You’ve walked by them a hundred times without a second thought, trying to avoid eye contact, trying to avert their gaze. You’ve ducked behind the hardbacks or pretended to immerse yourself in the latest issue of Allergy Prevention so you wouldn’t have to acknowledge them. And still they refuse to go away—the singer-songwriters who sit stashed on a stool every weeknight in a corner of a bookstore cafe, like ficus plants with capos. What you didn’t know, though, is that all the while you were looking away—or clapping politely to cover your escape—they were watching you:
“As Johnny Q began playing, he saw an all-too-familiar cast of characters trickling through the front door of the bookstore. Soon there would be a little girl in pigtails about five years old dancing in the front, smiling and running back to her mom who sat nearby, reading a copy of Redbook and generally ignoring both the child and the music…. Behind them, there would be a table or two of college kids, reading books and magazines they didn’t want to buy, talking among themselves, sometimes louder than the performer, oblivious to where one song ended and another began. Despite their propensity to save money by not buying books or records, they always seemed to be sipping expensive triple lattes and double espressos….”
The hits just keep coming in the title story of Bothering the Coffee Drinkers, the first collection of pieces by Nashville singer-songwriter Doug Hoekstra. In the story, a performer much like Hoekstra—a guy with songs on NPR, good reviews from Billboard and a track on an indie-film soundtrack (“It starred that chick who used to date that guy from the White Stripes”)—finds himself an audio accessory in a North Carolina Borders, playing to a tone-deaf crowd and struggling to be heard above the espresso machine.
Between sets, the story’s protagonist thumbs through the local alt-weekly (Tobacco Scene, ouch) and glumly notices the full-page ad for a stud-muffin rival named Silas Henderson near the chintzy blurb for his own music. Stone-faced crowds, baleful writer’s nights, twinges of professional envy and the pressing need to hawk one’s wares—it’s all Nashville. Tell Hoekstra, as someone accustomed to being on the other side of the mic, that the story is pretty painful, and he laughs.
“I’ll take that as a compliment,” Hoekstra said last week, during a break from his day gig at a cancer foundation. “It was as completely honest as I could make it.” Though Hoekstra’s warmed that bookstore-cafe stool many times, it was watching another performer play to turned backs and indifferent shoppers at Davis-Kidd that set the story in motion. “Some guy was playing in the corner by the magazines,” he explains, in a murmur very much like his soft, burry singing voice, “and I immediately felt sympathy. I knew all those [audience] types from personal experience.”
Personal experience shapes many of the stories in Bothering the Coffee Drinkers, Hoekstra’s first book after eight well-reviewed albums and several pieces published in literary journals. The Pushcart Prize-nominated first story, “The Blarney Stone (a true story),” turns a brief tour stop in Ireland into a wistful consideration of fatherhood, wishes and the ceaseless flowing of time.
But Hoekstra is not a confessional writer: his stories are more peeks into the lives of imagined others, such as the lead character in “The Town Crier” who obsesses over the ranting street prophet he sees from his window. Like Hoekstra, though, many of the characters are musicians doing sterling work unnoticed by their own hometown—even when, in “That’s How Strong My Love Is,” they’re the mighty session players of Stax Records, backing Otis Redding on a tune that only two time travelers know will be legendary.
Hoekstra will bother the coffee drinkers again 1 p.m. Sunday at the new Sylvan Park location of Rhino Books, 4403 Murphy Road. (The bookstore is run by veteran local songsmith Fred Koller, so it should be a shade more sympathetic.) It will be a combination book signing and live performance. “If you ever see the person behind the bookstore table with nobody there, that’s worse than being the person at the bookstore café playing to empty tables,” Hoekstra says. “At least you’ve got a guitar in your hands.” But he doesn’t anticipate that trouble at this gig. His mission is clear.
“I’ve got to crush the Silas Hendersons of the world,” Hoekstra says, laughing as he refers to the more-successful rival whose phantom presence dogs the circuit rider in “Bothering the Coffee Drinkers.” “I’m gonna be Silas Henderson.”