Literary Medley du Jour: The duchess of York and the director of an acclaimed film spice things up at a West Hollywood bookstore

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By Kathleen Craughwell
Special to the Los Angeles Times

It's ridiculously early on Sunset Boulevard -- 7:30 a.m., to be exact -- when two women from the Santa Clarita Valley pitch their collapsible camping chairs on the sidewalk in front of Book Soup, the popular West Hollywood independent bookstore. The store will not open for another hour and a half.

The two have trekked from their suburb to this trendy stretch to meet Sarah Ferguson, the duchess of York and Weight Watchers spokeswoman, who will sign copies of her new book, Energy Breakthrough.

Later, Book Soup will be swamped with cineastes and lovers of serious fiction for a reading of short stories written by the late Andre Dubus, whose short story "Killings" is the basis for the acclaimed film In the Bedroom. The film's director, Todd Field, will be among the readers. The two events last Wednesday, showcasing authors who could not be more different, reflect the polymorphous nature of this city's literary life. And for Book Soup, this will be a long and challenging day.

Around 10:30 a.m., general manager Allison Hill surveys the burgeoning line of Fergie fans on the sidewalk. "This is definitely not our archetypal crowd," she says. "But that's why we like to do these events. It draws people who normally wouldn't come to Book Soup."

By 11:00 a.m., the crowd includes a Fergie look-alike, several royal watchers and a clutch of professional autograph collectors. The majority seem to be women in various stages of the Weight Watchers program. They bide their time comparing before and after photos and talking about Ferguson's appearance on a local TV show earlier that morning. Some even have brought portable televisions with them.

If there is a ringleader among the group, it's Lisa Mundy, a nanny from Hancock Park who runs a Fergie fan site and knows a lot about the former royal: "If you need any information about Sarah -- shoe size, mother's maiden name -- just let me know."

Mundy, who arrived just after the Santa Clarita contingent, has met the duchess 15 times, traveling as far as Atlanta, New Orleans, and New York to attend her public appearances, but still chugs an entire bottle of Pepto-Bismol to calm her nervous stomach.

The duchess and entourage -- her publicist, personal assistant, a Weight Watchers executive and two private security men -- arrive in a black GMC Yukon Denali SUV at 11:15 a.m.

Amid the Fergie-mania a UPS man delivers a shipment of books from HarperCollins (it includes 20 copies of Anthony Bourdain's Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly, six of Robert McKee's screenwriting bible Story, as well as classics by James Joyce and others).

Although the store's staff and Ferguson's security men have been keeping an eye on the crowd, which now numbers about 75 (not including a dozen or so photographers), Hill surveys the line one last time at 12:20 to "make sure there are no surprises."

At a previous Fergie signing at the store, someone pulled out photos of Princess Diana and asked her to sign them. (She refused.) No one is quite that tacky this time, but one person has a video camera that Hill and the store's marketing and publicity director Jen Ramos decide to ban.

Autograph collector and purveyor Richard Rivera of Anaheim calls to Hill, "I go to a lot of these signings, and I expected a bigger crowd, but, honey, there are so many queens in this neighborhood, I guess not that many people are interested in a duchess!"

After a short TV taping and a private meeting with two women who have won a Weight Watchers competition (between them they have shed 110 pounds), the svelte duchess borrows Hill's office for a quick Weight Watchers-approved lunch of fruit and chicken.

The store has asked autograph seekers to wait outside the store, but a middle-aged woman runs into the store gasping, "I'm trying to avoid the media. I'm supposed to be at work!" Hill lets her hide out in the stacks while the woman's friend holds her spot in line.

At 12:40 p.m., Book Soup owner Glenn Goldman, who founded the store 26 years ago while a graduate student at UCLA, warily makes his way into the Fergie Zone. Goldman has spent the morning upstairs in his office with Sandy Pollack, a sales rep/territory manager for Random House, talking about upcoming spring titles. While he's extremely hands-on with book buying -- he selects over 90% of the titles -- he is reticent when it comes to public events.

Max Magee, who has worked at the store for a month and a half, is assigned to help Ferguson at the back counter, where the signing will take place. On the counter are a dozen black Sharpie markers and a simple arrangement of orange roses.

At 12:45, Ramos ushers in a group of photographers, most of whom work for foreign news agencies. They snap away as Ferguson holds up a copy of her book, then pretends to read from it.

A cockney-accented photographer calls out, "'Allo, ma'am. Does 'avin' us 'ere make you feel at home a bit then?" Fergie, smiling for the cameras, ignores him.

