Oprah of the Piney Woods
See video of Kathy Patrick discussing the annual Girlfriend Weekend.
Michael "Pollywog" Sager has come to Beauty and Book in Jefferson, Texas, to see Kathy Patrick. President of the 42 Taillights Motorcycle Club in nearby New London, Sager is tall, bald, with a long gray beard, and has iron cross tattoos on both forearms.
He holds a binder filled with pink printer pages, a diary of his daughter's first year of life. Another set of these pages is at a vanity press called iUniverse, being proofread at Sager's expense. His daughter is now 15 months old, and Sager is already working on the second installment of the story of her life.
Sager has driven 90 minutes to meet with Patrick — in her beauty salon — in the hopes that she can help make his book a hit.
"I've been wanting to get a chance to see you and your place for quite a while now," he tells her. "I'm up here just for you."
He has heard that Patrick's book club, The Pulpwood Queens, has helped out-of-print authors go into second rounds of publishing, get options for films, become bestsellers. He has heard that she's a kingmaker. She is gentle with him, but doesn't coddle, revealing her hairdresser's gift of easy conversation. She gives him some advice on self-publishing and shares her own experiences of writing her first book, but doesn't promise him anything other than a cursory read of his work — because Patrick is a busy woman.
Founded 11 years ago, The Pulpwood Queens now has more members than the population of Jefferson — 515 chapters spread all across the world. Six official Pulpwood Queen books have been optioned for movies after their selection by the club.
In 2002, when Patrick announced Dive from Clausen's Pier as the inaugural Good Morning America Read This! pick, saying it was the perfect plot for a book club discussion, the novel shot to No. 9 on the New York Times Bestseller List and No. 1 on Amazon, selling out by 6 p.m. that day. She's spoken at dozens of book festivals and has been approached about a reality TV show. She's working on her own second book, and possibly a play.
Photographs of her with famous authors line one-half of the old mechanic shop in which she now runs "the only combination hair salon/book store in the world." Model Paulina Porizkova poses in a red sparkly tiara with Patrick. There's a picture of Patrick riding horseback with John Berendt, author of Midnight In The Garden of Good and Evil. The bathroom door, painted black, is covered in silver signatures from all the authors, famous and not-yet-famous, who have come by the shop.
In one corner is an endcap stocked solely with signed copies of My Reading Life by Pat Conroy, Patrick's favorite living author, who also wrote The Prince of Tides. According to Patrick, Conroy was inspired to write his latest book after a visit to Jefferson a few years ago, where he found fellowship in the bookloving community of Pulpwood Queens (and Timber Guys, as male members are called).
Patrick is also in the process of recording 12 webisodes of a talk show with Random House where she interviews authors such as Conroy and Fannie Flagg. It's this that makes the Pulpwood Queens book club unique — unprecedented access to authors for readers either via Skype at Pulpwood Queen meetings, or during the annual Girlfriend Weekend, a massive gathering of Pulpwood Queens from across the country that culminates in a party called the Great Big Ball of Hair.
So, whatever his talents as an author, motorcycle club president Sager knew exactly what he was doing when he rode over to see Patrick, a small-town woman with big clout in the literary world.
Kathy Patrick's resume is one of starts and stops, disappointments and triumphs both large and small — all of which have brought her to this corner of Texas.
"I've had to reinvent myself so many times," she says. One of her favorite quotes is "So when life hands you a lemon, forget lemonade, make margaritas."
Whatever stereotype you have of a small-town woman who runs a beauty salon and book club, Patrick wants to break it.
Though she just turned 55, she looks closer to 35, and much younger than the composite image on the cover of her first book, a memoir called The Pulpwood Queen's Tiara-Wearing, Book-Sharing Guide to Life. She has cropped dark hair and one very hip feather hair extension, and her eyes are powdered in a shade like a peacock's feathers. She admits to being sick of pink, but it's a Pulpwood Queen theme so she tolerates it. In person, she's a far cry from the girl she writes about in the early pages of her book.
