August 21, 2004

Wil Wheaton's Big San Diego Bookstore Bash

Went to my third book-signing/author's reading event at the Mysterious Galaxy bookstore in San Diego today. (The first author event (Michael Gruber's Tropic of Night) I blogged here and the next one (Bruce Sterling's The Zenith Angle) I blogged here.)

Today it was former actor Wil Wheaton (just kidding!). Actor / writer / blogger / self-described geek, Wil Wheaton. He's got a new book out, published by O'Reilly and Associates of all things, called Just a Geek.

Copies of the book in the store window (complete with glare and reflections of the parking lot.. oops)

Let's put it this way. Wil was late for his own show. As in very late.

About 25 people were seated in the folding chairs when I got there ten minutes before the 1:30 event.

1:25pm One of the store clerks announced that Wil had just called from his cell phone, and was stuck in traffic on I-5. "He says he's five miles north of Oceanside, moving along at a blistering 35 mph."

It was going to be a long wait. (For those outside of San Diego: "five miles north of I-5" on a Saturday in summertime in San Diego means a huge amount of traffic.) Nothing else to do but start taking notes.

It was a typical Mysterious Galaxy crowd -- average age probably in the 40s or higher. One guy was holding several books high in one hand as he walked around the store looking at more books. Receding hairline, but long ponytail as if in defiance. His black t-shirt was emblazoned with bright orange words on front: BASTARD OPERATOR FROM HELL. I'm guessing he's in I.T.

"Want to start a pile?" one of the store clerks , trying to be helpful, asks from behind the counter. "Normally I do, " says Bastard, "One more book and I'll start that pile." He continues roaming through the store. The store must love customers like him.

"One of the advantages of a thirty odd six," a voice uttered behind me, "is if you get close to the target that's all you need, you don't need to aim, there's nothing left!" Two men were talking about guns.

"Big Sculpture Is On Its Way to LA," a headline announced in the newspaper the person seated in front of me was reading. The chairs were so close together you couldn't help see what others were reading. This guy kept underlining words and phrases in the article. Each time he made a new underline, he would take his left hand and scratch his head momentarily. Then he would underline another word or phrase. Then he would scratch his head. Underline. Scratch. Underline. Scratch.

I wished Wil Wheaton would get here so I could get home and back to work.

"You don't buy food, you don't buy shelter, you buy books!" someone behind me said, amid laughter. Another ideal bookstore customer.

"I put the Olympics on and turn the sound down all the way, then I put music on." It was the thirty-odd-six guy. "That's how I listen to all sports shows."

The Bastard Operator from Hell bought a pile of books, enough to fill a large shopping bag. Then he walked towards the seated crowd, noted that there were no seats left, and wandered away again.

2:00pm. Thirty minutes after the event was supposed to begin, there were about 45 people in the store.

"He's in Encinitas!" a store clerk announced. Wil had phoned in again. "We're assuming another 25 minutes." She suggested we all stand up, stretch, and walk around the store (i.e., BUY BOOKS, PEOPLE!).

"People say Unix isn't user-friendly," someone uttered from the middle of the seated crowd. "Thing is, it is friendly. It's just particular who it's friends with."

2:21pm. "Everybody rise up and stretch!" A store clerk waved her arms to signal "get up." She then wanted everyone to start singing "Take Me Out to the Ball Game."

The audience wasn't interested. (I was thinking, let's sing, "We Gotta Get Out of This Place, if it's The Last Thing We Ever Do...")

2:25pm. A red blur. Wil Wheaton is in da house. He is running. And he has to go to the bathroom REALLY BAD. So PLEASE. GET OUT OF THE WAY. He hugs one of the store clerk ladies, then gives her a look like, "I can't talk -- I gotta GO!" and he dashes into the back of the store.

"It's not flushing right, be careful!" some woman shouts out.

A minute later, he comes back out. Marches up to the podium. Showtime!

