Book Review - A Cappella Books turns 20

Local writers discuss their favorite authors at the Little Five Points shop

When A Cappella Books celebrates its 20th anniversary this December, 20 local authors will line up to talk. But instead of simply reading and discussing their own works, they'll also speak about the books that have impacted their writing. Marc Fitten will talk about Henry Miller's Tropic of Cancer, a book he says "felt like a road map" to becoming a writer. Former CL columnist Hollis Gillespie will discuss Joan Didion's Book of Common Prayer. She says, "I've almost committed the entire book to memory, but still I keep it around just to arbitrarily open to any page and begin reading, to remind myself that writing is a craft, and those who do it well should be celebrated."

A Cappella owner Frank Reiss doesn't have a spot on this marathon, two-day schedule. If you ask about his favorite book, though, he'll probably say Norwood by Charles Portis.

Reiss first read Norwood in the early '80s while living in San Francisco and working at Acorn Books. Trade paperbacks were still an emerging trend when a line called Vintage Contemporaries hit the market.

"The first few titles that came out in this line of books were Jay McInerney's Bright Lights, Big City, which was a huge deal at the time. They also published The Sportswriter by Richard Ford, one of my favorite books," Reiss says. "I kind of fell into this line of books – whoever was editing them or selecting them, they really were touching something at the time."

The Vintage Contemporaries line also reissued some out-of-print titles then, Norwood among them. Living in San Francisco, Reiss says, "You're very conscious in that situation of your own Southernness." Reiss thinks of Norwood as a tale of being displaced, of a Southerner juxtaposed against the lights of New York City.

"I loved it," he says, but not just because he identified with the character. "The writing is what makes it. The stories are stupid and silly, but the writing is so precise." Soon, Reiss realized he wasn't entirely alone in admiring this little-known author.

"I discovered this whole cult of Portis," he says. Among them is Southern novelist Roy Blount Jr., who has said, "Portis could have been Cormac McCarthy if he wanted to, but he'd rather be funny." The unusual devotion displayed by Portis fans, which still patiently wait for the author to produce another novel though he hasn't published anything for the past 20 years, reminds Reiss of the reason he got into the bookselling business. "The fact that he's little known but he evokes this huge amount of devotion among the few who've discovered his work – it's sort of symbolic of what A Cappella has always been about. It's not about mass popularity, it's about people who really connect to the written word."

The financial success of chain stores and Amazon.com, as well as the emergence of electronic readers, pose a serious threat to the economic viability of independent bookstores like A Cappella, and Reiss admits to being unsure about the future. "I'm very guarded in anticipating what the next 20 months will be like. I just don't know. Twenty years is a good thing, but I'll be very surprised if we make it through 20 more years."

Gillespie thinks Reiss' shop does something the chains can't. "A Cappella has what I call a community-binding presence, which means that it brings people in the neighborhood together in a constructive and enriching capacity," she says. "Amazon is a serious joke. Amazon creates online communities, which is the goddam downfall of society, if you ask me." Fitten considers the bookstore "a vital place in my life."

Reiss might be wary about the economic future, but his outlook is still positive. "I've been unusually optimistic through most of the 20 years that there is always going to be a place – might be a small place – where those of us who care about such things can be in."


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