Should you meet your hero?

British comedian Alan Carr famously said that meeting Paul Newman was a crushing disappointment. He said Newman looked old, frail and all too human. But I received an invitation to meet someone I’ve admired for years and had I declined, I think I’d have regretted it.

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When you’re young and living in Manhattan and you meet someone new—for instance, a pretty girl—there’s a dance whereby you search for a common thread with which to start a conversation. You look for a shared experience to build a relationship and when you’re in your early 20’s, that shared experience, more often than not, is college. When I’d meet a girl and she’d ask what college I went to and I said I never went to college she’d start looking over my right shoulder to see what was behind me. And trying to land a job without a degree on my resume was extraordinarily difficult. They were debilitating years.

I’m a low-level rare book dealer. I could never make a living by dealing. I’ll see an undervalued rare book on the market and buy it with the intent of flipping it and making a few quid, but once it’s actually in my hands, I can’t bear to part with it. So I’m more of a collector. I began collecting to bolster my image and self esteem. Collecting books is seen as an intellectual pursuit so I decided to wear that mantle. It helped. I’d find a way to wedge it into a conversation and I’d get some mileage out of it.

Then something unexpected happened. I started to enjoy collecting for what it was. Not just for the visceral reasons, but because it’s interesting. I enjoy trolling used bookstores and rare book fairs. My favorite fragrance has changed from a sizzling steak to paper, ink and glue. I became interested in their history, construction and preservation. I fell in love with books.

The first author I collected was Charles Bukowski. This was long before he attained mainstream popularity and his rarities became prohibitively expensive. I felt a kinship with Bukowski’s difficult childhood and hardscrabble existence. I worked in a breadcrumb factory once. It felt like something Bukowski would’ve done.

Bukowski was discovered, nurtured, edited and published by a guy named John Martin. He built his Black Sparrow Press on Bukowski’s success. I wrote to Mr. Martin many, many years ago and asked a series of neophyte questions about collecting Bukowski. He took the time to patiently answer each of my idiot queries. Over the past 20+ years he has continued to provide valuable guidance about two things that I care deeply about; books and life. You’ve probably never heard of him before but Mr. Martin is a pretty big deal in the independent publishing community and the fact that we correspond regularly is something I never could have imagined when I first read War All the Time all those many years ago. I certainly never thought we’d meet.

In September, I took my bride to Napa Valley for her birthday. As it turned out, we stayed not far from Mr. Martin and his lovely wife Barbara’s house. A dinner invitation was extended and OF COURSE I accepted. I was nervous and worried that what has been sustained over the miles and years could not be replicated at a dinner table. I thought there would be long, uncomfortable silences. I thought our chemistry only existed in the ether. That, as it turned out, was piffle.

The conversation flowed as freely as the Pinot noir. It was a joyful evening. One I’ll never forget. The four of us were comfortable in each other’s company. As you can imagine, he told incredible stories and, after dinner, knowing my Achilles heel, showed me some stunning books and original artwork.

Martin_Mark

When you collect books, it’s all about the signature. I brought one of my collectables for them to sign. My Bride questioned the appropriateness, but when I asked permission I was told to bring as much as I could carry and they’d sign anything.

This is Bukowski’s novel Factotum. It’s a limited first edition signed by Bukowski with one of his oil paintings bound in. It’s dedicated to the Martins. Having a copy signed by the author and inscribed to me by the dedicatees is deeply meaningful to me, for the right reasons.

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 Grape harvest, St. Helena, CA, September 19, 2013, 8:15 a.m.

33 thoughts on “Should you meet your hero?

  1. How nice that the Martins have taken such a patient but genuinely friendly approach to someone who they’re bright enough to recognise your genuine spark of the love of books. That’s a mark of a truly civilised couple.

    Also–I really like the look of their kitchen. It looks colourful, lived in, and used to actually cook food 🙂

    • He might very well be the closest thing I’ve ever had to a father figure. Makes me mad that I didn’t actually have one!

      She made homemade marinara sauce in that kitchen. It was superb.

  2. What a great story and meeting.

    It is interesting… I’ve met some people I suppose I hold up as heroes but I can’t say I felt let down at all. But of course the best for me was meeting Jimi Hendrix’s black Flying Vee, the last one he owned as used at the Isle Of Wight set a few days before his death. I held it, I strummed it however not being left handed like Jimi I didn’t attempt to look a moron playing it. However it was… a Flying Vee, no more no less and not that brilliant quality in some respects… but that doesn’t matter really…. but then I stood within inches of Rory Gallagher’s famous Strat and looked at all the damage engrained by his years on the road with it – that one was very special.

