Seven days, seven US states, lots of lovely booksellers and one cheese castle!
I’ve always wanted to go to America but my husband, son and I usually only travel within Europe. So when my US publisher MIRA, invited me to take part in a pre-publication tour, visiting independent booksellers across America to promote The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper, I said “YES!!”
Independent bookshops are essential to America’s communities. They’re places where friends can gather and strangers can meet, to share a love of books. In each bookstore I visited, it was heartening to find that booksellers really took the time to know their customers, to offer gorgeous books, events and the best service for that community.
Here’s what I got up to.
Saturday 19 March
After two flights, which took a total of over fourteen hours, I arrived in my hotel in Miami, Coral Gables, at around 9pm.The hotel was all pink marble and had a big fountain inside, and it was joyous to be greeted with the words, “Hello Ma’am, your room has been upgraded to a suite.” HURRAY! It was still eighty-two degrees outside so I took a stroll around, to take in my surroundings. The first place I came across was Books & Books. This gorgeous bookshop is housed in a nineteen-twenties Mediterranean-style building. Built in a horseshoe-shape, there are rooms full of gorgeous books to the left and right and a café at the back. These surround a courtyard which has a wine bar, tables and umbrellas, and live music playing at weekend. Unfortunately I’d left my purse back at the hotel, so I had a mooch around, looking at the lovely books and I instantly felt right at home.
Sunday 20 March
MIRA had kindly granted me some downtime after the long journey, so I took a cab to the Miami beach area (a $35 dollar ride away). There was a long row of luxe shops (Lincoln Road) and although I was missing my son it was rather nice to spend half an hour testing eyeliners in a cosmetic shop without being constantly asked, “Have you finished yet, Mum?”
Miami Beach was almost deserted in the morning but after the chilly climes of Manchester it was a treat to kick off my shoes and paddle in the warm sea. I strolled a couple of miles along the sands to the Art Deco district to admire the 1920’s and 30’s hotels, painted in shades of sugared almond.
At midday, Miami suddenly sprang to life, with motorbikes, small dogs, drag queens, music blaring out and gorgeous people slurping cocktails from glasses the size of goldfish bowls. I hadn’t remembered my sun cream so ended up with a bright red crescent around my neck and one burnt shoulder!
At 6pm I met publicity manager Emer, who was to be my travel companion for the trip. He was a great, friendly guy and we went for dinner at Cibo, sharing a cheese plate that was so large I could then only manage to eat half of my main course.
After chatting about the book and tour over dinner and a drink at the bar, I couldn’t resist sneaking back to Books & Books. I sat under an umbrella in the courtyard (it had started to rain heavily) with a glass of Prosecco, and felt very lucky to be there.
Monday 21 March
I went out for a walk but jet lag kicked in and I had a lie down before heading once more to Books & Books (if I lived in Miami I would just buy a mattress and move into this place!). Emer and I were greeted by Stephanie, Darby, Christina, Ketsia and Chris P. They were all so friendly and welcoming. Darby clutched a copy of my book and wore her mother’s charm bracelet. It was beautiful, gold and adorned with many charms. My favourite was a beehive. Darby was well-prepared, having written lots of questions for me. She’d also printed poems off the internet to refer to. I was so touched that she’d read Curious Charms and had taken such an interest in it.
We took lunch in the courtyard, which was lovely, although my stomach was the size of a plum through nerves and I could only manage a bowl of soup. Stephanie kindly noticed and led me inside to choose a dessert (a great vanilla cheesecake). It was great fun chatting about The Smiths, The Cure and New Order with Chris P and Christina, and I felt honoured that most of the Books & Books team had already read my book. We were also joined at lunch by owner Mitchell Kaplan. He’s really well-known and respected in the US book industry and Books & Books was awarded ‘Bookstore of the Year’ by Publishers Weekly in 2015. I wish I could have stayed longer to find out more about Mitch’s 5 cats!
Later on that day, Emer and I headed down to the Miami-Dade district to La Loggia restaurant, to meet with Miami-Dade Public Library System. Kimberly (Assistant Director) and Jemmy (newly promoted to Branch Manager) who were the most glamorous librarians ever! I think in the UK we have just one library system country-wide, but in the US there are many. We enjoyed pizza, pasta and a glass of wine, whilst chatting about my book and how their library system operates. Kimberly said that she was going to read Curious Charms during her forthcoming 30-hour flight to a conference in Bangkok.
Tuesday 22 March
We left early morning to fly to Raleigh-Durham in North Carolina. Stopping for a quick lunch en-route, we spotted Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill and popped in to meet the lovely Jamie (the owner of the store), who we were also meeting later for dinner.
The hotel we were booked into had a problem with the rooms so we de-camped to a different hotel close by. I don’t think either Emer or I were tempted to join in with the ‘International Breastfeeding and Feminism Conference’ or the ‘Massage Envy – Vienna’ one!
Dinner that evening was at Crook’s Corner, which is renowned for its great Southern food. We were greeted by Eric, the Harper Collins sales manager for that area. He was so welcoming and any nerves I had fell away as I also met the friendly booksellers. Good Southern hospitality was on fine display as we ordered dishes to share (including Jalapeno Cheddar Hushpuppies and an amazing Pimento Cheese with Hot Pepper Jelly!) It felt like I’d been invited to a Thanksgiving dinner with a big American family. I really enjoyed chatting to Tom and Amy from The Regulator Bookshop, Jamie, Johanna, Colin and Lane from Flyleaf, Kimberly from The Country Bookshop, Sandra and Susan from Quail Ridge. We chatted for so long that drinks and dinner took 4 hours, but the time flew by. It was a great evening.
