This time, in researching independent bookstores in Pennsylvania, I decide to look outside of the big cities because the bookstores in Philadelphia remind me of bookstores in Seattle. There’s the college bookstore, a couple of big bookstores, the LGBT bookstore, an artsy bookstore and some used bookstores. I’m sure they’re all great but I think I need to cast a wider net. Pennsylvania is vast. Maybe I need a rural or small town perspective. I log onto the internet and find Whistlestop Bookshop in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. I’m not sure why it appeals to me. The website is not very fancy. But I love their philosophy, The objective of our business is to put the right books in the hands of the right people. This is clearly the place for me! I’m also drawn to the bios of the booksellers. There are so many of them and they all sound like people I’d like to meet. Of course, Carlisle is a college town. I imagine it filled with bookish students and professors. Whistlestop originally opened in 1985 in Gettysburg, with a second shop in Carlisle a few years later. After nineteen years, the Gettysburg shop closed and moved to Carlisle. Find it here: http://www.whistlestoppers.com/
I make the call. I believe I’m speaking with the owner of the shop, Jeff Wood. I explain my quest and he gets it right away. Without hesitation, he fires off a question, “You interested in historical fiction or contemporary?” I tell him I think I may need to read both as I’m getting a better sense of my project. “John O’Hara” he says, without missing a beat. ” I’d start with Appointment in Samara. Better than Gatsby,” Same time frame and similar themes, also information about railroads and coal, very important at that time. Wow, I think. And I’m afraid to admit I’ve never heard of this author who, in the opinion of one bookseller in Pennsylvania, has written a great book which will give me a real flavor of this place during the late 1920’s. Then, he says, for a current author, I’d recommend Tawni O’Dell. I smile into the phone. I love this name! Another writer I haven’t heard of but want to know. “Send them both.” I say. After I hand over my credit card information and address, he tells me he thinks I have a real interesting project going and wishes me well.
When a package arrives in my mailbox about a week later, I find the books wrapped in brown paper, not tied up in string but even so the song pops into my head: These are a few of my favorite things. I pick up Appointment in Samara first and check out the cover. I love it. It’s a fun period piece — a glamorous couple, he in a tux, she in a backless aquamarine cocktail dress and black high heels, twirl on an invisible dance floor amidst tipping cocktail glasses while an old roadster zooms across the page. In one corner another man, also in a tux, plays an oversized saxophone. And everything is moving — fast.
In the introduction, written by Charles McGrath, long time editor of The New Yorker, I learn that Appointment includes sex, not an unheard of thing in 1934 but unlike other novels of the time, the women in this novel appear to enjoy sex as much as the men. Now I’m really interested. And because this novel takes place during Prohibition, there is also lots of alcohol. The main characters are among the wealthiest citizens of Gibbsville, apparently a thinly-veiled version of Pottsville, where O’Hara grew up. It is beginning to sound very Gatsby-esque and I can’t wait to find out why Jeff Wood of the Whistlestop Bookshop thinks it’s better.
McGrath describes the novel as full of O’Hara’s affection for the world as he found it. This is what will sets it apart from Gatsby I imagine, since Nick Caroway is always a little wary of, critical even, of the world of the Buchanans and Gatsby, the idle rich.
I learn that Appointment in Samara is O’Hara’s first novel, published in 1934, and arguably his best. One of his novels, BUtterfield 8, was made into a movie starring Elizabeth Taylor. I decide I need to find it on Netflix and watch it soon. I also learn that he was, in his time, “Championed by F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway.” Turns out he published seventeen novels and more short stories in the New Yorker than anyone else. Wow. Now I feel even worse for not knowing this writer. Why didn’t he appear in my American Lit class in college? Never mind. Time to get reading.