Friday, October 28, 2011


It's been so long since we talked!  There's so much I want to tell you - so much I want to share about the amazing evening I had on Wednesday with hundreds of others all packing the Alameda Theatre.  The latest Twilight release?  Nope, that's not for another 20 days and 7 hours.  And, I'm not counting.  And, I'm never going to write about that.

It's not even a movie that brought those hundreds out the other evening - it was a book.  I know, I know - who'd a thunk it?  Parents with their kids, kids flying solo, adults wondering what all the fuss was about.  Any time that much excitement is generated by a book, you should take notice.

The fuss?  The fuss was about Wonderstruck, written by Brian Selznick.  Mr. Selznick won the Caldecott Medal in 2008 for The Invention of Hugo Cabret.  You've read this magical book, yes?  Because if not - you go get the book, I'll mix you a drink, and we'll sit down and talk, okay?

Mr. Selznick is amazing - and yes, that's the second time I've used the word for those of you keeping track, but the night was (amazing) and Mr. Selznick is (amazing).  His black and white illustrations for those two books are stunning - each time I look at the works, I find some new detail I missed - a girl looking out a second-floor window; a stone that she'll stumble over, placed in her path pages before she'll trip over it, in the rain, as lightning flashes overhead.

So when we had the chance to bring Mr. Selznick to Alameda?  It was easy to decide to make the proposal - but many bookstores would be vying for his attentions, so we wanted to make our proposal stand out.  The new book, Wonderstruck, has an old-time Hollywood component - referencing back to an era when your local cineplex was instead a Movie Palace and not a warren of doors hiding smallish viewing areas - back when theaters were grand and opulent showcases of ridiculously beautiful architecture, all the better to show off the marvels that would grace their majestic screens.

Well, we have one of those Palaces in Alameda.  Designed by Timothy Pflueger - the same gent who created the Castro Theatre, the Grand Lake, the Top of the Mark - it was refurbished and now shines like it did in 1932 when it opened with a showing of Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm with the governor of California as the guest of honor.

I want to tell you about the theater, about how Kyle and Allison there helped us put our proposal together.  But that's about the theater now, and there's so much I want to tell you about the theater then.  About how pieces of it disappeared over the years - the art deco chandeliers from the mezzanine, the doors with blades of glass, the doors flanking the lobby in a beautiful crescent.  But bit by bit, as the theater fell into disrepair, as the screen fell silent on July 31st, 1979, as that led to its reopening as the Yankee Doodle Roller Rink, as that turned into a dance hall, scavengers made off with little pieces of its glory.

I want to tell you about the morning when, during the refurbishment, the chandeliers were found outside the theater's doors, returned by who-knows-who in the dark of night.  Or about the antique dealer who called the city and told them that he had purchased the crescent of interior doors back in the '80's and that he still had them.  Still had the original bill of sale, and if the city wanted to pay him his purchase price, he'd be happy to sell them back.

I want to tell you about the magic inside the theater, and how we thought it would be the perfect complement to host Mr. Selznick since Wonderstruck had that old-Hollywood tie in.  Since he's related to David O. Selznick.  Since the movie of the earlier book, the Invention of Hugo Cabret, is being released this month.  Hugo has a few people you may have heard of - Martin Scorsese, Jude Law, Ben Kingsley.

So I want to tell you all that, but also about how Tracy and I were discussing the fact that we were going to have a special guest - Remy Charlip.

Who's Remy Charlip? I said.

Tracy looked at me the way you'd look at a baby sparrow that fell from its nest.  Concerned, yes, but with the sense that, alas, this was the way of things.  Poor, stupid, ignorant little bird.

Only one of the most influential author/artists ever, she said. 

I'd discover that The Invention of Hugo Cabret had been dedicated to Mr. Charlip and that he'd been used by Mr. Selznick as the model for one of the book's main characters, Georges Méliès.

Okay, okay, got it.  But how was I going to recognize Mr. Charlip when he arrived at the theater?  I wanted to make sure he was comfortably seated in the area we had set aside.

Oh ho, Tracy said.  You'll recognize, believe me.  Remy doesn't blend into crowds - maybe he'll have on a fabulous scarf, something from the Doctor Who collection.  You'll know him when you see him.

So yes, I want to tell you all of that, and about how that conversation led to shoes, and how Tracy said Selznick would arrive wearing something breathtaking on his feet.

How can you possibly know what kind of shoes he'll have on, I said.

Again with that bird look.  Just trust me, she said.

I want to let you know that indeed his shoes were marvelous - shiny and silver and pointy.  I want to let you know that when I told my oldest about the shoes, Elizabeth widened her seven-year-old eyes and said, Oh daddy, can you show me a picture?  And that when I looked at her blankly she said, You had your camera, didn't you?  You took pictures of his shoes because they were so special, right?

There I was, a baby sparrow, nestless again.  I want to let you know how disappointed Elizabeth was that her camera-toting daddy didn't think to snap the shoes.  Mr. Selznick, if you're out there, please?  A pic of your footwear?  Roz or Charisse from Scholastic know where to find me!

I want to tell you how Mr. Charlip was indeed easy to spot - he wore a rainbow.  So colorful, so charming.  I want to tell you about the mom who asked Mr. Charlip, as she approached the signing table, if it would be ok for her daughter to take a picture with him.  About how Mr. Charlip graciously assented.  About how as the mom took the pictures, Mr. Charlip leaned in, carefully, and whispered something to the eight-year-old.  About how later, that same girl, for the first time in her life, begged her mom to stay up late so she could finish Wonderstruck.  How this non-reader was turned into a reader over the course of Mr. Selznick's presentation.  About how when the mom asked the daughter what it was that Mr. Charlip had whispered, the daughter smiled.  He said, Thank you, child, and bless you.