Wednesday 23 March
Aargh, a 4.00am wake-up, to set off to the airport this morning. We flew to Chicago and stopped by at Lake Forest Books in Illinois. We said ‘hello’ to Maxwell (who we were dining with later) and called at The Egg Harbour for a pastry and a croissant. Lake Forest town looked beautiful. with small classy, wood-panelled shops and a nearby lake and beach. I would have loved to have explored more but we were on a tight schedule, so drove next to the Boswell Book Company in Milwaukee.
Daniel, the owner of Boswell, greeted me and Emer and introduced us to his team, including Anne, Sharon, Jason and Jen. Also joining us were Lisa and Lynn from Books & Company. Daniel was so lovely and had gone out especially to buy veggie food for me. It was delicious! I told him that one of my favourite writers is Antoine Laurain (The President’s Hat and The Red Notebook) and his response was, “Oh yes, I know Antoine. I’ll give you his email address.”) Eek. I was beyond excited.
On the drive to Chicago we spotted The Cheese Castle in Winconsin. Yes, you’ve guessed it, a castle devoted to cheese. (Look how delighted we were!) Emer treated us to some cheese curds and we set off again.
Arriving at around 4.30pm in Chicago, the lady on the desk offered me an upgraded room. This one was really fun. It had a tiger-print towelling robe, a yoga mat, a Jacuzzi with two seats, and I like to think that the loo roll featured my initials P.P. (though really they stood for The Palomar Hotel.)
Dinner was at the fantastic Italian restaurant Vivo in Chicago, with booksellers Maxwell and Eleanor from Lake Forest Bookstore, Jordan from Anderson’s LaGrange, Becky and Nicki from Anderson’s Naperville, Teresa from City Lit, Arlene from Read Between the Lines (what a great name!), Linda from WCF and Rebekah from The Book Cellar. The lovely Harper Collins rep, Cathy, joined us and kindly brought me three new book galleys as a present. They look fab and I can’t wait to read them.
I must admit that I talked so much that I forgot to take a photograph of this group at dinner! Afterwards the taxi driver took us on a small streetlamp-lit tour of Chicago, my only real glimpse of the city.
Thursday 24 March
Another early start, leaving the hotel at 5.45am to fly to Boston. When we arrived, Emer and I had lunch at the bar then I had a bit of free time to wander around the town. Luckily I had packed my earmuffs because it was even colder than Manchester.
We were staying in Cambridge, which is on the other side of the river to Boston and is where Harvard University is located. I popped into Harvard Books to buy a book for my son and also found a fantastic jewellery store. I bought a tiny mermaid pendant on a chain and christened her ‘Boston.’
That evening we went for a fabulous dinner in a private room at Harvest restaurant. Emer had gone to the trouble to have my name printed on the menus, which was so lovely, And the food was really posh!
Tova from Brown University Bookstore wore earrings with the Eiffel Tower and Big Ben, in a tribute to the front cover of The Curious Charms of Arthur Pepper! I also met the lovely Anne from Harper Collins, alongside Susan from Books on the Square, Percy from Brown University Bookstore, Bethy from Harvard Books, Steve from New England Independent Booksellers Association (NEIBA), Lisa from An Unlikely Story (fab name!), Lisa and Dana from Brookline Booksmith, Elizabeth and Fran from Titcomb’s Bookshop and Lorna from Wellesley Books. This time, I didn’t forget about a photograph.
When I got back to the hotel, writer Antoine Laurain had emailed to say “hi” and had signed off with “Your friend Antoine, the writer in Paris,” which was so sweet of him.
Friday 25 March
A lie-in. Yay! We left at 9.30am, stopped off for a bit of breakfast then called in to say ‘hello’ to Joan at Odyssey Bookshop in South Hadley, Annie at Bank Square Books in Mystic (yes, the home of Mystic Pizza) and Andrew and Julie at R.J.Julia Booksellers in Madison. Everyone was super-supportive and welcoming and it was a delight to visit the bookstores, to learn about the history, the bookshop events, and to take a sneaky peak behind the scenes.
After that, we drove down to New York. The journey in its entirety was around 350 miles and took over 8 hours. It was a real thrill to see the New York skyline for the first time.
We checked into the hotel then set off almost immediately to meet Erika and Shara from Harlequin/Harper Collins at a nearby restaurant. What better way to meet your US editor for the first time than over a cheese fondue! Who knew that green apples in melted cheese could taste so good?
Erika and I have spoken a few times on the phone and constantly email, so it was lovely to meet the lady who snapped up Curious Charms in the US. We all shared great conversation and stories (as well as that stunning fondue) and the evening went far too quickly. I took myself to Times Square to stare in awe at the lights and buildings, then went to bed tired but very happy.
Saturday 26 March
My final day in America, and I had six hours free to spend in the city, before departing for the airport. I don’t think I was prepared for how massive New York is. I’m glad I was wearing the most-comfy shoes in the world because I walked for miles! I visited the Empire State Building, Chrysler Building, Flat Iron Building (yes I’m a sucker for a fine building) and Grand Central Station before, rather ambitiously, walking over to the Hudson River to try and see the Statue of Liberty. Even though it was the size of an ant in the distance, I can still say that I saw it!
I spent the afternoon in Central Park (enormous and gorgeous) watching break dancers, eating churros and strolling around.
Then, too soon, it was time to go home to England.
It was the most amazing adventure, and one I never imagined when I sat at my kitchen table to write about a humble, bereaved Yorkshireman named Arthur Pepper.
Visiting America was like getting a big hug from new friends, who then invited you to kick off your shoes and share supper with them. Every bookseller I met was committed and passionate about their stores and the books they sold, and it was a true honour to meet them all. I’d love to return one day. Though, this time I will remember my suncream.
Thank-you MIRA US and all the wonderful booksellers of America x