by Roger Johns
Last week, I did a book signing at the Bookstar in Studio City, CA. It’s an absolutely beautiful bookstore housed in a restored movie palace. The free-standing ticket booth is still out front at the edge of the colorful terrazzo apron that leads from the sidewalk to the front doors. The movie marquee still dominates the façade, but instead of the name of the theater, it now reads “Bookstar”. And in the area where the names of the movies used to go, it reads “Barnes and Noble”. I’m not sure why the folks at B&N left the Bookstar name on the store, but I’m glad they did, because this place has strong sentimental value to me.
A long time ago––twenty-five years, to be exact––I worked in this store. I was one of the original employees when the store opened in the spring of 1992.
In 1988, I began my college teaching career at a small university in New Mexico, but by 1991 I was suffering from a bad case of writer’s ambition––a really bad case. I didn’t want to write novels, though––I wanted to write for television. And the only place that was possible was in Los Angeles. So, I took a leave of absence and moved west in the summer of 1991, took an apartment in the San Fernando Valley with an old friend from back home in Louisiana, and set about trying to launch a career writing for television.
I had written a few spec episodes for popular sitcoms that were airing at the time, and I brought them with me. I wrote a few more after I got to Tinseltown. But lots of people were reaching for the same brass ring I was. Thinking I was clever, I talked my way into a job (unpaid, at first) working at a talent agency that represented television and movie writers and actors. That way, I figured, I would be able to show my work to people in the business who would then be falling all over themselves to be the one to discover me and my great talent. I even took a screenwriting class from a veteran writer of television dramas.
Part of my plan worked out perfectly. I did, in fact, get my scripts read by people who were in a position to ‘do something with them’––lots of people. “These are great,” they would say. “I’ll get back to you on these.” Well . . . I’m still waiting on those calls. My telephone number has changed quite a few times in the past twenty-five years, so maybe that’s why they’ve been unable to get through. Then again, maybe not.
While I was working at the talent agency, I got to read a lot of scripts written by people who, I had to admit, were quite a bit better at it than I was. That was a humbling experience. But most of them weren’t getting jobs in television, either. The fact that these very talented individuals were, like me, also unable to get work was actually a bit terrifying.
So, I made two decisions. One, I would set my television writing ambitions aside, and two, I would try to satisfy my urge to write by focusing on novels. One of the all-time great science fiction novelists was affiliated with the university where I still had a job waiting for me, so I figured I’d take every class he taught, and . . . and something. I was a bit vague on that part of the plan. But at least I’d be able to keep a roof over my head and put food on the table, while I got my novel-writing act together. To write for TV, you have to live in L.A.––a very expensive proposition. Novels can be written from anywhere, so back to New Mexico I was headed.
But something important happened before I moved. I left my job at the talent agency and took a job as a bookseller at a new bookstore that was opening down the street from where I lived––the Bookstar, of course. This turned out to be a blessing and a curse. It was a curse in the sense that I rarely ended up with any cash on payday because I usually exchanged my paycheck for an armload of books. The blessing would come later––twenty-five years later.
Skipping ahead from then to now, I discovered that persuading bookstores to have me in for a book talk or a signing, can be an iffy proposition. Some have said no, and some have said yes, and some have said, “This is great. We’ll get back to you.” We know how that one turns out.
Bookstar, however, was unique. It went something like this:
BOOKSTAR: “Hmmm. It can be tough to get people into the store for a new writer, unless you have some connection to the area.”
ME: “Well, I was one of the original employees of the store when it opened in 1992, and I still have friends in the area––bookish friends, and writer friends.”
Roger Johns is the author of the Wallace Hartman Mysteries from St. Martin’s Press-Minotaur Books. The first book in the series, Dark River Rising, is available now, wherever books are sold. The next volume in the series, River of Secrets, will be out on August 28, 2018. It is available for pre-order through most major booksellers.