Stepping in Something Twice

I’m back in the shotgun seat with Susan at the wheel, driving us out of the Midwest after a hot suburban week with her Hoosier family. Praise be to the neighbor’s swimming pool. We should reach Maine in three days in this mashed potato Impala. It handles like a barge and is our third rental car since we left New York. The first was a Chevy Malibu with a trunk too small to shimmy in Teddy’s camp steamer. Next was a bald-tired Nissan Altima that hydroplaned through a hairy rainstorm in the Allegheny mountains. The radio on this tub is lousy, so I may be back at the Enterprise desk soon.

Our destination tonight is risky – the same Youngstown Hampton Inn where we lodged on the drive west. It’s a natural stopping point before the kids go completely batshit in the backseat, but the real draw is the local Ruby Tuesday’s featuring the magical mashed cauliflower. When you’re facing marathon family days in the car, the prospect of small joys reigns supreme. Susan’s already mentally made her dinner order. Can perfection be repeated?

Lunch today at Cracker Barrel on I-270 north of Columbus was surprisingly disappointing ( I had a craving for their biscuits and gravy when we turned into the uncrowded restaurant behind a UPS depot and three chain hotels being built very fast. Unfortunately, the cornbread starter basket was bland and my roasted turkey salad entrée was light on the meat and heavy on the iceberg wedges. They do love iceberg out here. Susan’s order also failed to measure up. “Sorry to have to give Cracker Barrel a bad review,” she says, “but it was the worst beef stew I’ve ever had. A tomato and onion slurry with two bits of fatty beef in it. Come on, it’s beef stew. How can you mess it up with chunks of tomato? Totally unsatisfying.” After the dull meal, Finn and I had a checkers match on the Cracker Barrel porch, and the Statler Brothers’ “Flowers on the Wall” played from a speaker. It was the highlight of the lunch.

While in Indy, I met with the events manager of the Barnes & Noble Indianapolis-Clearwater and scheduled a reading there for September 26th, (Forgive the digression, but we’re on the interstate getting passed by a flatbed hauling A Series of Tubes! No stopping the Internet.) He was a gracious and well-informed guy, and I’m looking forward to the event, which the store will also organize as a benefit with book proceeds going to reading programs at North Central High School, Susan’s alma mater. Go Panthers!

Across the road from the B&N was one of the dozens of shuttered Borders stores I’ve seen this week. They’ll all be empty in a few days, and there’s no rejoicing in Goliath’s fall. It represents the difficult challenges that all booksellers – both the chains and independents – face. Economic arguments have been made in the media about Borders’ fatal missteps, but the chilling fact is that 40 years in business, 600+ stores, national brand power, and discounted books were not enough of a bulwark against the changing technology, tastes, and habits reshaping the book industry. Even B&N – the survivor – closed its dynamic Lincoln Center quadplex in Manhattan, which is being replaced by a discount clothing store.

What a time for me to be publishing a first book. I would have been better off going into the food business. That’s recession proof. Even if customers hate the iceberg lettuce and the tomatoes in the beef stew, they’ve either got to eat it or starve.