WOODSTOCK, Ga. — I like to go back to Metro Atlanta often enough to remember why I left. Atlanta, of course, is now one hellishly dense suburb that stretches from Chattanooga to Columbus with a tightly stitched tapestry of chain crap and traffic snarls in between. I creep along and remember.
In rush hour, it isn’t easy to find the motel where I’ll pay out the nose to stay one night for the reminder. They have hidden it behind branch banks and tony coffee shops, playing fast and loose with the Internet description of a location just off the interstate. When I do find my room and a beer, it’s tough to make myself leave again to try to sell a book.
But I do. I always do.
The group at the store is small but sweet, except for one miffed man who has waited 20 years to upbraid me for missing a lunch appointment. Afterward I have supper with two good friends who have each braved the traffic and driven an hour from their respective towns, doubling the “crowd” in the process. Thank goodness for friends.
It’s fair, really. I didn’t leave my heart in Atlanta, and readers know that and remember. Of the 1,456 columns I wrote while living here — who’s counting? — about half rhapsodized about rural things, something most Atlanta residents don’t want to hear.
Early the next day I drive out of Georgia, slowly, another rush hour. It’s swimming upstream with a child on my back. It is easier to maneuver in Birmingham, and I locate the bookstore quickly.
When I push the door to arrive early for a noon signing, I see a flyer with my book and an announcement of a 6 to 8 p.m. event. The confusion is corrected, but at a late date, and business is slow.
Selling a book these days is like pushing a wheelbarrow of fire wood into a burning building. Boomers, the last generation to read actual books, are downsizing, donating their personal libraries to anyone who’ll take them away. And folks who daily will drop $30 for a mediocre lunch are appalled when a book costs about the same.
But the tour has its bright spots. Last week I spent quality time with young people who know things, mostly because they read. It’s impossible to give up on 30-somethings when Jake Mabe of Knoxville, my columnist friend, knows about baseball, the Louvin Brothers and the writer Jean Shepherd. Or, when reporter and author Carla Jean Whitley wants to talk about disappearing newspapers and the importance of words. She volunteers with literacy groups and teaches journalism.
By the time I make it home, Jake has emailed me some old Jimmy Buffett lyrics eerily appropriate to my recent travels: “That’s why it’s still a mystery to me, why some people live like they do. So many nice things happenin’ out there, they never even have a clue.”
And I read more great lyrics in the book Carla Jean wrote about the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio, including this one from Boz Scaggs: “Another day another letter, Would bring me closer to your side, Another walk along the river, Another need be satisfied.”
Remember letters? Walks along the river?
Terrific young people. Old souls. Blessed with inquisitive minds and a hunch that the world didn’t begin in 1978, or 1958 for that matter. They fan the flame that keeps me going.
Rheta Grimsley Johnson’s most recent book is “Hank Hung the Moon … And Warmed Our Cold, Cold Hearts.” Comments are welcomed at [email protected]
The Dispatch Editorial Board is made up of publisher Peter Imes, columnist Slim Smith, managing editor Zack Plair and senior newsroom staff.