Compared to the standard lively chatter and packed tables of a typical afternoon, there was a hushed silence as I climbed the stairs of the popular Ann Arbor coffee shop above Literati Bookstore just before 7:00 pm. Instead of the sunlight illuminating study groups and friends working side-by-side, five empty rows of chairs faced a podium in front of a dark window. Slowly, about a dozen tentative audience members filtered in — some in pairs but many of them alone — careful to leave several empty seats between each of them. They ranged in age, some carrying heavy college backpacks and some with graying hair. It was clear this was not a sellout event, but a quiet and comforting appreciation for each other’s presence passed from person to person.

This strange crew gathered at Literati on an overcast Thursday evening to listen to author Luke Geddes speak about his new book “Heart of Junk” as part of the bookstore’s “Fiction at Literati” series. Geddes himself fit right into the shy yet distinctly eccentric atmosphere of the coffee shop. With his round glasses, brightly striped sweater and white tennis shoes, he could easily be mistaken for a college freshman. However, his genuine, steady passion for the world he created in his book was undeniable, even if a little timid.

The novel, while technically a comedic mystery involving a kidnapping and a pageant queen, centers around antique malls and extreme collectors in the middle of America. The conversation at Literati lingered on the “junker mindset” and the unique community found while haunting vintage shops. When asked by moderator and fellow novelist Michael Zadoorian about his knowledge of these subjects, Geddes spoke from personal experience; stifling a laugh, he described his awkward encounters at second-hand stores and antique malls. At one point he explained that he rarely talks to people on his research trips and instead prefers to eavesdrop on the veteran collectors or let his wife haggle with the cashiers. These comments seemed so insanely in line with his quiet and slightly offbeat demeanor it was almost comical.

Geddes’ writing style further contributed to his unconventional image. His book opens with an advertisement for a roommate on craigslist. In his characteristic understated humor, he writes: “I cannot have anybody touching or moving my stuff because it would set off a chain reaction of emotions and feelings towards you and towards my things. Hoarding is not a mental illness, it is something environmentally responsible because I don’t like to throw things away. But the Department of Public Health said my living conditions were unsafe and came in and forcibly removed my things I have been collecting for over 40 years. It traumatized me and I have been rebuilding my collection ever since.”

Another topic touched on was what Zadoorian termed the depressing nature of estate sales. Here Geddes started to get at his central argument that material objects can represent or even replace life experiences. He described the bizarre feeling of picking through an entire life compressed into a room or a house and explained how he tried to translate this idea to his book. With this thought in mind, he presented the audience with the question of what it means to take someone’s objects after they’re gone. 

While Geddes provided his nervous charm, the cast of characters in the audience brought its own entertaining personalities. Sitting alone on the side was a young man with a small collection: a stack of books, some written by the author and some by the interviewer. Whether an aspiring new writer or just a fellow connoisseur of strange objects, it was clear this guy had done his research. Prepared with his books and a pen for signing, the boy on the side chuckled in agreement when Zadoorian mentioned a specific hard-to-come-by album apparently only found in the dustiest, most secret record stores and the dreams of die-hard collectors.

In the front row sat two older women clad in wool and polka-dots, both clutching their brand-new copies of Geddes’ book. When Geddes was asked about his research on the more obscure collector’s items, such as antique glass and postcards, these two perked up. They nodded along at Geddes’ description of the mature crowds that he found at antique conventions, exchanging knowing looks and seasoned smiles. 

After the event ended with several questions and a line for Geddes’ signature, the audience members drifted down the stairs to the cash register to purchase “Heart of Junk. I left with the warm thought that for that last hour I’d been allowed take part of in such a small collection of intriguing and peculiar people.

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