Growing up as a shy tomboy in a small Kansas town whose family moved frequently between financial and social strata, she found solace in books such as To Kill A Mockingbird and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. School did not come easy to her, until her fourth-grade teacher, who saw she was struggling, recommended the book Honestly Katie John. It was the first time Patrick realized reading could be enjoyable, and later influenced her focus on literacy education.
Every conversation with her is littered with references to literary characters, from Scarlett O'Hara to Tarzan. She is a fast talker, who quickly steers the conversation in the exact direction she wants it to go. "Books saved me," she says.
The oldest of three daughters, Patrick dropped out during her sophomore year of college after her parents told her they could no longer afford her tuition. She worked in a bowling alley to raise money to enroll in beauty school instead and did hair to help pay the bills. She started working for Elizabeth Arden and in the mid '80s she moved to California to help run the company's Red Door Spas.
"Everybody thinks they want to move to California, but let me tell you, living there is hard. Willie Morris is an author who said, 'You work half your life trying to get away from the little town you grew up in, and the second half of your life you spend trying to get back to it.'"
She found her way to Texas in 1987, to visit her sister, who had bought a Victorian house in Jefferson, the Bed and Breakfast Capitol of Texas. Two weeks later, Kathy had a Victorian home of her own. It was also in Jefferson where she met her husband, Jay, a seventh-generation Texan.
"This is just like the town I grew up in, except that the town I lived in (in Kansas) is now a ghost town, and this is a very vital little city. So I came here and bought a historic home and turned it into a B&B."
Once her kids were born, housing vacationers became problematic "because you can't keep kids quiet. But I had to do something," she says. "I had to have a job." Her thoughts turned back to her fourth-grade teacher.
"When I had my first child, it changed everything. I didn't want to do anything unless it was important," she says. "I didn't think doing hair was important at the time. I said, 'I can sell books. Reading is important.'"
Patrick went to Barron's, an independent bookstore in Longview, to apply for a position. It became the first of many instances where her enthusiasm for reading helped her get a foot in the door. "They said they weren't hiring, but the owner called me back and I had this amazing interview with him and I went to work the next day," she says. "I worked there for seven years."
She read everything she could get her hands on, and within a month she'd become the children's book buyer. "Then I started doing the events and the newsletter. You know, I just get going on stuff and I go crazy," she says. That led to a position as a publisher's rep with Southern Territories Associated, pitching books from publishers such as Algonquin Press and Rand McNally to small bookstores in Oklahoma, North Texas, Arkansas and Louisiana.
"I first met Kathy when she was a bookseller and I was in marketing at Doubleday," said Marly Rusoff, literary agent to both Patrick and Pat Conroy. "I loved her passion for reading and we shared that passion over the phone, the first time in talking about To Kill A Mockingbird. Kathy's enthusiasm has always been infectious and she won over many authors."
Patrick loved that job because she could both travel and work from home, but after fewer than three years, the company had to downsize. Box stores like Barnes & Noble and Borders were killing all the locally-owned bookstores in mid-size Texas towns like Tyler and Lufkin. Even Barron's, the shop where Patrick worked as a children's buyer, had stopped selling books to become more of a gift shop.
"It was October 4, 1999. I'll never forget it because I had just bought a new car, I had two little children, and it was right before Christmas. And you know, there's nothing worse than being in your 40s and having your whole world just kind of taken away," she says.
"I did some fast talking and I talked him into keeping me until December, so I'd get at least two more paychecks. In the meantime, I convinced my husband to convert his office into a beauty shop."
Patrick sunk into a deep depression. When she lamented having to leave the book industry, it was her sister who suggested: "Why don't you do both." So at the beginning of 2000, Beauty and the Book was born.
