Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Tales from the back of the tent

Gary Hunt reflects on the life of a bookseller during the annual Sun Valley Writer's Conference

Gary Hunt, owner of Iconoclast Books, has been running the temporary bookstore at the back of the Writer's Conference tent for 11 years. Photo by Chris Pilaro

For the Express

The temporary bookstore at the back of the tent of the annual Sun Valley Writer's Conference—which took place last weekend—serves not only as a sales counter but as a private box at what local bookstore owner Gary Hunt calls "one of the best writer's conference events in the world."

Hunt's Iconoclast Books, a Wood River Valley institution, has been involved with the conference for eleven years, stocking hundreds of books by participating authors and CDs of memorable addresses from past conferences. "It's amazing, of course," said Hunt in an interview just prior to this year's conference. "From the beginning, it's been a dazzling experience. It's a dream come true."

The conference includes not only novelists and poets, but journalists, political commentators, and filmmakers, making it a well-rounded event that focuses on timely issues as well as the writer's art.

What's it like to be in the bookseller's shoes?

"For four days in August every year," said Hunt, "we find ourselves surrounded by our literary heroes and for us it's kind of like Oscar night. We spend six months preparing for those four days, and when it comes it's a bookseller's dream—session after session of talks by writers whose books we have been reading and admiring for years, followed by the frantic selling of those books to crowds of passionate book buyers that keeps four cash registers clanging from 8 in the morning to 8 at night.

"It's a lot of work and it takes a considerable amount of preparation and organization to make it run smoothly. We need to make sure that we have sufficient quantities of every title by every writer that is present, along with out-of-print titles and first editions of important works.

"I know that it's all worth the effort because every year after everything's all set up and we sit back to listen to the keynote address I achieve that state of bookseller euphoria that washes over me and stays with me for the rest of the conference and for a good while afterward."

Authors appreciate irony and dramatic scenes, and sometimes the writer's conference delivers. Because it's held in a tent (albeit a large and sturdy one), the elements play an important part in the conference experience. Hunt and his employees take great measures to combat condensation, and sometimes relocate whole areas of the store if a talk moves due to inclement weather. If this sounds like a boring task, think again.

"A few years ago," said Hunt, "when Thomas Cahill was the keynote speaker, his talk dealt a great deal with religious history in various eras. As he spoke about God and the Jews and the monks who preserved our literary heritage, the clouds gathered and the sky grew dark and the wind began to howl, and he had to speak louder and louder to make himself heard over the din. Rain started to fall, and by this time he's shouting at us as the lights begin to flicker and water comes flooding into the tent so we all have to stand on our chairs. The wind was buffeting the tent roof. The lights were cut. The thunder was deafening. But Thomas Cahill continued to shout about the God of the Old Testament. Finally, security decided that we should prepare to evacuate and Cahill was persuaded to redo the talk the next day in the Limelight room."

Then there was the year God did not show up at the last minute, but neither did Steven Sondheim, who was actually scheduled.

"Mitch Albom took his place on stage, sat down at the grand piano, and proceeded to do a medley of Sondheim tunes accompanying impromptu lyrics ('Send in the Sub')," said Hunt. "That one brought the house down. The substitute in this instance outshone the missing master."

Just last year, former poet laureate Billy Collins regaled a crowd with a hearty rendition of "Louie, Louie."

"I still couldn't understand the words," said Hunt. "I think he made some of them up."

But the best part about having a bookstore in the back of the tent, admits Hunt, is that they "get to just sit back and listen whenever there's anything going on. I can't tell you how valuable that is."

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