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California and the West

A Little Help From Her Famous Friends

Crisis: Novelist Isabel Allende is among those who run an independent Marin County bookstore while the owner recuperates from a heart attack.


CORTE MADERA, Calif. — Six hours before her heart attack, Elaine Petrocelli, celebrated independent bookstore owner in literate and leafy Marin County, had her empire firmly in hand.

Books arriving, books selling, workshops, readings, signings--all moving smoothly along.

Then came the tight chest, the labored breathing and the back pain. The call to 911. The ambulance ride with what Petrocelli calls "six of the most gorgeous paramedics you have ever seen." And the diagnosis.

Heart attack.

The crisis proved to Petrocelli, a self-proclaimed micro-manager, that she couldn't do it all alone. She needed help from family, staff and friends. And such friends.

Renowned novelist Isabel Allende gave talks, shelved books and poured lattes at Book Passage, Petrocelli's store. Political columnist Molly Ivins called with loving messages of hope. Novelist Anne Lamott sent a card. Doctor and author Andrew Weil passed along names of holistic physicians.

"It was nothing short of amazing," Petrocelli said five months later, sitting in the store's cafe. "The staff was incredible and my friends were incredible. I was truly blessed."

The blessings began when Allende, author of "The House of the Spirits" and a longtime friend, visited Petrocelli at the hospital the first night.

"She told me not to worry about the store; she said she would help take care of things for me," Petrocelli said. "She certainly did."

Allende took over running a travel writing conference. She gave community talks. She greeted the UPS driver.

Some customers recognized the famed author, others had no idea.

"One time while I was visiting the store I heard someone ask her, 'Has anyone ever told you that you look a lot like Isabel Allende?' " Petrocelli said. "Isabel just said, 'I hear that a lot' and kept working."

Bente Miro, who attended the travel writing conference, said she was amazed when Allende took her coffee order.

"I was in line to get a cup of coffee during the break and was watching her, side by side with the cafe workers," said Miro, an artist and author from Mill Valley. "She was making lattes, she was waiting on tables, she was clearing dirty dishes, and I realized that very few of the people there realized who she was."

Some smiled and thanked the slim woman with the soft, dark eyes. Others ignored her.

"There were people who treated her like a servant, but it didn't matter; she just did her job," Miro said. "When I got my cup I said something like, 'You're really part of the team,' and she just smiled."

Allende fails to see anything remarkable in the way she helps her friend.

"It's what you do when someone needs you," she said. "What is the news value in that?"

But instead of drudgery, Allende found solace. For the first time since fleeing her native Chile after the 1973 coup d'etat, Allende said, she felt herself part of a community.

"My work is a very solitary job, something you do quietly in a room all by yourself and for many months; it takes years to write a novel," Allende said. "It is a gift Elaine has given me, this chance to insert myself into a group and feel that I belong, and I am very grateful for it."

Such bonds between authors and independent bookstores are cherished by both sides.

"It's something you see in a lot of independent bookstores, particularly the neighborhood stores that supported the authors when they were unknowns," said Pat Holt, author of Holt Uncensored, an Internet column about the book industry.

"There's a long-running family sort of feeling for independent booksellers who make the long-term investment in their communities, and it's a joyful, wonderful thing," Holt said.

When bookselling giant Borders Books and Records revealed plans to move in near the Capitola Book Cafe, an independent bookstore in the Santa Cruz area, iconic poet Adrienne Rich raised the first alarm.

"To have someone like Adrienne take up our cause made us feel like bit players in history," said Gwen Marcum, the Capitola Book Cafe's owner. "We become part of people's lives, and so we find ourselves fortunate enough to have many devoted friends in the community."

When Borders set its sights on Santa Cruz, home of the independent Bookshop Santa Cruz, award-winning writer James D. Houston, coauthor of "Farewell to Manzanar," took up the local bookstore's cause.

All of which is a balm to Petrocelli's heart.

"Before my heart attack I thought I had to do everything--and I mean everything--or it wouldn't be right," she said. But as friends, authors, customers and staff pitched in, Petrocelli relaxed. When she saw the store running as smoothly as ever, she relaxed even more.

"Now I've been given this great luxury of time; instead of reading a book at a breakneck speed, I can read a sentence twice now if I want to," Petrocelli said. She shook her head and laughed.

"Having a heart attack teaches you things you wish you could have learned in a different way; this has all been much too interesting," she said. "But if you pay attention, you can learn a lot."

Such as who your friends are.

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