Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Tribute to an Independent Bookseller

A week after moving from Presque Isle, Maine, to our new home, the Pomfret School in Pomfret, Connecticut, I received terrible news: Florence Zettergren, 63, owner of Pieces of Eight in Presque Isle, had died following her long battle with cancer.

It’s no newsflash that midlist authors cherish the independent bookseller. Yet even among indies, Florence was a treasure, welcoming authors with open arms, supporting her local arts scene with a deep passion, and hosting author events that were the things of a lowly mid-list scribe’s dreams.

For reasons I’ll never fully understand, she was uniquely supportive of my career. When my first novel came out in 2001, my area chain store told my publisher I wasn’t a big enough draw to warrant an event. Shortly thereafter, Florence called me at home one night and invited me to sign at her book/knitting store. I jumped at the chance. Flo baked cookies for the event, served punch during it, and—I soon realized—did even more behind the scenes: A TV crew appeared halfway through the signing to interview me for the six-o’clock news. Of course, I vowed to do a launching event for every book I ever wrote at Pieces of Eight. And, true to form, each subsequent fall, Flo treated me like a New York Times bestseller.

But when I think of Florence Zettergren, I don’t only think about book signings. I think about family. And family is what the independent bookseller represents to the mid-list author, or at least to this mid-list author. Several years ago, Florence took a different approach to my signing. She greeted me at the door, pointed me to the table of books and cookies and punch, then she spent the evening teaching my oldest daughter, Delaney, then seven or eight, to knit. I watched as Flo helped Delaney select yarn, choose a starter kit, and gently taught her to make a scarf. It was as if I’d gone back in time to witness Flo teach her own daughter to knit. More recently, she taught my middle daughter, Audrey, the skill as well—this time when her health was in obvious decline.

That was Florence. She was there to help, whether you had won the Pulitzer, were a mid-list author, or were a seven-year-old with $3 to spend.

As the brain tumor begin to win its fight with Florence, and I could see her in serious decline, I attempted to cancel what would turn out to be my final signing at Pieces of Eight. Florence hadn’t made it to the store in weeks, and her family had begun to liquidate sales. Yet Flo insisted we do the event as planned and said she’d be there. Despite how she felt, the window signage was great as always, the cookies and punch were fabulous, and the same collection of family members and friends appeared. But Florence never arrived that night. I knew why.

And what was on the horizon.

Like Debby wrote last week, the writing life puts us in contact with lots of terrific “book” people, those who truly care about books and the individuals who love and write them. When Florence Zettergren passed, writers and non writers alike lost one of the best among that group.


Vicki Delany said...

What a touching tribute, not only to your friend, but to the independent bookseller. Who, I fear, will be following her soon. And the death of the mid-list writer along with them.

Allan E. Ansorge said...

In the short time I have been involved in the BUSINESS of writing I have found in the indies some of the kindest and strongest people I have met in all my life.
Bless them all including your dear friend.

Debby (Deborah Turrell) Atkinson said...

John, you touched a lot of us with your tribute to Florence. Bless her.