BOOKTHINK: And you work at a college - do you teach?
PORTZLINE: I teach at the Pennsylvania College of Technology right here in Williamsport. It's part of the Penn State system. I teach freshman composition, freshman writing. I teach at Susquehanna University, too, which is just about 40 miles down the road. It's a great school.
BOOKTHINK: What do you think of the state of reading, or the lack of it, in America? Do you think it's solely because of the onset of technology and other forms of entertainment? Or do you think there's more to it than that?
PORTZLINE: I think it's due to a lot of different things. Technology definitely plays a big part in it. There are other forms of entertainment, like you said, whether it's the internet, or computer games, or TV, whatever it might be. You know, I think a lot of is people's shortening attention span. They want their information and entertainment quick. They want to get in and get out, and then go do something else.
BOOKTHINK: They're missing so much…
PORTZLINE: Yeah, they are.
BOOKTHINK: And then I wonder if people stop having the urge to read, will we still create writers? If you don't love to read, how do you ever learn to love to write?
PORTZLINE: Right. It's really tough. And I can tell you as somebody who teaches writing, I wish I could say otherwise, but the God's honest truth is that most of the students I see are graduating from high school without very good writing skills.
BOOKTHINK: Is there anything we can do as booksellers to help people…to encourage an interest in books and reading? I'm always thinking about that, and that's one thing that bothers me with the decline of bricks & mortar bookshops; traditionally, they've provided a place for people to come and hang out and hear poetry readings and get exposed to literature and become interested in it. Once that disappears, that's one more reason people are never going to learn to love books.
PORTZLINE: Right, I totally agree with you, and I think that's one of the key things that booksellers can do is become, in essence, a community center. And that's kind of a broad term for it. Even if it's just something very small scale, a place to hang out in - a lot of young people do that, hang out in bookstores - but they're just hanging out in the café, lots of times not even looking at the books. And I think that's one of the best ways to bring people in, is to have a bookstore be a welcoming environment and have booksellers get to know their clientele and hopefully do some good hand-selling to them. Maybe a kid comes in and is not too interested in reading; but just by asking the kid what they like, what they're interested in, what their hobbies are and things like that, then maybe they can recommend a book or two. Sometimes that's all it takes, just that little bit of introduction to a topic they happen to be interested in, and using books to broaden their horizons.
BOOKTHINK: I agree. I was really into horses and riding when I was young. I read everything that had anything remotely to do with horses. I just loved going to the library at school. But here's another thing; I visit the library at the college where I work, and there's nobody in the stacks. There are people at the computers, but no one is reading a book.
PORTZLINE: I've noticed that. When I'm on campus and at the library, I've always thought it looks slow there, and I've always thought maybe I'm just there at the wrong time - but it's like that all the time.
BOOKTHINK: I'm afraid it is. The other thing I loved on your site and must ask you about was the link to the band called "The Rockbottom Remainders" - and you performed with them! Tell me about that. That is such a cool thing.
PORTZLINE: Yeah, it was pretty amazing. I still can't believe I did that! I had heard of them eons ago, and I thought it was so cool that they're basically a garage band of famous authors. I've read different things about them in the past, and they always joke about how bad they are. I had seen clips of them years ago, and I saw that they were going to be performing in New York during BookExpo. It wasn't a sanctioned BookExpo event or anything, but I saw that they were going to be playing that weekend, and I got on their website to look into buying tickets. Then I discovered that they were auctioning a chance to get up and sing Wild Thing with the band and I thought, "Wow, that's really cool." Then, like an idiot, I put a bid on it. I thought there's no way I'm ever going to win this thing, I'll definitely be outbid. You know it was just one of those things; I did it totally on the spur of the moment and thought, "There's $2000 that I'll never spend because somebody else will do it," never thinking what I would do if I won. But then, nobody else bid on it.
BOOKTHINK: And these band members include Stephen King and ...
PORTZLINE: Right, and Dave Barry, Amy Tan, Roy Blunt Jr., Frank McCourt ...
BOOKTHINK: Did you feel like you were in a dream or something?
PORTZLINE: It was amazing. I absolutely felt like I was in a dream. And one of the coolest parts about it was just a couple of days before I got a phone call from their road manager, and he said, "We need you to come to the rehearsal this afternoon. Can you make it?" I said, "Hell, Yeah!" So I went to this place called Webster Hall in Greenwich Village (I guess it's sort of the East Village) - it had been The Roxy back in the 70s. It was a huge nightclub. So I went, and when I walked in there they were up on stage rehearsing. All those people that we just named.
BOOKTHINK: Can Stephen King sing?
PORTZLINE: Um ... he's passable! Like a lot of singers, he has more personality and stage presence than singing ability. The more musically talented people in the band were mystery writer Greg Iles, who is a phenomenal guitar player, Mitch Album, who plays really, really good keyboard and sings very well - and Dave Barry is an excellent guitarist and singer. They were surprisingly good! They only had a couple of ringers - a drummer who was a professional musician, some brass, oh, and I can't think of his name, he co-wrote a book with Dave Barry, a kid's book - it was like a take-off on Peter Pan or a sequel to Peter Pan, or something like that, I can't think of his name, but he plays bass. [Ridley Pearson] Anyway I sat there for like an hour and a half watching them rehearse and took a lot of notes on it because I thought maybe I'd get a story out of it someday. I never did write it, but I have all these great notes - things like Stephen King improvising lyrics to one of the songs. and it was incredibly profane and wonderful.
BOOKTHINK: Sounds like an unforgettable experience.
PORTZLINE: It was. It was incredible. Anyway, they finally got me up to rehearse the song, and I did it that night and will probably never live it down.
