Stroll into the Waltham Farmers Market on a given weekend and you’ll believe in books again—honest-to-goodness books that you can hold in your hands and turn the pages. On farmers market days Jon Papernick, an acclaimed writer of literary short fiction and writer-in-residence at Emerson College, transforms into “Papernick the Book Peddler.” He has a cart, he has his books and—God love him—he has his own branding. Papernick is not just successfully hand-selling his newest collection of short stories—There Is No Other—alongside handmade cheese and fruits and vegetables, he’s intent on “bringing market-fresh fiction directly to the people.”
Papernick’s approach may sound kitschy, but he explains that he’s claiming the mantel of Jewish immigrants in America that came before him—the Canadian-born author became a U.S. citizen in December—by peddling his wares. And in the process, he is refuting greatly exaggerated reports on the death of book publishing and literary prose.
The day I was at the market, Papernick told me that he had sold 17 books that morning. More importantly, he had dozens of conversations with people who wandered over to his neon green grocery cart. I watched him carefully listening to an Iraq war veteran talk about his service. No sale, but that was completely beside the point for Papernick. He was reaching out to a potential reader.
Papernick, a journalist in Israel in the aftermath of Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination, burst onto the Jewish literary scene in 2002 with his first collection of stories, The Ascent of Eli Israel. A review in The New York Times described his work as having “a muscular certainty … that is altogether harrowing. [These stories] offer concise, explosive portraits of brittle tempers, the furies of citizens whose sentiments have been perverted in the pressure cooker of one of the world’s most dangerously impassioned regions.”
There Is No Other is garnering similar critical acclaim and, thanks to its entrepreneurial author, ringing up unprecedented sales for him. Papernick told me that in his hometown of Toronto only three copies of this newest collection sold in the popular chain bookstore Chapters Indigo. His father, he said wryly, bought two of them.
In the ensuing months Papernick the Book Peddler has become a bustling enterprise complete with merchandise that you can order on the author’s web site, www.jonpapernick.com. My personal favorite is the bright yellow messenger bag with the Book Peddler’s instantly recognizable logo spelled out in droopy Yiddishized letters.
On October 2, Papernick will channel the reverie of the previous day’s Simchat Torah celebration as well as his alter ego, the 19th century Yiddish writer Mendele the Book Peddler, as he makes his way across Manhattan. There will be a klezmer band in tow, bringing to mind a Chagall painting. The procession arrives in time for an 8 p.m. reading at the Sip Coffeebar and Lounge on the Upper West Side.