I lost a friend and book reps lost a mentor this week when Mark Gates died.
I first became acquainted with him in the early nineties when I was a buyer at Schwartz Bookshops. Mark had moved to the Midwest to rep for FSG, and oddly- given the Mark Gates I came to know- my first impression of him was that he was a little stuffy. He wore a jacket and tie, his demeanor was all business, and his book presentations were completely professional. He was nervous.
Although this image was over-written as I got to know him by the jester persona so many of us came to adore, it should be noted that he always took his profession quite seriously. Beneath all the jokes and ribald shenanigans there lived a true, old-school bookman.
Mark believed in writers. He read the books he sold, and when something touched him he insisted that booksellers read it, and they took his advice. He approached our job- linking authors and readers via booksellers- with laughs, imagination and heart.
Mark appreciated that a key part of what a good rep does is story-telling. It helped that he was a natural. I was on the bill with him for a couple rep night presentations to booksellers, and there is nothing more terrifying than the idea of following Mark Gates onstage.
Although booksellers in recent years have gotten better at networking and speaking to each other, one of the great unsung services rendered by travelling book reps through the years has been gossip dissemination. Booksellers across the country who have perhaps never actually met each other feel a kind of solidarity when reps drop anecdotes and tidbits about other stores.
Mark nailed this. Like a busy bee pollinating a lavish garden, Mark buzzed from one bookshop to another dropping gossipy morsels, reporting on merchandising ideas, and telling outrageously funny stories.
Somehow he managed to be malicious without malice. He allowed us to revel in the naughty schadenfreude that comes with hearing someone else’s (highly exaggerated, probably) misfortunes, without actually feeling shame. We aspired to be the butt of one of his absurd tall tales, even if the grain of truth about us sometimes bit a little.
In Mark’s clever hands, malicious gossip retained the prickly barbs it needed to be entertaining, but nobody really got hurt. That’s because he didn’t employ his gossip the way most gossips do, i.e. to divide people. On the contrary, his stories linked people up. The more ridiculous things you heard about your colleagues, the more sympathetic they became.
I think he was able to do this because, in the end, there was always the self-deprecating zinger, and nobody can be too offended when the story-teller himself is implicated. Mark really believed that not taking yourself too seriously is what it’s all about, and the only people I ever heard him really go after with genuine disdain were self-important, pompous politicians.
Full of heart, king of the thoughtful, surprising gesture, Mark was a mensch.
I know I am not the only rep who used Mark as a go-to guy after a particularly challenging appointment, or a travel snafu, or just to vent a bit of existential angst. He knew all the players, and he’d probably been there. “Why do we do this?” I asked him last year in a bout of drama queen self-doubt. He replied by suggesting that I pull myself together and concentrate on a cause, such as his long-term project, the “Foundation for the Old Tired Reps Home,” to be funded through jars placed on bookstore counters across the land. I’m thinking this might be the perfect memorial.
Selfishly, I will miss Mark’s “Ann Landers for Reps” wisdom. I see no plausible replacements on the horizon. My Gates email folder goes back five years, and I periodically re-read these often hilarious missives just to put things in perspective. Though I knew this day would come since taking that ugly phone call from him while driving back from Ann Arbor two Decembers ago, I am despondent to think there will be no more messages signed “your pal, mgatesrep” in my inbox.