Joe Drabyak died on Friday. Long live Joe Drabyak.
I'm having a hard time getting my head around this. I sat next to Joe at a dinner in April. We compared notes on the appetizer. Everyone said he looked a little skinny but he brushed it off. That was only four months ago.
Forgive the maudlin bits for a moment. I can hear exactly how Joe said the phrase "Noir Bar." I can hear the way he would start a sentence hesitantly, as though it was just coming to him, and then deliver an idea so fluid and articulate it was clear he'd either just rehearsed the whole thing in his head, or he'd known exactly what he thought for a long time.
He presided over the meetings of the NAIBA board in a manner that was truly presidential: that is, he listened to everybody else. He was the voice of reason when things got heated. He wasn't afraid of new ideas, but he was a great respecter of everyone's concerns.
One of the ideas he supported was Emerging Leaders. He was a natural mentor to me and a lot of younger booksellers (as others have expressed), so the idea of providing a network for their education and support must have made sense to him. But that didn't stop him from teasing us about it. He wouldn't stop referring to himself and other over-40 booksellers as "Declining Leaders," despite my embarrassed protests.
What I'm sure he knew, despite his characteristic jokiness, was that that's not how we thought of him. He was an Established Leader. He was what we aspired to. He wasn't a store owner, he was a masterful professional bookseller, embodying everything we hoped to become.
He always joked, though. I think he joked most when things were serious. His emails after his diagnosis had us cracking up through our tears. There were a lot of groaners -- bad puns and silly costumes. That was part of the style. It must have been what made him such a good handseller on the bookstore floor -- he was like an old vaudevillian, making himself look goofy and winning everyone over.
I want him to be the Quizmaster for literary trivia again. I want him to be able to read all the book he ran out of time for. I want to ask him about the book that changed his life, about why he became a bookseller, about what he thought about on his solitary smoke breaks, about why he wasn't afraid. I didn't even know him that well.
I know what he wanted, though. He wanted to be Joe. And he is.
Someone who lives a life in books can hardly deny that some characters, some creators, live a long time after their deaths. Joe Drabyak put too much of his exuberant life in too many places for him to disappear. He helped create a new generation of booksellers. He taught us ideas and practices that will take on lives of their own. Not to mention his name lives on attached to characters in more than half a dozen mystery novels. I can imagine him twinkling about that, another great joke.
Hey, Joe. We miss you already. I hope we can live up to what you offered us.
Long live Joe.
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