Tour stop #3: The loneliness of a shopping mall book signing

Rolf sets up shop at his rather lonely outpost outside the Waldenbooks at the Salina Central Mall.Waldenbooks, Salina Central Mall

Having completed my first and only shopping-mall-based Marco Polo Didn’t Go There book-signing, I now know what it feels like to be a public social oddity — to have people furrow their brows at you in bafflement at the sight of you, or avoid eye-contact altogether as they walk by. At times, as I sat in front of the Waldenbooks outlet in the Salina Central Mall with a stack of my books, I felt less like an author than one of those guys who gets hired to dress up in a chipmunk costume and hand out promotional flyers for a car wash.

In retrospect, I realize it was unrealistic to think that an all-purpose indoor shopping mall in a mid-sized, mid-American city would be a good place to tout my book. After all, your average person heads out to the mall on a Saturday to shop for shoes or catch a movie, not to impulse-buy a travel-themed book by some guy they’ve never met before. However, since the mall Waldenbooks is the only place in Salina where one can buy new books — and since I’m now based out of a small farmhouse about 8 miles southeast of Salina — I figured it would be good form to make an appearance there.

After having participated in more structured book events on college campuses or in indie bookstores (for both my new book and for Vagabonding), I don’t think I was quite prepared for an appearance that basically involved sitting at a table with a stack of my books and greeting passersby. In theory this might seem innocuous enough — that is, until you realize that the only other people doing this in the mall are pushing gym memberships or cell phone plans. Thus, your average Saturday shopper has gotten used to avoiding eye contact with anyone who sits at a table and greets them in a friendly voice.

For someone who is not used to being in such situations, this can be a humbling experience.
Nephew extraordinaire Luke Oak Van Tassel assists Rolf in pimping Of course, it’s good to be humbled from time to time. As a full-time travel writer, I have the luxury of doing what I love for a living. Not everyone does. Moreover, not everyone cares all that much about world travel, and it was easy to see this at the Salina Mall. Sitting at my little table, I had a stack of cards touting a $500 flight-voucher drawing (thanks to a Bootsnall promotion that ties into my book tour) — but this didn’t get nearly as much attention as the drawing for the Mahindra ML 105 tractor that was parked 15 feet in front of me. Even the folks who filtered in and out of the Waldenbooks were more interested in Halloween kids’ books or the new Christopher Paolini than the book of the guy (me) sitting right there in front of them.

Ultimately, I sold three copies of Marco Polo Didn’t Go There over the course of two hours: One to a Kansas Wesleyan University student who’d heard me speak on campus the previous week; one to the co-owners of Pronto Print, where I occasionally go to make photocopies; and one to a woman who goes to Assaria Swedish Lutheran Church with my parents. About halfway through my stint some of my family showed up, and I spent the last hour of my author appearance reading Halloween books with my nephew Luke and chatting up the various random shoppers who had the temerity to make eye contact with me.

In a way, it wasn’t a bad way to spend a Saturday afternoon in Salina. Whereas I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve sat back and watched families and teens and retired folks interact in the small-town plazas of Europe or South America, I can’t recall ever having done such a thing in my own adopted hometown. Thus, for two hours I got to observe something I might otherwise have missed — the understated Saturday rhythms of an indoor shopping mall in the middle of the country.

And in a way, that was itself a close-to-home travel lesson, even if I didn’t sell many books.