Chicago radio personality Bonnie DeShong stands at the front of a tour bus and speaks in a loud voice: "We gonna go to Wal-Mart! We gonna kick butt! We gonna sell books! Y’all excited?" A cheer erupts from the passengers and we’re on our way.
It’s day one of the Soul Expressions bus tour, a four-day book publicity event organized by Levy Home Entertainment. Nineteen African-American authors will visit 12 Wal-Mart stores between Indianapolis and Chicago. They’ll sign their works, meet readers and attempt to sell some 6,000 books.
First stop: Wal-Mart Store #3529 - Lawrence, Indiana - 10 a.m.. Pam Nelson, Levy’s director of advertising and sales promotions, sends the authors off the bus and toward the massive superstore with the mantra "A signed book is a sold book." And she’s right; a crowd has already gathered inside the store, eager to shake hands with their favorite authors and have them autograph their books. At a U-shaped formation of tables, situated between the clothing department and the "portrait studio," the 19 authors charm customers. Most of the customers are women, though one husband and wife leave the area with their shopping cart piled high with paperbacks and the free tote bag Levy throws in--which all the authors have signed, too. The husband says these signed books make great gifts for his wife’s sisters.
Back on the bus, the women--and one lucky man, Keysha’s Drama author Earl Sewell--chat about where they’re from. Some are reading each other’s books, though one is heavily engrossed in HP7. The bus rolls through the August heat, past housing developments and churches. We stop for lunch at Tossed, and the waitress brings out complimentary desserts for three authors whose books she loves.
Second stop: Wal-Mart Store #1557 - Fishers, Indiana - 2 p.m.. There are fewer customers at the book signing area of this store, but that doesn’t deter the authors. They’re up out of their seats, walking over to customers and introducing themselves. Of course, they want to sell their own books. But for Weapons of Mass Seduction author Lori Bryant-Woolridge, it’s more than an individual effort: "It’s a great opportunity, not just for us, but for the entire classification of African-American literature. And it’s fun." Some of the authors know each other, but many are meeting for the first time.
Third stop: Wal-Mart Store #1728 - Anderson, Indiana - 4:15 p.m.. This stop is supposed to be a "stock signing," so there are no chairs set up for the authors to meet and greet patrons. But a crowd has gathered nonetheless. It’s a little chaotic, as a large group gathers around the one small table piled with books, but no one seems to mind. We leave the store after a half hour, and step into the sweltering air outside. Nappily Married author Trisha R. Thomas isn’t dogged by the heat or the day’s grueling pace: "It’s such an honor to be on the tour. I’m so glad St. Martin’s sent me."
Fourth stop: Wal-Mart Store #1518 - Indianapolis, Indiana - 6 p.m.. We’re not even inside the store, and a customer rushes up to author Beverly Jenkins, clutching a battered paperback edition of a Jenkins book that’s at least 10 years old, Indigo. She's a diehard fan and had to be the first person at this store to meet longtime author Jenkins. We’re a half hour early to this store, but the book signing area is already crowded. A local radio station has set up speakers next to the book displays, and the mood is festive and relaxed as the authors and customers mingle. In an hour, many authors sell out their inventory--which is at least 40 books each.
Around 7:15 p.m., the authors and readers hug goodbye. One woman tells In Bed With Her Boss author Brenda Jackson, "Y’all keep writin’!" and Jackson answers with, "Y’all keep buyin’!" After a group shot, all 19 authors stumble onto the bus, exhausted. Bonnie, who has taken on the role of cheerleader/bus mom, assumes her position at the front of the bus. "Soul Expressions! One down, a whole lot more to go!"