Our Prince of Scribes Q&A: Booksellers talk memories of Pat Conroy

As a tribute to the great Southern writer, Nicole Seitz and Jonathan Haupt compiled a collection of stories written by those who shared moments with Pat throughout his life. Our Prince of Scribes sheds light on a man who most only know through his own writing. Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance named it one of their 2018 Summer Okra Picks, considering the book a must-read in Southern literature.

Seitz and Haupt_Our Prince of Scribes

The UGA Press sat down with some of the contributors to learn more about their relationship with Pat. This month, we’re talking with booksellers.

Considering Pat Conroy’s well known love for reading and writing, it’s no surprise that he spent a lot of time in bookstores, browsing titles and, of course, making friends with the owners of these little enclaves. We sat down with a couple of these owners to talk about their memories of Pat among shelves of books for sale.

Will Balk is the veteran bookseller of Bay Street Trading Co. in Beaufort, South Carolina, the only store to host the signing for all of Pat’s 11 books. Pat was a customer of the store since he was in high school, and Balk recalls sharing many book recommendations with the author and always being cheered by Pat’s warm greetings.

Cliff Graubart is the iconic owner of the Old New York Book Shop in Atlanta and a New York City native. He and his wife were close friends of Pat, and he has fond memories of talking with Pat in his bookstore and traveling with him, citing Pat as an influence in his own inspiration to write pieces for some prominent Atlanta magazines.

Jonathan Sanchez owns Blue Bicycle Books in Charleston, where Pat came a couple of times for books signings, giving every fan is full attention even when there were long, snaking lines. His first impression of Pat was as a reader, and after he finished one of Pat’s books he wrote to the author and invited him to the store for a signing.

Ashley Warlick is the co-owner of M. Judson Booksellers in Greenville, South Carolina, where she lives with her family. Her dad attended The Citadel with Pat, and she first met the author after reading The Prince of Tides in college  and running into him at a literary festival. When she opened her bookstore, Pat attended to sign books and support her.

Q: How can Pat’s influences be seen in your bookstore?

Balk: We always, year in and year out, had Pat’s books prominently featured in several displays in the store and in the windows. We created a very large and copiously stocked section – separate and elevated slightly for emphasis – of books on Beaufort and the Lowcountry. It was always a destination for Pat when he visited the store, and would quickly draw the interest of visitors from away.

Graubart: Pat’s biggest influence was the creation of the champagne reception we had at the store for author’s and their books. It was Pat’s idea from the very beginning and that changed the perception of the store. It was a place to hang and Pat made it more appealing.

Sanchez: We have a couple photos of him, next to signed copies of his books, which are very popular. We have a wide range of books which were blurbed by him. And of course there’s his Story River Press imprint. I’d say the most successful of those has been The Cigar Factory by Michele Moore.

Warlick: Literally, from the street. We’re in the process of installing signage for our store— we’re in a historic building, and putting together an agreeable plan took some time. In one of our big plate glass windows, there will be a giant quote from Pat. “The most powerful words in the English language: tell me a story.” So he greets you when you walk in the door.

Q: What kind of conversations did you and Pat have in your bookstore?

Balk: Pat was Irish, at least in blood and temperament. It was impossible to be in his presence and NOT have a conversation which included stories. In the store, it was often difficult to have any extended talk with him, simply because we all understood that the inevitable interruptions from fans got first priority for his attention. Our own more lengthy conversations with Pat were more likely when we shared a meal or rode with him around town or in the lowcountry nearby.

Graubart: We were close friends and he came in almost everyday while he was living in Atlanta. He wrote in the morning  and came to the store to unwind and browse the shelves. Sometimes he would come in twice a day. So our conversations aren’t memorable because he was there so often, sometimes taking over the desk when I went out for books.

Sanchez: I’m trying to remember conversations I’d had with him in the store vs. over the phone, etc. He was usually pretty busy while he was here, talking to other people or signing stock, or both.

Warlick: Pat and Sandra were our guests at a special dinner in September 2015 that we held for our supporters who helped us along the way to opening. This dinner, in fact, became the map for one of our favorite ongoing events, our Sunday Sit Down Suppers. Each course was inspired by passages from Pat’s books, which we read aloud to the assembled before digging in. At one point, Pat stood to thank us, for the evening, for opening a bookstore, an endeavor he was proud of us for taking on. He said, “A bookstore to me is more important than all the churches. It does more for the spirit.” And that’s what this business is all about.

Q: How has Pat affected how you help your bookstore customers?

Balk: His many followers from away knew of the Bay Street Bookstore from Pat’s signing tours, and we frequently were called upon from all over the country for books and information about Pat himself. We were therefore expected to be up to date in supplying information about Pat’s books and their details, about local locales and characters who appeared in Pat’s books, and the background information and hidden meanings in his books. Pat, his family, and his friends helped us keep fully informed; we became skilled at recounting stories about Pat, always protecting his privacy as much as possible. Pat himself was the greatest hindrance to keeping his personal privacy sacrosanct; no one could possibly be more generous to his fans than Pat was with visitors who met him at the store.

Sanchez: Well we obviously sell a lot of his books, he’s is easily our biggest-selling author of all time. I usually recommend The Water is Wide first, or The Prince of Tides if they really want to sink their teeth into something. South of Broad is our all-time best-selling single title. We sold a ton when it came out, and visitors still come and want to buy Pat’s most “Charleston” book.

Warlick: I often think about the time we hosted a signing for Pat and some of his authors from Story River Press up at Furman University. There were hundreds of people there, and the line to talk to Pat wrapped through the building. And that was what it was, a line to talk to Pat. Because no matter how tall the armload of books each person held, it was the experience of connecting with the man they were waiting for. I see that same spirit in the bookstore all the time, readers excited to connect with authors, with other readers, with us. And I remember Pat’s generosity, how he would stay and talk, how he would listen.

Our Prince of Scribes comes out this September. Pre-order the book now at $29.95 for hardcover or e-book formats.

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