An Audience of One
As a writer, I am often asked to do two things that I invariably regret.
Appear at a book signing, and give a talk.
Three decades ago I was living in Iowa City and running Knock On Wood Antique Repair and Restoration when my first book by that same name came out. My initial book signing took place that very night in Fitzpatrick’s, an Irish bar owned by my buddy Gary just two doors down from my brick, two-story workshop on Gilbert Street. My friends were pretty smart, however, as they figured out that if they bought me enough beer, pretty soon I would be giving my books away.
They were right.
A few weeks later I agreed to do a second signing, this one in the Iowa City Public Library in conjunction with an event they were having. I arrived early, found the wobbly vinyl card table the summer intern had unfolded for me, carefully unpacked a box of my books, neatly arranged them along one side of the table, tested my new ink pen, and began to wait. And wait. And wait.
And no one came.
An hour later I packed up all my books and slunk out a side door, shamed.
Agreeing to give a talk can be just as humbling. As I often tell my audiences, I have stood in front of more than a thousand people at the annual February Grove Park Inn Arts and Crafts Conference (pictured). But — I also once agreed to give an Arts and Crafts talk on a Sunday afternoon at the Asheville Art Museum, where out of all of Asheville and Western North Carolina, guess how many people felt I was worth the price of admission….
And it was free.
This past August I agreed to give another Sunday afternoon museum talk, this one at the German American Heritage Center in Davenport, Iowa, only twenty minutes from my parents’ home where I had been attending our annual family reunion that weekend. The museum staff and supporters had mounted an exhibit on a well-known German descendent entitled “Built to Last: Gustav Stickley’s Legacy of Design.”
The exhibit, which runs until November 1, was a delight: small, but expertly arranged with numerous examples of Arts and Crafts pieces, along with something I can’t understand why so many major museums fail to include: printed text explaining the historical significance of each piece.
(Memo to museum curators: “We don’t care about reading your mysteriously coded acquisition numbers. Just tell us who designed that piece of organic-looking Teco pottery!”)
As usual, I arrived early that Sunday afternoon, surprised to see nearly a hundred chairs neatly arranged in front of the podium. Naturally, I began pacing up and down a side hallway, worried that this would become a repeat of my other Sunday afternoon museum experience. By ten minutes before the hour only a few seats had been taken, and the early birds were looking at each other, just as nervous as me, only they were thinking they were going to be locked in for an hour of tedious boredom.
As it turned out, the rest of my audience was downstairs inside the exhibit room, and by the time I had been introduced and told my story about my audience of one, the ice had been broken, every chair had been taken, and people were standing along the back wall.
And we had a great Sunday afternoon together.
Until next Monday,
“Never say never.”