In some ways, Jefferson, in far Northeast Texas, is the perfect town for a quirky little shop like Beauty and the Book. Nearly every other home and commercial building on the main drag has a historical marker out front, including The Grove, a 19th century house called the most haunted place in Texas. And residents are happy to recount all kinds of legendary stories.
The town has close ties with New Orleans, and for years it was the farthest northern sea port in the state, carrying river boat passengers along Caddo Lake between the Red and Mississippi rivers. Railroad magnate Jay Gould allegedly lobbied the town in the mid 1800s to build a station there, but the people of Jefferson, citing their steady business from the river traffic, told him to get lost. This led to Gould (supposedly) scrawling "Death to Jefferson" in the registry of his hotel, Excelsior House, and fleeing the state. Years later, in 1873, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers blew up the Great Red River Raft, a centuries-old natural dam, effectively drying up riverboat travel to Jefferson for good.
On this Friday before a holiday weekend, Sager is not the only person who has made a long trip to Beauty and The Book to see Patrick.
On any given day, she is visited by tourists, book-loving pilgrims, local authors and sometimes, the media. Near the two sinks where she washes clients' hair, three full Route 44 drinks from Sonic Drive-In wait to be consumed.
"Everybody brings me drinks when they come visit me," she says, as she offers an untouched cup to her client, one of two sisters who have made an 18-hour, 1,000 mile drive from Ohio to check out their father's East Texas property and visit Beauty and the Book.
"Is this the farthest you've ever gone for a haircut?" Patrick asks the woman, who sheepishly answers "yes."
Patrick's next appointment is with a woman named Jenny Wingfield, an author from Jefferson. As if on cue, Wingfield is carrying a collapsable Bud Light cooler. "I brought you a beverage. This is better that any margarita. It's goat's milk."
Wingfield wrote a book called The Homecoming of Samuel Lake, about a preacher without a church and his young family who move into a house that also happens to be connected to a honky tonk. "It's a typical East Texas tale," Patrick jokes.
The women talk about Steel Magnolias, which Patrick once starred in a production of, and about the possibility that her memoir could become a musical.
They talk about other books that have become movies. Patrick tries to persuade her customers to come back to Jefferson in January for the 12th annual Girlfriend Weekend, where John Berendt will be the keynote speaker.
"We don't gossip in my shop," she says. "We talk books, we talk film, we talk culture. I'll be 55 this month. I don't have time for negativity."
But Patrick's literary enthusiasms were initially rebuffed by the community.
Not long after she first moved to Jefferson, Patrick was invited to a local woman's house for a book club meeting. "I didn't have a lot of outside friends," she says. "I was so excited." During the gathering, Patrick thanked the 12 women for letting her join their group. Afterwards, the hostess pulled her aside and says. "We didn't invite you to be in our book club. We invited you to be a guest."
"I hate exclusivity," she says, citing her own parents' class struggles in Kansas. "My book club is not like that."
After Beauty and the Book opened and she had a place for fellow readers to gather, she decided to start her own book club — one that would focus on fun, freedom and acceptance. She picked the name Pulpwood Queens as an homage to the East Texas logging and paper industry, but also to empower women to pamper themselves — to allow themselves the luxury of leisure reading, whether what they read is high brow or low.
The first meeting of the Pulpwood Queens was March of 2000. The first book they discussed was The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood. "Which I helped get published," Patrick says.
While still working at Barron's, Patrick had read a galley of author Rebecca Well's first novel, Little Altars Everywhere.
"When the book came out, I started selling it like crazy and it went out of print. I called the publisher and said, 'Don't let this book go out of print because this is a winner' and they said, 'Well, we feel like it's a little regional book.' I said, 'So was Harper Lee's To Kill A Mockingbird.'"
"Though in fact she was bound to become famous no matter what I said or did," Patrick wrote in her memoir. Harper Collins ended up buying the rights to that book and advanced Wells for her second work, which became the first in the Ya-Ya Sisterhood series.
Six women came to that first meeting. At first, Patrick wasn't sure the book club would last.