Wil Wheaton is small. I mean, smaller than I imagined he would be. I guess this is a normal reaction to seeing people in person who you've only seen prior on TV. He kind of looks like Ensign Crusher. Still.

"Hi," he says. "I'm a Wil Wheaton and I'm a mess."

Someone in the front row suggested it was time for twelve Guinesses.

"Twelve Guinesses, and the DESTRUCTION OF SEVEN THOUSAND CARS!" he shouted.

He thanked us all for waiting for him. "I wouldn't wait an hour for me!" The audience laughed. He was determined to give the patient audience a performance they would be glad they waited for. "I'M SOOOO NOT GONNA SUCK!" he announced.

"I wish I could blame it on that I was out drinking with hookers last night," he said. Nothing that glamorous. He explained that normally he comes to San Diego on the train. This time he and his wife decided, hey, a train takes 3 hours, and the car takes only two. Let's do the car! Oops. Bad decision. He explained how his wife had to hear "GOD DAMN IT!" over and over again the whole drive down.

[Idea: it is 2004. For crying out loud. Why can't you sign on somewhere, or call up somewhere, and say, I need to get to San Diego. I'm in LA. What's the best way of getting there, right now? And the service, which updates in real time, tells you, "really bad backup on I-5. Estimated drive time: 4 hours. Take the train." Cmon, why don't we have such a service?]

"I'd like to read to you," he says. He's holding a copy of Just a Geek -- a special copy. He's keeping track of the places he visits on this book tour, and inscribing his itinerary in the front of the book. "Chapter One, Page Three," he announces. And then he starts reading.

Of all the authors I've come across in the book-author events I've been going to in the past few years, Wil Wheaton is by far the best reader of his own material. He's really good. Five years of acting school have paid off. He's passionate. He's a ham. He's loud, he's funny, he knows his stuff: he could read the material blindfolded. And he has a quick comedian's wit, interjecting funny behind-the-scenes commentary here and there. Some quotes:

  • "I'm very jealous of the actors on Enterprise -- their uniforms are very comfortable"

  • "This was the first time I got to wear pointy sideburns. It was really cool!"

  • A lament about Generation X: "We spend so much time looking back at the closed doors behind us, we miss out on the open doors ahead."

  • "I'm a degenerate gambler and poker player."

  • On the subject of acting, and his constantly trying out for auditions, only to be turned away, typecast as Ensign Crusher: "I'm so intimidated by the Globe Theatre. I'm now 32, almost old enough to do Death of a Salesman!"

He spent most of his time reading directly from his book, and he sold me on getting a copy (although I didn't buy one today... no time to read it right now). I didn't take notes as he read from the book --- he was that good, and it's all in there.

At one point one of the store clerks handed him a supersized soda from the McDonalds next door. Unlike with Bruce Sterling (who received the same size soda when he appeared here at Mysterious Galaxy), Wil Wheaton drank a huge gulp of the drink as if he'd just come in from forty days and forty nights in the desert.

I don't know what it is about the clerks at the Mysterious Galaxy store. Here are the four of them behind the counter, which is situated directly behind the podium where authors speak. In other words, the audience is facing not only the author, but the storekeepers behind the counter.

As I said, this is my third author event at Mysterious Galaxy. All three times, I've noticed that the people behind the counter just sit there, looking miserable. They never laugh when the author makes a joke. I never saw them smile. They just sit there, waiting, looking as if they can't wait to shut the store down for the day and go home.

During the brief question-and-answer session, someone asked him about his first book, Dancing Barefoot. Interestingly, he said he self-published it, and did the fulfillment out of his home, which he jokingly termed a "Dickensian workhouse." "Best reason to have kids: cheap labor! My lawn has never looked so good!"

I asked him, "How did you convince O'Reilly and Associates to publish your book? I mean, they're mainly known as being a technical and programmer's reference manual publishing company."