The duchess efficiently signs the piles of books her fans place before her (most have two or three; some have 10). While her answers to questions about weight loss range from canned -- "Don't wait to lose weight" -- to slightly unseemly -- "If there's anything we've learned from September 11, it's don't wait, life is too short" -- her interactions with fans she recognizes from previous events are genuinely warm. She asks about their children, often remembering names and even ages, and answers questions about her own two daughters.

The one snag seems to be finding music appropriate for a duchess. The staff tries a jazz radio station, but the Weight Watchers exec asks for something "more contemporary." After a few minutes of cha-cha, someone rounds up a Van Morrison CD.

A few people have odd requests. Art student Jen Kolmel hands her Polaroid camera to Ferguson so that Ferguson can photograph her, then autograph the bottom white strip. Self-help author Wendy Scott (Meet Divine Mother) gets an autograph and then hands a request for a recollection piece by Ferguson for a Princess Diana book she is writing to Ferguson's publicist, Gerry Casanova.

When Ferguson doppelganger Robin Aulger approaches the counter, Ferguson doesn't seem to notice the uncanny resemblance until she hands the signed book back to Aulger and then she does a double take. Autograph collector Rivera has Ferguson sign two of her "Budgie" children's books, which he will put up for auction on eBay. "I won't take less than $150 per book," he says. At 1:50 p.m., the event is over. Casanova looks around admiringly. "What an unusual space," he says. "It's such a beautiful bookstore."

The staff seems relieved when the cameras and crowds are gone, in much the same way children are when their parents' embarrassing friends leave after a too-long party. It's not that they're not used to famous people being in the store -- quite the opposite. A-list actors and directors routinely patronize Book Soup because the staff is discreet. When magazines like InStyle and Movieline call looking for celebrity sightings, the store's policy is not to comment.

By late afternoon, things are back to normal for Book Soup. Author Bruce Wagner calls to check on an upcoming Writers' Bloc event; the Filofax rep pops into Hill's office with a juicy bit of bookstore gossip; KCRW-FM's Bookworm host Michael Silverblatt makes his almost daily pilgrimage; customers quietly peruse the floor-to-ceiling stacks.

As the sun sets behind Tower Records across the boulevard, Ramos, who has been fighting the flu all day, sets up rows of folding metal chairs in Book Soup Addendum, the store's annex for discounted books.

The 6:30 p.m. reading of Andre Dubus stories is officially billed as a promotion for the Vintage Books collection of Dubus' short stories. Unofficially, however, the event is part of Miramax's Oscar campaign for In the Bedroom, which has already received accolades, including a best picture award from the Los Angeles Film Critics.

In the Bedroom director and co-writer Todd Field and cast members Nick Stahl and William Mapother are scheduled to read, as is local writer and friend-of-Book Soup Aimee Bender. Stahl bows out due to illness; actor Justin Ashforth fills in.

By 5:45 p.m., all seats have been taken. A crowd stands in the back of the room. This reading has drawn about the same number of folks who turned out for Fergie, but the vibe is more mellow. Only two photographers have shown up; one is shooting for Miramax. Sarah Simons, manager of the Addendum, leaves before the reading begins, as does Ramos, whose flu has become worse. Hill sticks around for a while, but the event seems to be running itself.

Bender reads "They Now Live in Texas," Ashforth reads "Leslie in California"; Mapother reads "A Love Song," and Field finishes with "Delivering."

No one reads "Killings," the story In the Bedroom is based on, because Field does not want to give away the ending for those who haven't seen his film.

Dubus died in 1999, but that doesn't stop hard-core autograph seekers. A dozen or so people ask Field to sign their Dubus books, which he does.

Ashforth and Mapother, a cousin of Tom Cruise, compare the almost deceptive simplicity of Dubus' prose to Hemingway's, while the most astute observation a reporter can muster is "Did you notice how many times he mentions bacon in his stories?"

At eight, the crowds have gone, though a few fans linger to talk to the actors. Normally, browsers can count on adventurous and elegant music in Book Soup. Mose Allison maybe, or Aimee Mann, but tonight, the sounds of '80s pop queens Paula Abdul and Pat Benatar fill the store. The day has been a long one; maybe the staff is a little punchy. But it's not time to go home yet.

As on every other night of the year, Book Soup's doors will not close until midnight.

Copyright, 2002, Los Angeles Times. Reprinted by permission."