    Only I could have turned this into something about guitars!!! HAHA

    • You played Hendrix’s Flying Vee?! That’s a major boast, my friend. Very nice. How is it you were permitted to play it? Seems it’d be a look-but-don’t-touch proposition to me. This past week I visited Christie’s auction house and saw the Strat that Bob Dylan played at the Newport Folk Festival when he went electric. They think it’ll sell for +/- $400,000 Here’s a link to the auction listing.

      Have you ever seen photos of the acoustic guitar that Willy Nelson uses? It’s got a giant hole in it.

      Rory Gallagher was the MAN. I had a ticket to see him in Cleveland but got sick as a dog the day before and missed it. It’s a big regret of mine.

      • Rory Gallagher played in Lancaster once. There used to be the poster for the gig in a pub near me. Lancaster! Our little city of 40,000 peeps!

  3. I’m so glad that it turned out such a lovely occasion. You look happy.
    In my experience a shared passion guarantees there will be no awkward silences.

    • Up until the very last moment I really thought it could have gone either way. I was nervous but I didn’t dare turn down the invitation. It’s one of the most generous things anyone has ever done for me.

  4. Such meetings are often a disappointment.These moments when everything meshes are, indeed, golden. And this just confirms my long-held opinion that John Martin is a good man.

    • That’s why I was reluctant. It almost always goes bad. Examples abound. Alan Carr is right. But this was pure pleasure. Now I wish we lived closer together instead of 3,500 miles apart. I’d dine there more often.

  5. I was going to make a positive comment about your love of books but got totally distracted when you referred to “making a few quid”. I’m trying to guess which Englishman you learnt that expression from. Was it Russell Brand or someone from an earlier generation? I’m glad you hit it off with the publisher guy – is there any chance you’ll be business partners?

    • I like trying to sound all fancy and British and whatnot. I’m a big, fat Anglophile and it’s always there bubbling on the surface.

      He is happily retired. He sold the business, which included the rights to publish dozens of authors under his umbrella, to a large, mainstream publishing house. He don’t need my po’ ass helping him out.

  6. Once again, you do not disappoint.

    By the way, look at you, all dashing and stuff! I was wondering how Le Clown knew what you looked like!

    You are incredibly well educated – more so than most college graduates.

    Bukowski. Ahhh, Bukowski. An unrepentant drunk who worked in a post office? True. But also the man who wrote this:

    “you boys can keep your virgins
    give me hot old women in high heels
    with asses that forgot to get old.”

    I loved Bukowski when I was in high school, before I even appreciated what this quote might mean. The way I do now.

    By the way, I’m writing a thanksgiving thank-you to the suburbs, if you can imagine. Because there are some good things, as you pointed out. Posting by tomorrow, hopefully. Have a wonderful holiday.

    • Thanks for the compliment about the content. As it states above, never a fee. But I cannot guarantee complete satisfaction.

      Where’d the Bukowski quote come from? That’s a good one. Reminiscent of Kerouac’s “Give me the mad ones…”

      I have an unending parade of complaints about the suburbs but the truth is I wouldn’t raise my daughters in the city. Kids grow up fast there. Too damn fast.

  7. I’ve “met” Sir David Attenborough. Or at least I sat in on a Q&A session. And he was fantastic. So intelligent and articulate.

    I love their kitchen too. So bright and colourful.

    • I love listening to someone speak eloquently about something they’re passionate and knowledgeable about. It’s a bit of a turn on.

  8. I’m a right scaredy puss when it comes to meeting new people, let alone people I admire. I had to speak to someone in the public eye on the telephone… and my voice went all croaky. And I did the silly nervous giggling thing. Embarrassing.
    I’m pleased that you had success.
    Sx

    • I can usually talk a pretty good game and not get flustered. But this was over the course of an entire evening and I wasn’t confident that hour three was going to go as smoothly as hour one. But it did. Thank God. It could have just as easily gone the other way.

  9. Wow– I didn’t realize you were a book dealer/collector… How interesting…

    I’ve never had the chance to meet someone I idealize (Dave Eggers comes to mind as a proper candidate) but I would want it to go down like this, that sounds like an amazing night!

    • Look who’s here! Thanks for stopping by! As a book dealer/collector, I’ve met tons of authors. Anyone who published anything and is sent out on tour to promote has to pass through NYC. They have to suffer public readings at Barnes & Nobel (for the big-name authors) and various smaller book stores (for second and third tier authors). They all hate it but they have to do it. [Brag alert.] I met Eggers a few times when McSweeney’s just started in a little store in Brooklyn. I’ve got all those early issues signed by him. Like I said in my post above, it’s all about the signature!

  10. Perhaps you should look again at the man that you have become my friend, very different to the guy who lacked in confidence more than five years ago. Of course, you should always meet your heroes whenever the opportunity arises, they seldom disappoint, especially if you have the same common interest in life. I’m sure John Martin saw in you what we, your pals, see on a regular basis.