He recounted an interesting story of how he was giving a talk about Dancing Barefoot at Powells, the gigantic bookstore in Portland, Oregon, and during the book-signing afterwards, who shows up to have his book signed but The Man Himself.

"Hi, I'm Tim O'Reilly," Wil recalled Tim saying, adding, "I was.... AAAAAAAAAAGGGH!" A "we're not worthy" moment for Mr. Wheaton, apparently.

Tim "demanded that I let him buy" a copy of the book, Wil said. He then heard from an editor. Tim had loved it --- he was "blown away" by the book, really impressed with the crowd that turned out to see him speak at Powells, and told him he'd publish anything he'd like to write. Originally, the idea was a how-to book on web design. The result is an autobiography, Just a Geek.

Someone then asked him about the odd classification code on the back cover of Just a Geek: "Science Fiction / Biography". Wheaton confessed that was a subject of much debate with his publisher. The reasoning is something like this: the trekkies would expect a Wil Wheaton book to be in sci-fi, even if the Wil Wheaton book has to do with economics or the lastest research on endoplasmic reticulums. He wanted the book in biography. In the end he had to settle on what may be a first: "Science Fiction / Biography." "They say that Biography is where books go to die," he quipped. But he prefers his book there. He confessed he's gone into Barnes & Nobles and moved copies of his book over to Biography...

One final shot: as Wheaton finished his talk, the store cleared everyone out --- made everybody leave! --- so they could rearrange the store for a book-signing. Everyone filed out and stood in line, all of them having numbered tickets determining the order in which their books would be signed. And yes, if you look at the photo above, at the far left at the front of the line, just walking into the store, is none other than the Bastard Operator from Hell.

I didn't buy a book, didn't have a ticket, so I didn't stick around in line. I plan to get the book later. And I plan to read WilWheaton.net more regularly.

Wil's got a big screen role ahead of him. Just a matter of time. Until then, he's just a geek...

Posted by brian at August 21, 2004 07:05 PM

Comments

Thanks for the write-up on the Wheaton event. I was the "some woman" with the bathroom comment. I agree with with you that the reading was great, and I enjoyed your people-wathching comments.

Thanks for the pix...my camera was not happy with the low light levels in the bookstore.

Oh, yeah. There really was a bottle of Guinness in the gift bag I handed to Wil, so you could have have easily had your beer-and-traffic-lamentation session (which you mentioned in Wil's comments) together.

Posted by: Valerie S at August 22, 2004 10:42 AM

What a great entry! I particularly loved the observations of the people around you before Wil showed up. I really enjoy your writing and I've bookmarked your blog.

(Incidentally, it's a "thirty-aught-six," which is actually a reference to the caliber of the rifle (30.06). Hey, I'm from New Hampshire originally, so for some reason I know that. I guess it's because you're practically issued a gun upon birth in that state.)

Posted by: shane at August 22, 2004 04:38 PM

I'm so glad you posted a link to this entry at my site! I love the way you write.

Thanks for coming out to see me, and waiting forever because of my terrible planning. It sounds like I didn't totally suck, and that makes me very happy. :)

Posted by: wil at August 22, 2004 07:03 PM

Ooops! It was the guy below your entry (Dennis) in Wil's comment section who wanted to drink the Guinness while cursing the traffic. Sorry!

I still love your write-up.

Posted by: Valerie S at August 22, 2004 09:04 PM

Dude,
That is so cool. Wil Wheaton commented on your blog.

Posted by: JoeBruin88 at August 23, 2004 01:44 AM

Enjoyed the log.

LOL - Yes it was me with the Guiness comment... and the only thing in the fridge when I got home was a single MGD... Sigh.


Posted by: Dennis at August 23, 2004 09:12 AM

Thanks for the photos and commentary .. it was like reliving the experience in many ways. Except I thought the clerks were being attentative and polite , and interactive, especially that redheaded one (Elisabeth?) who talked with Wil.