BOOKTHINK: So, they play a few times a year, and the money goes to charity, is that correct?
PORTZLINE: In this case it went to three reading programs in New York City. And I know that they often perform at the Miami Book Festival, which is coming up again in November. I'm delighted to say that I'm going to be one of the speakers this year, although one of probably something like 100! I'm sure one of the reasons that they play down there is because Dave Barry is pretty active in that one. He lives in the Miami area. I know they've played other places ... quite a few book festivals around the country.
BOOKTHINK: I bet they have a good time.
PORTZLINE: Yeah, they do - it's very obvious. But it's hard work too. They have fun with it, but they take it pretty seriously. When they were rehearsing I was surprised they screwed up the ending to one song, and they don't just stand there laughing about it; they do it over again. Dave Barry is sort of the defacto leader of the group, I guess. They go over chord changes and they say "No, do it like this," just like any band would.
BOOKTHINK: Hey, they're writers; they're used to editing and re-writing. I'm sure they just transfer those skills to their music. Tell me how your website brings tours about and makes bookstore tourism happen. Do the people who are organizing the tours post information on the site? Do you post information there? How does the information get generated about the different book tours?
PORTZLINE: I do hear from people who are doing trips of their own, and I try to put them out there. If I don't put them on the website, I put them on the blog; and I'm still torn between should I just have one or the other - the website or the blog. Whenever people send me information that they are organizing something, I'll put it on. As far as spreading the word, and trying to get other people to do it and promoting the idea, that's why I started the website in the first place. [EDITOR'S NOTE: Since this interview, the website has been incorporated into the blog. See link above.]
BOOKTHINK: And you're going to be blogging about your experiences while you're traveling?
PORTZLINE: I'm taking my laptop along, and I'm going to take pictures and video and audio and do podcasts along the way. Of course, I'm going to take a lot of notes because I'm trying to get a book out of this experience, too.
BOOKTHINK: Excellent. What's the title of the book you've already published?
PORTZLINE: The basic title is Bookstore Tourism. The subtitle is a lot longer - it's Bookstore Tourism: The Book Addict's Guide to Planning and Promoting Bookstore Road Trips for Bibliophiles and other Bookstore Junkies. It was printed by a company called Lightning Source, and they are actually owned by Ingram. I put it in Books in Print, but Ingram distributed it. Anyone can order it just like any other book, and any bookstore can order it. I sold about 2500 copies of it in about a year and a half, and once it started to decline after about two years, I closed it. I essentially took it out of print because I knew that I eventually wanted to do another book - revise and expand it - so I'll do that someday too. I really did self-publish it as opposed to people who go through other so-called self publishing companies. I actually am a publisher, on paper at least. I'm a sole proprietor. I didn't start a corporation or anything like that, but I bought the ISBN numbers. I don't know how familiar you are with self- publishing, but when you go to one of those companies like I-Universe, they sell you an ISBN number, so they own it; they sell it to you, but they still own it. Whenever I hear about people self- publishing, I ask, "Do you own the ISBN number?"
BOOKTHINK: I didn't even know you had to buy an ISBN number.
PORTZLINE: Oh yes, and you have to buy them in lots of 10, which really stinks. Now I'm going to have to write nine more books.
BOOKTHINK: There's a push, huh??
BOOKTHINK: And what about the Library of Congress numbers?
PORTZLINE: They assign their own numbers; anybody who publishes a book can send a copy to the Library of Congress, which is also useful for copywriting and everything else. I've had a number of people ask me about self-publishing, and I say, look, if you don't own the ISBN number, you didn't publish it.
BOOKTHINK: How much preparation lies ahead of you to get ready for this book trip?
PORTZLINE: Quite a bit. I need to do some fundraising for one thing. I can't say who yet, but there's a very good possibility of a major book-related organization helping out with the cost of the trip. And I've actually heard from a few other people who are interested, a couple other organizations, trade associations. Even a couple of book festivals and individual booksellers have e-mailed me saying they are willing to help.
BOOKTHINK: I'm hoping many booksellers reading this article will understand the importance of your goals and go to your site and do what they can to help because it does us all good to promote reading and bookstore tourism and anything that has to do with books, reading and independent bookstores.
PORTZLINE: Well, thank you, I appreciate that. Saving independent book stores is about having a sense of community, and as we were talking about earlier, a place to hang out - the whole 'third place' concept. Are you familiar with that?
BOOKTHINK: I've heard of it.
PORTZLINE: There is a sociologist who wrote a book called The Great Good Places, where he talks about the concept of the 3rd place. The 1st place in all of our lives is home, the 2nd place is work, and then the 3rd place is where people hang out.
BOOKTHINK: Yes, their escape.
PORTZLINE: Exactly. He talks about bars, the obvious ones, the pool hall, and then the old days when the guys hung around the pickle barrel.
BOOKTHINK: Sat around the woodstove and the general store…
PORTZLINE: Yes, or the post office - that's where you found out news. Neighbors would run into each other, and they'd tell each other what's happening. Now everybody lives in the suburbs and doesn't look at each other when they're outside.
BOOKTHINK: They're lonely. That's right.
PORTZLINE: So there's a gradual change taking place, and to me it's all related; it's absolutely all related. And cultural tourism is tapping into that desire because when people take vacations they like to go to places that have that sense of community that's missing in their own lives. They're out there searching for it.
BOOKTHINK: Oh, that is so true. I just love what you're doing, and I really look forward to reading your blogs and finding out about your travels on a trip that's going to be the experience of a lifetime. Thank you, Larry, for sharing your ideas with us.
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