To promote his new book, The King of Torts, John Grisham, the former Mississippi lawyer and state legislator, returned to his Southern roots for signings at the five independent bookstores that held them for him before he skyrocketed to international renown.
Shortly after Doubleday published the book on February 4 with a whopping 2.8 million print run, he set out on something of a homecoming tour. It opened at Square Books in Oxford, Miss.—where the resident of Charlottesville, Va., still owns a home—and continued the next day at Burke's in Memphis before swinging up to Arkansas's That Bookstore in Blytheville and returning for additional Mississippi signings at Lemuria in Jackson and Reed's Gum Tree in Tupelo.
Tour arrangements were not made through Doubleday, but by Grisham himself. A month before the publication of The King of Torts, each store received a phone call from him to set up a signing date. "John called us early in January about The King of Torts," notes Square Books manager Lyn Roberts. Shortly afterward, the store that held Grisham's first signing ever, for his debut, A Time to Kill (Wynwood Press), put on its Web site an "It's That Time Again" announcement about the much-anticipated event.
Grisham and the stores had earlier agreed on signing procedures. At each, tickets are given out by time slot and are limited to 200. He signs no more than two copies of his new book per customer and none of his previous books. He spends the rest of the day signing copies remaining from the stores' 3,000-copy orders and holds press conferences. "We ship out about 700 [signed] copies all over the U.S. after he has been here," Mary Gay Shipley, owner of That Bookstore in Blytheville, told PW.
According to Lemuria owner John Evans, these procedures have been in place ever since The Chamber's publication in 1994. "The great success of The Firm  brought lots of demands on John. But by the time his fifth book came out, it was clear that everything was aligning for him to become a major bestselling author, and I think he realized then that he had to put some controls on his fame before it got out of hand. He's very frank, and although he wanted to continue coming back to the stores down here that hosted him from the beginning, he asked us to come up with a uniform way of having appearances that would be beneficial to all of us."
One of those benefits is being known as a store that Grisham still comes to for signings. An AP story about Shipley and her store in January resulted in increased traffic on the store's Web site, which was already announcing the signing for his 15th novel. About two-thirds of the people who come to That Bookstore in Blytheville for the signings are out-of-towners, Shipley estimates. And Lemuria, which anchors Jackson's Banner Hall mini—shopping center, received national exposure from a syndicated Mississippi Educational Television program on a Grisham speaking event the store held instead of a signing when he came to the state's capital to promote 1995's The Rainmaker. The program was so widely watched that the network is following it with one done during The King of Torts event, which will include a discussion between Grisham, Nevada Barr and Greg Iles, a genre-compatible trio Evans describes as "Mississippi's three most successful commercial writers."
Arkansas also claims Grisham, since he was born and reared in Jonesboro, near Blytheville. Grisham's grandfather once owned a piano store in Blytheville that was in a building across the street from Shipley's store, and his grandson's quasi-autobiographical A Painted House was filmed last summer at other nearby small towns for a Hallmark Hall of Fame movie to be telecast in April. "Daily, people are in the store who are in the film, or their relatives are in the film, or their trucks are in the film," Shipley says. "It has been very exciting." Grisham family members are regulars at his signings at That Bookstore in Blytheville; traditionally, Shipley hosts luncheons for Grisham's mother and several aunts.
Grisham signings at Burke's are also marked with "something special," says co-owner Cheryl Mesler. "One year we spent our co-op money from Doubleday on a billboard over the store, but last year and again this year we made posters." Used as giveaways for the 200 ticketed attendees, the poster are from Nashville's venerable Hatch Show Print, which specializes in country music posters, but has also produced posters for Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan and B.B. King. In addition, each signing is photographed by Irma Carr Idell, whose clients include American Image News Service, FedEx and now Doubleday. An image of him that Grisham especially liked and sent to his publisher appears on The King of Torts's jacket. "We have a whole wall of Irma's photographs from our Grisham signings," Messler says.
As for Grisham signings at Reed's Gum Tree, manager Camille Sloan says, "He is unfailingly gracious, and his signings are like reunions of old friends since he's been here so often." As Southerners say of loyal native sons who have done well, he knows where he came from.