Sunday, August 29, 2010


My friend Joe Drabyak died this weekend.

For those of you who never had the honor of knowing him, Joe sold books. Of course, that’s pretty much like saying Michelangelo painted ceilings.

Joe was a bookseller with an international reputation. He worked at the Chester County Book and Music Company and was the President of NAIBA — the New Atlantic Independent Booksellers Association — where he was a driving force dedicated to the promotion, professionalism, and preservation of indie bookstores.

I met Joe at the Winter Institute in Portland, Oregon in January 2007. First thing he said was “I know who you are, your sales guy gave me The Rabbit Factory in manuscript, and I’m handselling the hell out of it.”

I found out later that I wasn’t the first newbie author to get that kind of a reception. Joe didn’t spend a lot of time promoting the careers of writers who were already selling books by the carload at Wal-Mart. He loved to discover new authors, and then pass them along to his customers.

He also loved being turned into a fictional character. When I met him he was already in a number of books, and I was happy to use his name in Flipping Out. He said there were no restrictions, so I made him Jo Drabyak, put him in a flower print dress and then put a bullet through his head.

He loved it so much that when I did a book signing at his store Joe showed up in drag as Jo.

Four months ago Joe got the bad news. Shortly before his sixtieth birthday he was diagnosed with inoperable renal cancer. He tackled it with the same enthusiasm as he had for anything in life, and his email updates on his chemo were filled with optimism and good humor.

But a month ago it became clear that the chemo had failed. Joe was out of options — except for a few extraordinary measures that might prolong his days, but most likely leave him clinging to life, but totally debilitated.

He decided against them and opted for as much quality of life as he could get. “I want to go out as Joe,” he told me.

Two days ago he did, displaying his characteristic humility, dignity, and grace to the very end.

He leaves behind his mother, his sister, his fiercely devoted wife Reggie, hundreds of grateful authors, thousands of loyal customers, countless friends and colleagues, and a lifelong legacy of commitment and contributions to the retail book industry.

One final word: Joe always hoped that fifty years from now scholars would discover his name in dozens, even hundreds, of books. “I’d like to be the South Park Kenny of popular fiction,” he said. “Killed over and over again, and always resurfacing.”

So if there are any authors reading this, consider using the name Joe Drabyak in your next book. And if you want to kill him, that would be fine with him. Because what you’ll really be doing is helping keep Joe alive.