Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Lamenting the Decline of Cantos

It is rare when a business owner is as harshly, readily and publicly criticized as Catherine Propocio has been and now that she has closed Cantos Booksellers on Roanoke City Market (her plans unknown), I sense more relief than anything else.

Cantos was a beloved fixture for years when it was owned by the gentle and kindly intellectual Rob Clark and his sparkling, artistic wife Jennie Nolen. Rob had a knack for dealing with the public and he was one of these bookstore owners who gave the independent bookstore its reputation as a place to go that would welcome you, entertain you, educate you and where you'd feel at home. Catherine Propocio did not maintain that ambiance when she bought the store a few years ago. She was Rob's opposite, in fact.

You can go here and see what a lot of people thought of her and the way she ran the store, but this is not to castigate a woman who was obviously miscast in the first place as a bookstore owner and who suffered significantly because Rob was so good at it. It is more another statement that when your business is customer service, you might want to have some interest in it.

Perhaps the most evenhanded response to the former owner comes from customer Mike Kennedy, who wrote on Facebook, "I have found the owner both infuriating and charming, depending upon her mood, or mine. Yes, I have taken the vow of avoidance after what I considered shoddy treatment. At other times, we have engaged in long, interesting chats about books."

My primary experience with her came a few years ago when I had agreed to do a signing for my memoir Burning the Furniture, a book that is self-published. Bookstore owners don't like self-published books because selling them does not follow the rules that they're most comfortable with. Rob never had a problem with self-published works if they were by locals, however, and he made those writers feel welcome.

Ms. Propocio did not make me feel welcome. She did not make the signing easy--and, frankly, a book signing requires a table, chair, some books and a little change. It's good if the writer has a pen, but beyond that, there's not much to it. She made it seem a huge inconvenience and a chore of the first order, even before I showed up. She made sure I understood this was extra work for her and that she would not make much money on it. Selling books, she stressed, is not a good way to make money.

She grumbled for almost the entire two hours I was in the store selling my books. She gave me the distinct impression that not only did she not like writers, but she didn't especially care for books, either.

I had done a signing of another book at Cantos a couple of years earlier when Rob owned it and it was a delightful experience, full of bright conversation and good cheer. We sold some books; we made some friends; it was a good day.

I left Cantos after the Propocio experience thinking, "I'll never do that again." Apparently, too many people over the years left the shop feeling the same way.


  1. Eldon, I think that qualifies as a comment. Dan

  2. I was in there once after Catherine bought the place. I was reading a book on her shelf when she marched up to me and asked if I was going to buy it. I told her I didn't know at that point.

    "Well, you've been reading it long enough," she said. "It's time to make up your mind. Please put it back if you're not going to buy it."

    Now, I WAS going to buy a Philip K. Dick book that was in her window that day, and I might have bought the one I was reading, too. But her attitude was such a turnoff that instead I bought neither and never went in there again.

    I told the kids that I wanted the Philip K. Dick book for Christmas.

    "But don't buy it at Cantos," I added.