted attempt to bring art to our audience.

Catherine is currently in Italy, exhibiting at the Florence Biennale. This is a selection of her new work, rich and textured and just plain old good. Do you ever take a moment to look around at the astonishing brilliantly people you have been fortunate to have known? It is humbling indeed and I am an incredibly lucky fellow.