I want to tell you about the other child in the signing line who noticed Mr. Selznick's shoes, about how the boy asked, How much do shoes like that cost?  And that Mr. Selznick replied, A billion dollars!  And how they all laughed.

I want to tell you about the journey Mr. Selznick took us on during his presentation, how he showed all of us his writing process - work, work, work!  About how people gasped when he showed clips from the upcoming movie.  About how when one youngster asked if Mr. Selznick considered himself an illustrator who wrote or a writer who illustrated, Mr. Selznick replied, with a smile, that we were all too focused on labels.  That he considered himself someone who made books.  And how this conversation echoed an exchange that happened years ago in the Herbst Theater at City Arts and Lectures when a young woman asked Gahan Wilson, the famous cartoonist, the same question.  And how Mr. Wilson - brusquely! not with the grace of Mr. Selznick - dismissed the question.  And how when pressed by the moderator, Mr. Wilson further intoned, I'm 75 years old and I'm at an age when I don't have to do things I don't want to and I don't want to answer that question!

And how we all erupted with laughter.

I want to tell you about the people who have posted about the event, blogged about the event, who have called or come into the bookstore to thank us for hosting the event.

People never call to thank us for hosting an event.

I want to tell you how those many hundreds in the theater lobby, snaking up the staircase, waited so patiently for their chance to say hello to Mr. Selznick, to thank him for what he does - telling stories with words and pictures.

I want to tell you about Mr. Selznick describing the year-and-a-half he used to sketch preliminary drawings for the book - and how he then went out to find people that looked like the characters he'd created.  About how he found the perfect stand-in for Rose, one of the main characters from Wonderstruck, at a movie theater.  About how after the show, he introduced himself and asked the girl's parents if he could take pictures of their daughter so he could draw her.

About how after an awkward silence he said he was Brian Selznick and that he was a maker of books and that before he could continue they all relaxed because the entire family had read The Invention of Hugo Cabret the week before and so they knew he wasn't a stalker and then everyone was delighted at the prospect.

I want to tell you about the smiles from everyone in the theater after Mr. Selznick finished, about seeing so many of my friends, neighbors, and customers - Sharon and Jay, Mary Grace and Edward, Jengiz and his daughters, Beth and Spencer - about how excited they all then were to buy more books and get in line to spend some precious moments with a book-maker.

But the really important part of the night for me isn't any of that.  The important part of the night was this:  Mr. Selznick took the time at the beginning of his remarks to talk about a book that had a huge impact on his life.  About how Remy Charlip's Fortunately was a book that opened up a whole new world, a new way of thinking.  How Mr. Selznick spoke of Mr. Charlip's other books.  And their further influence.  And that at about the time that people were wondering why he was taking so long talking about another's work, Mr. Selznick then said:

...and I'm excited to let you know that tonight, Remy Charlip is in the audience with us.

And that when the spotlight hit the rainbow sitting in the front row, stayed on Mr. Charlip while he slowly stood up - have I mentioned that Mr. Charlip looks a bit like how Obi Wan Kenobi would look if Darth Vader hadn't dispatched him back in 1977? - so Mr. Charlip moves with great care, the care of age, of a long life lived, but that when he did finally stand, we continued clapping, thanking him for the books?  For the inspiration?

And maybe we clapped because we were also acknowledging Mr. Selznick.  Too often we celebrate the passing of the torch, as if it can only go one way - from the old to the young.  And here was Mr. Selznick, passing the torch back, making us all recognize that although kindling is found in many places, sparks are more elusive.  And here was a spark, Remy Charlip, so why not gather round and warm our hands by the fire he'd created?

And then I want to tell you about the after.

About how during the book-signing Mr. Charlip, again with great care, took the elevator up to the mezzanine, approached Mr. Selznick in front of the art deco mural that had been painted over decades before, painted over but then painstakingly restored during the renovation.

Approached his friend to say thanks - and then of course Mr. Selznick said, No no, my thanks to you for coming.

And then Mr. Charlip's whispered aside to the eight-year-old Melanie.  And then the rainbow bid us adieu and he headed back for the elevator.

I want to tell you that a little bit later I was in the lobby, in front of our sales table, when Mr. Charlip made his way to those pretty glass doors saved by a San Francisco antique dealer.  The lobby was still full, bustling, those in the crowd deciding on which other book to purchase before joining the throng in front of the up-staircase.  That's when someone - maybe a kid, kids are more observant than the rest of us - noticed that Mr. Charlip was leaving, had paused briefly in front of one of the lobby doors as it was held open so he could navigate his walker through it and out into the night.

There are words above all those doors in the Alameda Theatre.  The words say:


During his pause, that observant kid told his parent, Hey look!  He's leaving.  And that parent looked over, recognized the rainbow, and started to clap.  The clapping was heard by someone else, and they looked, recognized, and started clapping, too.  In an instant, the clapping turned into applause.  Mr. Charlip - we left him there at the door, remember? - he heard a commotion behind him, so he stopped, and maneuvered his walker so he could turn around.  When the crowd saw him turn, the applause grew instantly louder, louder.  And the look on Mr. Charlip's face?  As he raised a hand to acknowledge the applause, making the applause grow more?  His look was a little sight of heaven.  Thankful and appreciative and tender all at once.  If he could, he'd have probably said, Thank you all, and bless you.

But Mr. Charlip stayed quiet, nodded his head in thanks, and then the rainbow turned to the open door and shimmered out into an Alameda night.

And so that's what I wanted to tell you.  That, and I wanted to say thanks.  To Mr. Selznick, to Mr. Charlip, and to you for coming.  Thanks.