When I started as a publishers’ representative, buyers would tell me of the old days, when a rep would arrive in town on a train, rent a hotel suite and present to all of the area booksellers in one meeting. No one I knew ever actually sold that way or bought books that way, but people remembered when people did it, or had been told about it.
That system evolved into the one with which we’re all familiar. Reps—with improved freeways and cars—drive to bookstores and sell to buyers one-by-one. Depending on their lists, they might see a few accounts or just one in a day. But a lot has changed: the book industry, electronic catalogs, traffic, gas prices, global warming. I thought it was time to adapt.
I’ve driven the stretch between Seattle and Portland at least 400 times in the last twenty years. But last season I instead took the train from Seattle with my friend Rick Simonson of The Elliott Bay Book Company, with the idea I would sell books to him on the train, on our way to a reading in Portland. It took us a while to stop answering email and looking at the view, but somewhere around Olympia we started to work in earnest. Selling books on a train was fantastic. Coffee. Bagels. Watching the South Sound and the Columbia River roll by. When I got into Portland, I took light rail and buses and walked, did a few sales calls, and returned on the train the next night.
Last month I took it a little further. I took a trip to the San Francisco Bay Area without renting a car. Here’s how I did it.
Friday: green cab- ride with a friend-BART-tram-plane
And I got to do a lot of walking in fine weather.
No gas stations. No tolls. No idling in traffic. No parking lots, parking meters, searching for parking.
The highlight of the trip was beautiful scenery on the train to Davis, which hugs the coast of the bay and winds through farmland—listened to a golf pro braggart charming up a fellow passenger. The ferry from San Francisco to Larkspur is really a treat, particularly in the late afternoon—watched a kid trying to explain a game on his smart phone to his dad. The books people were reading on the streetcar and BART and the bus was interesting and diverse. On a bus in Berkeley, a woman was talking to herself about the amount of anorexia she sees. Helpful people of every stripe got me to the right bus line, on the right streetcar.
My friend David Stimpson, recently retired, was a bookseller before I was a bookseller and a publishers’ representative before I was publishers’ representative. I sat across from him in sales conferences for about 20 years, our seats predetermined by our seniority, which gave us the ability to share knowing glances, smirks and juvenile hand gestures.
At one time David covered Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Even counting Alaska, my territory of twelve Western states is puny compared to the ground he covered. He’s the only rep I know to have an entire continent in his territory. And David didn’t drive a car. I think the reason he gave me was that he never got around to getting a license, but more likely, it was that he just didn’t feel like it.
Now I know why. There are a lot of benefits and few downsides to public transportation. You can actually work on the train, on BART, on the streetcar. You’re not defensively avoiding other drivers, so it’s less wear and tear on the psyche. It’s cheaper. Much cheaper. It’s greener. Much, much greener.
David had it right. I will (as much as I can) drive no more forever.
George Carroll is an independent publishers’ representative for university and academic presses, an associate of Seagull Books of Kolkata, and an audiobook narrator. He’s also the soccer editor of Shelf Awareness, and he blogs at thecroakingraven.wordpress.com.