    • Mr. Martin and I spoke the same language, that’s for sure. We had real kismet and each knew the minutia of book collecting. My wife and Mrs. Martin got along famously, as well. And she’s a hell of a cook, too. Fixed up a scrumptious dinner and matched us glass-for-glass in the vino category. Mr. Martin is a bit of a teetotaler, but he doesn’t judge. He opened bottles for us.

  11. How wonderful to not only meet someone you admire so much but to get to spend an evening in their home with a delightful home cooked meal….It sounds like it was everything one would hope for, and more!

    As to the info about “Spoon River”….Oh, how I would love to own this book…But, I am really not in a position to bid on it—financially it sounds too dear for me at the present time. But I dearly appreciate you thinking of me and do let me know what it actually goes for…..This is very very tempting. .I understand collecting, deep in my soul.

    • Actually, that was the second time I met a famous person I admired. I did a limited run letterpress book for British author Nick Hornby once. He had my partner and I over to his writing workshop where he signed some pages. That turned out well, too. How lucky am I?!?!

  12. Mark, I just loved this post and I’m so glad you had a chance to meet Mr. Martin in person. I was reminded of a night years ago when I attended a Joan Baez concert at Carnegie Hall. I was a real folkie and she was “the madonna of song.” After the concert a group of people waited outside the stage door and my friend insisted I wait too. After a little while, Joan came out with a male companion and proceeded to walk for a block or two with a group of us just following behind. She got into a cab and sped away. No one said anything. It was kinda strange to be so close to someone I’d admired for so long. What do you say? Sounds like you found just the right words.

    • I love your story. It’s one of those “only in New York’ stories. And seeing her perform in Carnegie Hall must have been a genuine thrill. That place is the cathedral of music. So beautiful inside and out and perfect, perfect acoustics. We’re lucky.

  13. You’ll never believe me, but college does not make you smarter, and it certainly does not make you better – it can make your life easier. You are self-taught, driven by passion. You are also quite charming in person – and have demonstrated no problem holding up your end of a conversation when we’ve been in the same space together!

    It’s been my observation – through face-to-face meet ups with those i’ve met through blogging – that the strangest thing is the first time you hear the voice (i remember you thought i’d be louder!). If one writes honestly, without pretense, the person you meet is no different than the imaginary friend inside your computer. if you and Mr. Martin have been corresponding truthfully, and without ulterior motives, then it shouldn’t be a surprise that the connection was real. clearly, you have been!

    congratulations on such a wonderful experience. i bet there was really good wine on that table, too!

    • I never, for one minute, thought that attending college necessarily made you smarter or better than people who didn’t attend college, but it certainly doesn’t hurt matters. Especially when job hunting.

      That’s a very astute observation about the voice. Isn’t that the strangest thing about a blog meet-up? The the sound of a voice? I knew your voice on paper but didn’t know what to expect in person. I never do! Madam Weebs was a pretty good match, I’d have to say.

      The wine was kick ass. Yes, it was.

  14. there is genuine warmth and appreciation of kindred souls in that picture, sugar! i have to agree about hearing a voice you’ve only read for the first time. i’ll never forget how comforting the sound of daisy’s was when i needed it. xoxoxoxox

    • Hi Sav. Nice to see you. When are you going to do a proper post? Nag, nag, nag.

      If you meet five people in your life who turn out to be kindred spirits you’re bloody lucky. I was nervous about meeting Mr. Martin but now I wish I lived closer together. Electronic media is convenient but it doesn’t beat sitting across a dining room table with an excellent glass of vino at arm’s length.

    • Of course, it was all about my bride’s birthday. That was the best part of the trip. Her birthday. Of course it was.

  15. What a wonderful story! Meeting someone that you’ve admired from afar can always potentially lead to disappointment, whether they be a celebrity hero, or maybe someone you’ve communicated online with (such as another blogger) – we build up a certain picture of what they’re going to be like and we might be close in our imagination of them, but invariably we have it a bit wrong, maybe in a good way, maybe in a bad way, but to turn down any opportunity to meet someone we admire would, as you say, always be a regret. Good for you, glad it went so well!

    • Hi Vanessa. Nice to see you. I’m happy to report that all the blogger meet-ups I’ve had have gone really, really well. A real pleasure. Fortunately, a lot of people travel to or through New York, so I’ve had a number of opportunities to meet my friends in the ether. Should you get the opportunity, I highly recommend it.

      Meeting a hero is usually such a disappointment that it’s become a tired, worn out cliché. But I lucked out. I only wish we lived closer so we could meet more often. I honestly don’t know if I’ll ever get the chance again. Thank goodness for this one.

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