Posted by: sapphowillow at August 23, 2004 09:37 AM

Pictures of Wil meeting Tim at that first Powell's signing for "Dancing Barefoot" are at: http://www.stonehenge.com/merlyn/Pictures/Friends/03-08-Wil-Powells/.

Pictures of Wil at the Powell's signing for Just a Geek are at: http://www.stonehenge.com/merlyn/Pictures/Friends/04-08-Wil-At-Powells/.

Posted by: Randal L. Schwartz at August 24, 2004 11:16 AM

"We got to get out of this place... if it's the last thing that we ever do..."
-Fear

That rules.

Nice writeup - very much enjoyed it.

Posted by: Thumper at August 24, 2004 12:24 PM

Thanks for the write-up. Surfed to your blog from Wil's site. For those of us way down in the South (Texas) who can't get out to the West coast (hopefully Wil can make it down here sometime) it's really great to read first hand blogging.

Thanks again!

Posted by: Brian at August 24, 2004 12:56 PM

Hi!
You'd mentioned wanting a site that updates in real time and gives you traffic conditions, estimates of delays, etc. The state of Oregon is lucky enough to have one. www.tripcheck.com allows you to see highway traffic via cameras posted along the road, and to check the status of accidents, construction delays, etc. It has saved my butt several times by warning me before I get onto Rt. 26. Hopefully more states will set up sites like these...or maybe they already exist?

Posted by: Gretchen at August 24, 2004 02:40 PM

Well, you've earned a spot on my blogroll. Great post!

Posted by: Ryan at August 24, 2004 04:07 PM

came over on Wil's recommendation, I have you bookmarked now as well. Thanks for sharing your experience.Keep up the good writing, you have a natural style that makes for easy reading.

Posted by: Mark Wadsworth at August 24, 2004 06:12 PM

I liked that you were totally honest about the event and didn't try to gloss Wil to get a response.

Cool.

Posted by: dan at August 24, 2004 10:09 PM

Loved this blog. I think I am also gonna add you to my bookmarked blogs to read. Thanks for the recount of the signing. I hope that Wil's able to make it to the midwest. Any state along the Ohio River will do!

Nice people watching too. I love to people watch. Wish I had a notebook to record my thoughts half the time.

BTW, you'll love Just a Geek when you get a chance to get it. I read through it in a weekend. Couldn't put it down.

Posted by: Melissa at August 25, 2004 05:23 AM

Good guesses.

I'm the guy in the BOFH T-shirt[1]. Yes, I'm a regular at M.G., and I _normally_ start a pile -- I wasn't intending on buying that many books, and I didn't realize that incident would make an impression on anyone -- and yes, I'm a "software engineer" (according to my resume), although I started out as a tape monkey before I went off and got a couple of degrees.

Oh, and that ponytail isn't defiance so much as laziness -- I got tired of trying to work in a haircut every couple of months, so I just stopped, and now get a trim every couple of years. Well, on second thought, maybe a little defiance, as not only do I have a forehead that is aiming towards turning me into a Ringworld City Builder, I was a Navy brat. All short hair ever got me was a sunburned neck come summertime.

Nice write-up. Nice use of images.

[1] Did you get a chance read the back?

Posted by: S. Stremler at August 25, 2004 10:12 AM

Found you via Wil. Great writeup. Reading this was like being there. I've missed two readings and will make a point not to miss the next one in the area.

Posted by: lomara at August 25, 2004 10:21 AM

a very cool description. It was almost as if I were there myself. I particularly enjoyed the mini-snapshots of all the people around you, and what they were doing while they waited.

For some traffic info you can check here:

http://traffic.tann.net/

You can even look out traffic cams in some places.

I'm off to check out the Bruce Sterling entry. Keep up the good work.

Posted by: emordnilap at August 25, 2004 01:03 PM

Found you via Wil's blog -- wonderful write up! Made me wish I'd been there. Although, come to think of it, if that'd been possible, I'd have been one of those 7,000 cars on the freeway Wil was slogging through. Not fun!

