No, that aphorism is not the new tagline for Stihl Power Tools. It is the unofficial tourism slogan for the city of Asheville, N.C. And it was to the great city of Asheville that my wife, Salem West, and I traveled last week to participate in a panel discussion at Malaprop’s Books on Haywood Street. Topic? “The Evolution of Lesbian Fiction.”
On a Friday night? Seriously?
Salem was moderating, and I (along with Rebecca Swartz, VK Powell, and D. Jackson Leigh) was…panelfying. We honestly had no idea what kind of interest or enthusiasm this event would generate—but we hired a dog sitter, packed up our ice picks and crampons, and headed for the Great Smokey Mountains town—prepared for just about anything. The reception we got was a stunner. Instead of the five or six bored and sleepy-eyed latte sippers we expected to show up, the bookstore’s café (where they hold their special events) was jammed with people. About forty women and a handful of men sat on chairs, leaned against support posts, or clustered around small tables while we did our best to respond to questions about our genre—how it started, where it’s been, and where we think it’s headed.
And the audience was attentive and smart. They asked erudite questions. They offered their own informed opinions. They agreed and disagreed. They stayed on, and they stayed engaged even after the hour we were allotted came and went. They made us all realize that Asheville is a truly extraordinary place with a truly extraordinary community of women—and men.
But the real star of the evening was Malaprop’s Books.
How long has it been since you walked into a fine independent bookstore? Hell…. How long has it been since you walked into any bookstore?
In my lifetime, there have only been a few places that immediately surrounded me with so much warmth and welcome. (One was a Dairy Queen in upstate New York—but that’s another story.) Walking into Malaprop’s that Friday night was like walking into my great grandmother’s kitchen—a place filled with love and light. A place where only grand and glorious things happened. A place where I felt safe and relaxed. A place where everything was possible. A place where I knew I could always be exactly who I was and not worry about having to fit in. And a place where I could always get a damn fine cup of coffee (once I was old enough to drink something stronger than Postum).
Malaprop’s is that kind of place.
And Asheville is that kind of town.
And I cling to this point of view even though Salem and I (along with our Mother-In-Common-Law, Carol Kaplan) were later mistaken for hookers as we huddled together outside the Cherry St. Parking Garage, waiting for our gay husbands to show up with the car.
There are a LOT of silver SUVs in Asheville, too…and it’s not hard to imagine WHY we mistook the second of SEVEN that roared out of that garage for OUR ride. Besides…we were just trying to be friendly….
“Don’t make eye contact,” Carol said.
Words to live by, as it turned out. But, all things being equal, Asheville is an extraordinary place—and Malaprop’s Books is the brightest star in its crown. If you are fortunate enough to live within walking or driving distance of this incredible natural resource, for heaven’s sake, take advantage of it. Go in person, or go online. And if you’re at all like me, you’ll fall to your knees and bless Babel for the great gift that there are still places on this planet where we can come together and dream of a common language.
But avoid that parking garage on Cherry Street….