Monday, February 14, 2011

Customs (& Habit)

My favourite passage in Terry Griggs's excellent Thought You Were Dead has her hero at a countryside diner, The Coffee Nook, amongst a crew which includes Nietzsche-quoting farmers and Annie Dillard reading waitresses. This Friday, heading over to the US to do an American mailing of ARCs and review copies and a few sold books besides, I had a real-life taste of this Griggsian world. Normally crossing the border is the most stressful part of the whole ordeal, far worse than waiting in line for an hour or so at the Fort Street post office, worse than spending an hour plus affixing stamps to the 198 review copies we had with us on this occasion. The general rule is the more interest a border agent takes in what you're bringing across, the more likely you're in for it. Books may be duty free, and what we're doing may be completely legal, but when you're ordered to put your car into park, and the agent takes your ID, and you know you're in a no man's land that's not beholden to the laws of either the country you left or the one you're trying to make a brief foray into, any deviation from the usual quick glance at your ID and paperwork before taking your 10.75 causes more than a little anxiousness. And this agent was taking his own sweet time.

"What's this Combat Camera you're bringing over," he asked, I told him, treading lightly over the pornography storyline, just in case he got the wrong idea. "And Light Lifting? The Meagre Tarmac?" I told him. "All review copies going to newspapers and magazines across the country. The lists of recipients are attached." And they were

He flipped to the last few pages, of books I was bringing across for paying customers. A few Biblioasis titles, used book orders from the internet, odds and sods. Among them was Ryszard Kapuscinski's I Wrote Stone.

"And what about this one?" he asked, referencing the Kapuscinski. I was worried: it's an obviously foreign-sounding name, a possible red flag. This had happened before, when someone came across Goran Simic's name. And this guy was asking far too many questions. I told him it was a book of Kapuscinski's poetry we published a few years ago.

"Well now," he drawled, "Ryszard Kapuscinski isn't exactly well known for his poetry, now, is he?"

I had to agree that, indeed, he was not. And so we chatted for a few moments about Ryszard Kapuscinski and our books and press before he asked for 10.75, handed me back my passport and sent us on our way.

It did not end there. There was the usual long line at the post office, and I got into a discussion with the gent ahead of me about what we were doing with so many packages. On learning I was a publisher he asked about our books and seemed genuinely interested in what he heard. Then he said, "Well now, I've been working on a book for quite some time and I was just beginning to think of sending it around. Might you care to take a look?" Publishers get these requests all of the time: it's one of the reasons I always hesitate to let anyone know what it is I do. Everyone, after all, seems to believe they have a book in them (You know the old joke: There's a surgeon and a writer at a party. And the surgeon says to the writer...) I steeled myself for the usual, but this fellow ended up having an interesting story to tell, about his parents and the Detroit Riots of '68 and all that followed after, and by the end of it he had a card, and down the road perhaps I'll even have a manuscript to look at. Not my usual Detroit post office adventure, but one that leaves me a bit more hopeful when sending our books out there.

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