Posted by: Janet at August 25, 2004 04:48 PM

I also found ye via Wil's blog and have since bookmarked you. Perhaps you should prepare for an onslaught of new readers, for Wil's internet clout will bring hordes.

Posted by: Troy at August 26, 2004 01:10 AM

Nice Write-up of Wil's appearance. I'm a fairly interested fan of his and I surfed here from his blog.

Your description was almost enough to make up for the fact my wife and I couldn't make it to any of his appearances this year. . . almost.

Here's to Wil's next book, and more importantly his next Movie.

Posted by: Shawn at August 26, 2004 09:48 AM

Inre: the service that says "it'll take x time to get from LA to SD"... I know (because he's said it on WWDN) that Wil has XM. My company provides traffic information for XM in San Francisco Bay, Los Angeles, and San Diego, as well as in 18 or so other markets. I wonder why Wil didn't just tune in.

I'm going to feel really stupid if he says "well, I did, but they didn't have the information".

Anyway. Good story.

Posted by: J at August 26, 2004 11:22 AM

Great Blog! I surfed here from Wil's site on his recommendation and am glad I did. I was disapointed I wasn't able to attend the reading, but your account was almost as good as being there. I, like so many others who journeyed here from wilwheaton.net, have bookmarked your blog.

Posted by: Jay at August 26, 2004 03:33 PM

Two comments in a row from someone named Jay. Hmm...

A comment about your online traffic wizard -- we've got one in the Bay Area, too. Check out http://www.511.org and you can see all kinds of cool, real-time info.

(Those of us actually up here near SF can also access it by dialing 511 on the telephone.)

Posted by: Jay at August 26, 2004 08:03 PM

Re "I don't know what it is about the clerks at the Mysterious Galaxy store..." I'm pretty sure I know exactly why the people in that photo look so crabby. As a former bookstore employee I am still sometimes horrified by how hard I slaved for so little reward.

Authors' events are among the most stressful possible days for a bookseller, right up there with the week before Christmas. An immense amount of legwork happens behind the scenes before any author event. From the easy stuff, like figuring out a logical traffic flow and setting up chairs, to the more challenging obstacles of how to convince a book group to move its meeting to a different night, or how to politely persuade camping customers to move out of the area you'd like to put the lectern in, it's a lot of extra work on top of the usual living hell of ringing phones and impatient ladies looking for "that book, you know, uh, I think the cover is blue."

And when all the above factors have been worked into a cohesive plan, that's when the author's publicist will call to say he can't bear to speak from a lectern, or he demands his audience be seated in a circle on the floor, or he simply must have a tankard of watermelon wine before his reading. (I'm sure Wil Wheaton is an absolute doll in this regard. I'm only speaking in generalities based on statistics.)

Absolute best-case scenario: the author is genial and undemanding, the event flows smoothly, the customers who are not interested in the event are understanding about any inconvenience, and those who are there for the event are thrilled. That sounds good for everybody, right? Well, maybe. Even in this pie-in-the-sky fantasy version, which, trust me, never EVER happens, author events are designed to bring more people into a bookstore. It's impossible to guess how many people will show up, and often it's just too much for the staff to handle. The bigger the crowd gets, the higher the chance that any given customer will not be able to find a staff member to help her find a book. She may not be able to move around the store comfortably. She may have to wait in a very long line. All these things build frustration, which often gives way to anger and rudeness, and before you know it, booksellers are running back and forth, out of breath from trying to do everything at once, and still being yelled at for things which are simply not their fault.

While I worked at the bookstore, we hosted book-signing events for David Sedaris, Jimmy Carter, and Tom Wolfe - all of whom I'm sure had interesting things to say, but none of whom I could muster up any enthusiasm for, because I was so exhausted. So I'm not surprised to see a bookstore staff look as unimpressed as those in your photo. They're facing a room full of potential assholes.