"I honestly didn't think they were going to show up at the next meeting because I said we were gonna wear tiaras. This one woman timidly held up her hand and said, 'I cannot wear a tiara.' I said, 'We're going to empower ourselves because we're beauty-within queens. Have some more wine,' and I just started pouring wine like crazy."
"The next meeting, 7 o'clock rolled around, I had the shop all ready to go. I went to the blinds and I saw what looked like a funeral procession coming down the road. They all started pulling in the driveway, and 36 women showed up, wearing tiaras and all carrying casseroles. And they all tried to cram into my shop. I said, 'Okay. You guys might as well get to know me. I'm allergic to housework, but we're going upstairs.'"
During this time, the Oprah Book Club was at the height of its popularity. Just a year after the Pulpwood Queens' first meeting, Harper Collins called Patrick and asked if Oprah's producers could film a short segment at Beauty and the Book.
"I told all my book club members and we kind of doubled really quick then," she said. "Everybody wanted to be in our book club if the Oprah people were coming, and so 225 people showed up at my house for this event."
By then, everyone was jumping on the television book club bandwagon. More offers started rolling in. In 2002, Good Morning America asked her to film a segment where she recommended a book called The Absence of Nectar by Texas author Kathy Hepinstall, a frequent Pulpwood Queen staple.
"I announced it and it went out of print. Fifteen thousand copies just went shwoop!"
"Kathy's what we call 'an industry big mouth,'" said Avideh Bashirrad, director of marketing at Random House. "Kathy's a great advocate for our books, especially those that appeal to book clubs. She's very active in promoting books and has taken up the literacy cause in a big way."
The response was so good that GMA producers decided to make the Pulpwood Queens part of their regular Read This! segment. Patrick and friends would recommend books to other book clubs across the country. In the first episode, the Pulpwood Queens were paired up with a book club in Bernardsville, New Jersey, to recommend Ann Packer's book The Dive From Clausen's Pier, which has now sold over a million copies.
"(The book) was recommended to me by my mentor bookseller, Mary Gay Shipley at That Bookstore in Blytheville, Arkansas. Since I don't have any reps calling on me, I rely on my friends to tell me what books are good. GMA, they really wanted me to pick from one of their books but I stuck to my guns. My book club, we're not serious about much, but we are serious about our books. Part of my credibility is the books we pick."
"It was so funny because they filmed it here live. Right before we went on the air that dang cameraman goes, 'You know 5 million people will be watching.'"
"I don't have big hair. But they wanted us to have big hair. So I said okay. Super Texan, big hair, beauty queen, so we glammed it up. The first thing that happened was the Bernardsville girl turned to Charlie Gibson — he asked, 'What do you think of Kathy's selection' — and she said, 'I dunno... Big hair, hairdresser, Southern...' Like, 'What would you know?'"
"God bless Charlie Gibson because he said, 'I'm gonna tell you something,' to that girl. He was talking right into the camera. 'I've read that book, and Kathy picked a very good read that will be perfect for a book club.'"
And the author of that book, Ann Packer, is forever grateful. "The Pulpwood Queens' selection of The Dive from Clausen's Pier propelled the book onto bestseller lists, with an extra boost coming from the fact that it was Good Morning America's first book club pick," Packer said. "The result for me was a wider readership than I ever could have imagined."
After that appearance, the club exploded, as Patrick was inundated with calls asking how one could become a member.
"I think every Southern woman e-mailed me and said, 'How dare they slam us like we don't know how to read just because you girls are from a little town in Texas?' Besides doing the book club, we decided, hey, we're also changing people's opinions on what a book club is and who is a reader. I mean why couldn't a Southern hairdresser be a reader? And there's nothing wrong with reading romance novels at the same time, too, as long as we're being entertained, enlightened and educated. What's wrong with that?"
Pulpwood Queens now has chapters as far away as Scotland, New Zealand, Japan and Thailand, some founded by Texas members who have moved away, and some founded by readers who've never even been to the States.
