Since I first spotted a galley of Jonathan Franzen's new novel, Freedom, on the F Train months ago, in the hands of a Brooklyn-bound woman, I've been anticipating its release. So when I got the announcement via Facebook that St. Mark's Bookshop would be extending its hours to sell the book beginning at midnight last night, I figured I had to be there to capture the momentous occasion.
As we know, New Yorkers get excited when a new product is first released to the market. They line up for hours outside Apple stores for new iPhones and iPads. They sleep outside big boxes like IKEA the night before a grand opening, just to be the first inside. They even do it for books, camping by the doorways of bookstores on the nights when fresh Harry Potters come screaming into the world.
So I figured, with all the Franzen hoopla, there would at least be a small line.
But there was no line. Not even Greg Packer, the guy who camps out in line for everything, was there. Shortly before midnight, about 6 people were in the bookstore, milling about. Billie Holiday sang the blues over the loudspeakers. The shop had a hollow feeling. It was sort of depressing.
Still, I imagined that when the books arrived, there would be some fanfare. They'd be wheeled out on a festooned palette, in a big stack like a frosty birthday cake. Bibliophiles would suddenly appear at the door to grab up multiple copies for posterity. Hey, this guy was just on the cover of TIME magazine! But that didn't happen.
When the clerk announced, in a weary, bemused voice, "Ladies and gentleman, it is midnight and we are now legally permitted to sell to you Jonathan Franzen's Freedom, the book that the New York Times just cannot stop praising," there was a barely discernible ripple of acknowledgment from the patrons. He placed a handful of copies on the New Fiction shelf, mixed in among the other authors whose names begin with F.
One young woman perked up. I think she might have exclaimed, "Oh boy!" She was the first to grab a copy and the first to buy it.
"How does it feel to be the first person to own that book in New York City?" the clerk asked her.
"Am I really the first?"
"Well, the first to own it legally."
Then a couple of young men sidled up, real casual, as if they weren't there for one reason only. They picked up the book and inspected it. They turned a few pages, looking unimpressed as they pretended to be making a decision. They bought it, too. Then another. And maybe one more. One guy left without even looking at it. And then the store was pretty much empty.
Maybe if it was a new flavor of cupcake, people would have been there.