Not long ago the writer Sherman Alexie missed one of his readings, standing up fans at the Queen Anne Book Company, a store in Seattle.
"It was Little League season and I completely spaced out," Alexie said. "I owed them a big atonement." The bookstore's owner, Janis Segress, suggested Alexie make it up to them by working in the bookstore for a whole day.
Thanks to this act of forgetfulness, booksellers across the U.S. this week will celebrate "Indies First" day. On the Saturday after Thanksgiving, one of the biggest sales days of the year for any retailer, hundreds of authors like Alexie will work as volunteer booksellers at their local independent bookstores.
More than 1,000 authors will staff some 500 bookstores across the U.S., including such prominent names as Dave Barry, Daniel Handler and James Patterson.
Here in Southern California most independent bookstores are participating: from the Book Frog in Rolling Hills Estates and Pages in Manhattan Beach, to Cellar Door Books in Riverside and Book 'Em Mysteries in South Pasadena. Authors scheduled for bookseller duty include Michelle Huneven and Mark Haskell Smith at Vroman's in Pasadena, Pseudonymous Bosch at Once Upon a Time in Montrose and T.C. Boyle at Santa Barbara's Granada Books. (A full list can be found at the website Indie Bound, http://www.indiebound.org.)
Alexie and Segress proposed the idea to the American Booksellers Assn. in September, then jointly announced Indies First as a national event. The name of the event is a pun on the idea that Alexie, a Native American (or "Indian"), is starting a movement to support independent bookstores on a day that's become known as Small Business Saturday.
Last year, President Obama spent Small Business Saturday at a local independent bookstore in Virginia, and many local independent bookstores held special events that day. While there's a record store day (in April) and free comic book day (in May) designed to attract fans to independent stores, this is the first attempt to create a bookstore day. The creators of Indies First day hope that it too will become an annual tradition.
"My career exists because of independent bookstores," said Alexie, 47, the author of nine books, including novels and story anthologies such as "The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven."
He remembers his first-ever readings, at small bookstores in Seattle. No book-industry number-cruncher would have predicted his success, he said. "A first book of fiction by a Native American writer would not have fit in anyone's algorithm," he said.
On Indies First day, Alexie will work at five different Seattle bookstores over the course of 12 hours. Picking five in book-friendly Seattle wasn't easy, Alexie said, because "there are 22 bookstores within a 10-minute drive of me."
At Skylight Books in Los Feliz, seven authors have signed up to work shifts between 10:30 a.m. and 6 p.m., including novelists Attica Locke, Mark Haskell Smith and Diana Wagman.
"We are crossing our fingers that it will be a big day for us, and are planning some things that we think will be interesting for our customers," said Skylight general manager Kerry Slattery. Among other things, they're giving away tote bags to anyone who spends more than $100. "It should be a fun and festive day."
Several bookstores have asked their volunteer authors to choose favorite books to sell and plan to have extra copies of those books in stock.
Among the books Alexie has chosen are two new story collections: Jamie Quatro's "I Want to Show You More," and Natalie Serber's "Shout Her Lovely Name." But of course Alexie will be happy selling anything. And he's amazed by how many writers have agreed to help out.
"The kids' writers and the mystery writers are really showing up in big numbers," Alexie said of the Indies First movement. "Those genres have really strong communities."
In the age of e-books, and in an industry dominated by a single online retailer, the idea of authors selling books from their neighborhood stores feels almost quaint, Alexie said.
"It's like hundreds of us decided, all at once, to go old-school," Alexie said.
Tobar will be working at Vroman's in Pasadena on Saturday afternoon.