By Kevin Clouther

On Saturday evening at The Astoria Bookshop, I attended my first book swap, an experience made electric by the fact that I was the Swapper of Honor, a title I never imagined I would possess (I now have business cards). The experience affirmed my suspicion that when you put several of my favorite things together old friends, smart strangers, books and alcohol in one elegant space, it is impossible to leave without feeling that the good old days are happening now and you damn well better appreciate them.

Talking about myself/my book is not something I relish, so I entered the day uneasily. My brave wife and three-week-old daughter joined me on the drive to Astoria, a place we visit often because my college roommate and his wife live there, and their neighborhood has better food than our neighborhood. The Astoria Bookshop, though newish, is already one of my favorite places in Queens; like all sane individuals, I cherish independent bookstores, and this is the best one for miles. For the uninitiated, the book swap premise is simple: You pitch the book you brought to a stranger, and he or she pitches his or her book to you. As the Swapper of Honor, I had to swap as many copies of We Were Flying to Chicago as possible. My first attempt was a failure: My stranger had a book he clearly regarded, and my sixty seconds of sales (“I place characters in crisis and make them deal with the consequences of their decisions,” “I imagine a problem I don’t have the solution to and work my way toward one,” “people on planes, on buses, lots of people in cars, going somewhere”) weren’t moving him from his book. He clenched it to his chest apologetically. I respected his integrity. I felt envious when my friend wound up with the book. What had he traded! Before leaving, this stranger  moved by pity or trader’s remorse bought my book, which I gladly signed in the long shadow of his abandoned tome on labor reform.

The next several pitches went better, and I was trading my book. It still feels strange to hold the thing and admit I wrote it. I recognize the strangeness in others. “You wrote it,” more than one person said incredulously, as if possibly there was some bit of crucial information they were missing, as if maybe they were being filmed for a reality television show that takes place in outer borough independent bookstores. My uneasiness lessened only slightly, but I was talking to readers I hadn’t met, a demographic I think about obsessively. I wonder why they read the books they read, how long these books stay with them, if the books come back to them in unexpected ways and when and where and why.

I should mention that the weather that afternoon was biblical. When my wife went to the car, the street flooded completely; moments later, the sun was out, birds screaming over the elevated train. It was all-or-nothing weather, more South Florida than NYC, and everyone was a little frightened of it. People looked out the window involuntarily throughout the event. Every now and then, someone blasted by rain would enter the door and look around wildly for commiseration. Almost everyone had a story of the difficulty of getting there, which filled me with awe and gratitude, all of these people on buses and subways, in cars and taxis, sprinting under awnings and throwing coats over strollers, to take a book they love and trade it for a book someone else loves in the hope they might love the new book too.

Kevin Clouther teaches creative writing at Stony Brook University. His story collection, We Were Flying to Chicago, was released by Black Balloon Publishing in May 2014.

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