Diane Blanco, who runs the Web site LipstickDigest.com, became a Pulpwood Queen last year, after her friend Twila Ilgen read and recommended Patrick's memoir. Together, Ilgen and Blanco founded The Pulpwood Queens of Lake Houston, which in one year has grown to 50 members.
"We didn't want the most serious book club where people were chastised for not reading the book," Blanco said. "When I realized she lived in Jefferson I said, 'We have to go meet this woman.'"
"Besides us changing stereotypes is it's also giving us women kind of a voice, and a community."
Part of that community includes access to the authors whose works the Pulpwood Queens love. Even in the early days of the club, Patrick was never shy about calling an author up and asking him or her to come to the shop for a reading.
In her memoir, Patrick writes about the time author Prill Boyle visited Jefferson and the two made a trip across the Louisiana border for to-go Mudslides from a drive-thru shack in the woods. In one episode of her Web series, Patrick interviews author Janelle Brown while cutting and styling her hair.
"She cleverly invited Cassandra King to come to her store to sign copies of her first novel, Making Waves in Zion, which is set in a small southern town, largely in a beauty parlor," said Rusoff. "I think she wooed her with promises of a new hairdo and makeover."
At the end of Beauty and the Book's first year, Patrick had an idea to hold a reunion for all the authors. This became the first Girlfriend Weekend, complete with the Great Big Ball of Hair banquet where the authors serve as waiters.
Girlfriend Weekend No. 12 will take place in Jefferson January 12-15, 2011. Diane Blanco and 18 of her Lake Houston book club members are already signed up.
"We would not miss it for the world," Blanco says. "When you see all these authors, they just flock around her because she helped so many of them get started. She is so generous with making connections and giving people encouragement, not just to read, but also to write."
"You get to meet the authors up close and personal," Patrick says. "That's what makes my book club different. We have so much fun and then we have this crazy convention every year that is unlike any book festival in the country. We make entertainment. We read, we have parties, we dress up, we play."
By 2013, the Girlfriend Weekend will probably outgrow the confines of the Jefferson Convention Center, and Patrick's not sure where to go from there.
At times she is humble. Other times, her ambition seems boundless, as she talks about the various projects she wants to work on, and the ones she's already tackling, from her second book to coordinating the youth group at her church, not to mention her online presence. Patrick runs an active Pulpwood Queens Twitter account, Facebook pages and several blogs dedicated to both books and her own adventures. And then there's the Web series, where she's interviewed everyone from Lisa See to Yann Martel.
"When she told me she would love to host a book-related talk show it made sense for us to collaborate," Bashirrad said. "Random House was already investing in producing video trailers and author interviews for key books. So it wasn't a reach to invite Kathy into the process and launch a Web series dedicated to the books we would have been pitching anyway to her book club. All of this dovetailed nicely with the increased demand for digital content — we heard from readers that after reading our books they'd surf the Internet looking for more information about the subject and the author."
"I work 24-7," Patrick said. "I think I am wired a little bit different than most. I never dreamed this would ever happen. But that's what happened."
Later this year, she's going to England with one of the chapters of the Pulpwood Queens. She's already done one Queens cruise.
"My goal before I die is that this keeps on going. You know how Juliette Gordon Low started the Girl Scouts program? This is not just for my generation. This is for many generations, and I'm hoping my daughters and my friends' daughters will all embrace this," she says.
She walks around the shop, overflowing with bric-a-brac, pointing out various mementos of previous Pulpwood Queen gatherings.
"When I'm gone I want this to be what remains of me, exactly like this. I want this to become a museum like the Eudora Welty House. I want people to say 'This is her shop, these are her books. Look, there's still a lock of hair on the ground.'"
In an earlier version of this story, we misspelled the name of 42 Taillights Motorcycle Club President and author Michael Sager.
The Houston Press regrets the error.
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