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Volvo Owners on a Literary Tour de Force

Dealer Invites Pulitzer-Winning Author to Reading in Falls Church Showroom

By Brigid Schulte
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 13, 2005; Page C01

Ah, those Volvo drivers. To some political theorists, they are their own overeducated voting bloc. To some cultural critics, they are those chardonnay-swilling, latte-sipping, Masterpiece Theatre-watching elitists.

To Edward P. Jones, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of "The Known World," a brutal tale of black slave owners in a fictional Virginia county in the 1850s, they were something else Thursday evening. His audience.

Pulitzer Prize-winning author Edward P. Jones reads from his novel "The Known World" at the Don Beyer Volvo dealership in Falls Church. (John Mcdonnel -- The Washington Post)

Jones arrived in a midnight blue Volvo limo from his home in Washington.

The showroom floor at Don Beyer Volvo in Falls Church had been cleared of the sporty new S40 sedans and sleek XC90 SUVs. In their place, about 125 Volvo drivers sat in white chairs, riveted, as Jones read.

They were, of course, drinking chardonnay.

"I've read you're a very private person," one driver asked. "How did you get out here? Did they promise you a car?"

Jones offered a shy smile. "I don't drive."

The reading at the car dealership may have been one of the stranger marriages of highbrow art and the mass market. Even Jones said afterward that when he got the invitation, he figured that he'd be appearing at a school or in a conference room. "I've never been in a car dealership before, not having a car," he mused. "But I used to pass by here on the bus."

He never imagined holding forth in the display room, he said, the members of the audience as exposed to the night through the floor-to-ceiling plate glass windows and bright showroom lights as the latest-model automobiles. "I wonder how they got the cars out."

It was all co-owner Don Beyer's idea. He's wanted to have an author series for his customers for nearly a decade. And, to his mind, the Edward P. Jones reading was only the first.

"Everyone's surprised when I tell them," the former Democratic lieutenant governor said. "But when you think about it, it seems so logical, too. We've got customers that are very well read."

Volvo drivers possess, according to national surveys, more graduate degrees than any other group of drivers. They're not all liberals, as the stereotype would have it -- Beyer said he's seen an equal number of Bush and Kerry stickers on the lot. But they all tend to support the arts. And they did also drink merlot.

"Our clients are not drawn to loud, obnoxious TV ads or big print ads in the classifieds," Mike Beyer, the other co-owner of the franchise, said as he took photos of Jones reading about slave whippings, subjugation and chains against a backdrop of a giant blue Volvo sign on the wall.

"They want to be part of something, part of a culture," he added.

Added brother Don, "I don't know if I were a Chevy dealer, we'd be having Edward P. Jones tonight."

From the days of the Medicis and earlier, the ones with the money have always supported the ones with artistic talent. They just haven't done it right on the factory floor, so to speak.

"I thought this request was a little odd, but they didn't balk at the price," said Jones's lecture agent, Judy Lubershane. "And he doesn't have to get on an airplane to get there." Don Beyer said Jones received about $5,000 for the evening.

Jones read his work in a quiet voice, looking up only occasionally to poke his large glasses back up the bridge of his nose. He took questions: Did he ever eat dirt, as he wrote about so convincingly? No. How did he choose his topic? He read a line in a footnote in some textbook in college. And how did it feel to win the Pulitzer? Nice.

Only one Volvo driver left early. Jeanne Douglass said she didn't know the book was such a downer. "I like something more uplifting," she said as she slipped away. "Like 'The Thorn Birds.' "

Jones signed books sitting near a Volvo President's Club trophy of a silver car. He may have come to read to car owners, but he would never be one, he said. He got his driver's license only to be able to buy beer and wine in Charlottesville. And he was 32 at the time.

"I like to sit in the passenger seat," said the writer, who lived with a village full of characters in his head for 10 years before sitting down to write their stories. "I like to look around."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company


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