It is, of course, these people's job to organize author events, and a customer should expect to be treated as courteously on an event night as he would normally be. It is the customer's job to behave rationally and to realize that an increased number of fellow customers may screw up the ratio of bookseller-to-public, and to remain reasonably patient and calm when faced with delays or inconvenience.

And to CLEAN UP HIS OWN DAMN TRASH. It's the worst kind of heartbreaking insult for a bookseller to spend a day exhausting herself over an author event for people who will not thank her, then have to clean up their cups and kleenexes and spilled lattes. Anyone who's worked in retail for a month or so develops a very good eye for people heading for the trash can, and for people walking blithely away from their own sticky garbage left on a chair or a shelf. The people in your photo are tired out from needless janitorial work and have been yelled at all day for problems beyond their control. Rudeness begets rudeness.

An interesting experiment, the next time you attend a reading and see the booksellers sulking, would be to go to the information desk and say "Hey, I just wanted to thank you guys for putting together this event - I really love this author and it was pretty cool to hear him read from the new book. So, thanks - I appreciate it." Though I am not a sucker, this approach always used to work on me, and now that I'm a civilian, I use it myself. If the person you're talking to is any sort of human, her jaw may drop, her face will certainly soften, and she will be willing to go to the ends of the earth to get you whatever you need.

Posted by: Jessica Pierce at August 28, 2004 02:56 PM

I too arrived here by following the link on Wil's site, and am impressed with what I've found. I also enjoyed reading the comments from your readers, especially those of Jessica Pierce. Great observations and insights, Brian and Jessica - thanks!

Posted by: Ron G. at August 30, 2004 01:22 PM

In response to Jessica's Bookseller insights, I used to work at Disney World and we were expected to be interested, perky, and cheerful when dealing with "guests," even in Florida heat, with tons of trash, crowds, and boring subject matter for dreadfully low pay. It is no excuse. If you hate your job so much, don't do it!

As a bookseller, or theme park employee or whatever, you invite customers into your store. Sure it is an effort; you make money. Everyone has their own sacrifices to be there. Mostly, people set that aside and enjoy the event. Wil did; even though the car ride was frustrating, he put on a great performance. The customers, who had to wait for an hour, were attentive and co-operative when asked to line up outside. Quit the sour face and cheer up, already! Everyone else working to have a good time will appreciate it.

Having gotten my rant out of the way, great post. Living on the East Coast, this may be the closest I will get to one of Wil's readings. :)

Posted by: Erin at August 30, 2004 09:33 PM

Nice write-up. I'm the "30.06 guy" (and actually pretty much anti-gun-nut) and have been a regular at the store since about 5 years before they opened - after a while, you run out of literary things to talk about when waiting for authors, so you improvise.
The "Staffer" who kept getting calls from Wil and wanted us to sing was the store's owner, Maryelizabeth, who flew out from Arizona for the signing, and was more than a bit stressed by the scheduling. The rest of the staff were VERY tired from preparing for that event, and the signing the previous day - they're not really crabby, just usually very tired.
Also, when working at a bookstore (especially one that actually likes authors and has them in regularly for signings) you hear, given time, just about every joke and one-liner there is, and after a while it takes something pretty special to get much of a reaction. Also, we spent quite a lot of time with Wil previous to the signing, and were unsurprised by his comments - but that doesn't make us any less fond of him.
Personally, I hope he can find the time to come down the the Old Globe and talk to Jack about a play or three. Though it's a serious commitment in terms of time and energy, it's a good theatre, and the networking is excellent.
Anyway, thanks for the write-up.

Posted by: Carl at September 4, 2004 05:17 PM

brianstorms is Brian Dear's weblog. Non-spam email:

Be sure to take a look at these other fine websites:

Copyright 2002-2003 Birdrock Ventures. brianstorms is a trademark of Birdrock Ventures.