When my alarm went off at 6:15 a.m. on the last day of the conference, I was sorry that I’d agreed to cover the Closing General Session that started at 8. But when Steve Lopez finished talking shortly after 9, I was sorry that his presentation was over. Wow.
Like many others, I know Steve Lopez’ name as that of a newspaper columnist. Now people are getting familiar with him as author of The Soloist, a book that was recently turned into a movie. It’s the true story of how Lopez stumbled across a homeless man who was playing a grungy violin on the streets of Los Angles – and playing it amazingly well, especially considering it only had 2 of its 4 strings. Intrigued and thinking this might make a good column for the LA Times, he approached the man, which completely startled him. Thus began an uneasy, unconventional relationship that has continued for more than 4 years since. Those who have read the book or seen the movie know the rest of the story. Those who haven’t are really missing something.
Lopez had a easy-going speaking style. He related to librarians by saying that he got married inside the Philadelphia Free Library. He also complimented Philly’s library for its One Book, One City treatment of The Soloist, saying the system organized 120 events around it, some of which he appeared at. He urged others who wanted to know how to do great One Book programs to look to the Free Library as an example.
He also revealed that his son had graduated with an M.L.S. a year ago and was still looking for a job. He threatened the audience that he wouldn’t leave until one member agreed to retire or leave the profession so his son could finally get a job and get off his father’s payroll. After these laugh lines, Lopez got down to the business of telling a very serious story.
Ever the journalist, Lopez explained that it was often hard finding fodder for columns on a continuous basis. He likened being a columnist to “having a pet monster that’s always hungry.” Hence, when he first saw the downtrodden violinist playing on the street, he wanted to find an angle to write about. He soon realized that this man, Nathaniel Anthony Ayers, had a lot inside of him but that he wouldn’t let it out easily (if ever) because he was mentally ill. But he was also an outstanding, classically trained musician. The intrigue, as well as the hunger for a great story, kept Lopez coming back to help Ayers “get back on track,” as Ayers called it. It took a couple of months before the writer had learned and substantiated enough to get his first column out of the story, but people connected with it immediately. Lopez went on to write more over the years and to use Ayers’ plight to bring the problems of the homeless and the mentally ill to light, asking people at City Hall, “How can you let this go on just a few blocks away?”
When Lopez finished telling the story that had awed the audience, he took a few questions before making his way into the lobby area to sign copies of The Soloist. His publisher, Penguin, generously gave everyone the copies for free, and it must’ve taken Lopez well over an hour to finish signing for the hundreds of people in the queue. What a perfect example of using a powerful human story to reach people and to make them want to read. I wonder what stories lurk near your own libraries that you could tell to your public?
~Kathy Dempsey, editor, Marketing Library Services newsletter