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I become my own best customer

Last year I published a book about adopting my son, Alyosha, in Russia. The advent of a new book is always fraught with apprehension for the author. The questions swirl around the event like a vortex: Will it sell? Did I say anything I'll regret? What will the critics write?

As I was working with a university press, I could not count on the type of media blitz that could be put into play by a large commercial house.

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But I had a secret weapon: my family in New Jersey, who from a remove of 500 miles from my home in Maine were mustering the troops with an energy, tenacity, and unselfconscious verve that may be unique to denizens of the greater New York Metropolitan Area.

It is no secret that New Jerseyans are viewed by many as a peculiar breed. I feel free to make this observation because I was born and raised there, in the thick of it, in a place so loud and crowded that it seemed I had to shout and shoulder my way into adulthood.

No sooner had my book come out than I began to receive checks - and cash - in the mail from all over the Garden State, the bulk of it coming from the area where my family lived.

The very first letter contained a check with a Post-it note to this effect: "Hello! Your mom told me about your book, so I am sending you $25, which should be enough to cover postage." It was signed by the mayor of Bayonne.

I immediately called my mother. "Mom!" I exclaimed into the receiver. "I got a check from the mayor. What's going on?"

My mother, quivering with a sense of mission, told me she had personally contacted the mayor in the town where I had spent my teenage years.

"They should put up a plaque with your name on it," she told me.

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"Mom," I reasoned, "it's only a book."

"Yes," she agreed with alacrity. "But everyone should read it!"

The thing was, I didn't have a supply of books on hand, so my family's peddling instincts soon had me making almost daily trips to the local bookstore, buying armloads of my own book and shipping them out to New Jersey.

At one point I handed seven books to the cashier, followed by my credit card.

"Hey," she exclaimed as she looked from the card to the books, "these names are the same!"

I smiled weakly, hastened the exchange along, and left the store, absolutely mortified.

And still the checks came in. From town officials, distant relatives, boyhood chums, and people I hadn't seen or thought of in years, all at the behest of my parents and siblings.

One letter arrived with a note scribbled in broken English: "Roberto - You give book, here money. Antoinette."

Antoinette Rutigliano! When I was 10, she hurled a chunk of provolone at me for teasing her son Vinnie. Thirty-five years later, she has apparently forgiven me - at the urging of my mother, no doubt.

My dad was no slacker when it came to hawking my book. As a salesman who is almost constantly on the road, he took it upon himself to carry book announcements with him, which he distributed all up and down New Jersey.

As evidence of his salesmanship, I received "orders" from absolute strangers who worked at corporations on my father's client route. One executive wrote, "Here's a check for five books. Congratulations!"

Of course, this merited another trip to the bookstore, but this time I wore dark glasses and paid in cash, sneaking in and out like a thief in the night.

My siblings also apparently felt it their familial duty to leap into the fray, encouraging their friends and contacts to send me book orders. I drew up an image of my entire family sitting around the kitchen table in a pool of light, plotting strategy and drawing ever-widening circles on a map of New Jersey while my publisher wondered why all the book's sales were occurring in central Maine.

One day I received a note from the manager of the bookstore where I had purchased all those copies. It was a pricey thank-you card: "The books are flying off the shelves!" she wrote. "It's as if they're leaving the store on wings!"

Little did she know that I was the little bird carting most - if not all - of those books away.

In time, the great sucking sound from New Jersey died down, and I was, truth to tell, grateful for the respite. I felt that it would now be possible to see what impact the book was having in the rest of the country, if there were any copies left.

But just when I thought it safe to come out in the open again, I received a call from my mother. She had just returned from a wedding.

"Did you and Dad have a nice time?" I asked.

"Nice?" echoed my mom, as if accusing me of understatement. "It was great - I sold two books to the bride and groom!"

With my family on the job, maybe I'll get that plaque in Bayonne yet.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society