American Grown: When the author is married to the Leader of the Free World, an autograph session is filled with challenges, including pre-screening by Secret Service, a detailed instruction sheet for fans, and no photos allowed...
UPDATE: Click here for the post about the visit
Fans of first-time authors aren't typically asked to give personal information to the Secret Service before meeting their favorite writer. But that was the case last Friday when hundreds of people stood in line for hours in the balmy pre-dawn dark outside DC's downtown Barnes & Noble bookstore to submit to the security pre-screening required to attend First Lady Michelle Obama's autograph session on Tuesday for American Grown: The Story of the White House Kitchen Garden and Gardens Across America. Each of the First Lady's fans who made it through the hours-long process was given a blue paper wristband and a yellow sheet filled with detailed restrictions for the event. (Above: Britta Waldschmidt-Nelson and Kathy Joyner in front of a B&N sign announcing Mrs. Obama's event)
It is Mrs. Obama's first meet n' greet for the book, and comes exactly two weeks after its release on May 29th. She has no other book signings planned at this time, a White House official told Obama Foodorama. Most author appearances also don't include Secret Service sharpshooters positioned with loaded automatic weapons on the rooftops of surrounding buildings, or agents with dogs trained to sniff for explosives, either. But that's standard protocol when Mrs. Obama has an outing beyond the walls of the White House that involves meeting her public. (The book jacket, above)
There will also be street closures around the store on Tuesday, which is located at the busy intersection of 12th and E Streets NW.
"I am very excited," said Ann Fister, a native of the Philippines who lives in Maryland. She was among the first in line, arriving at 6:00 AM for the 9:00 AM start of the screening process. A diverse group of men and women of all ages, Mrs. Obama's fans were palpably excited as they waited. They came from the District, Maryland, Virginia--and across the globe.
Fister gardens, and said she loves Mrs. Obama, an oft-repeated phrase among those waiting to be screened.
There were more lines as the fans entered the cavernous, brightly-lit two-story bookstore, which has hosted other political luminaries for book promotions, such as Colin Powell. One line was to purchase the book for $22.76, a discount from the cover price of $30, though B&N sells the book online for $17.85. The other line was to give personal information for the Secret Service pre-screening. The fans had to show a government-issued photo ID (passport, driver's license), and give their full legal name, age, address, phone number, country of birth and country of residence and Social Security number to two employees busily logging the information into laptops.
Fister displayed the blue paper event wristband she received after she was done with the process. Asked if she knew that Mrs. Obama's Top Toque, White House Executive Chef Cris Comerford--who is all over American Grown--is also a Philippines native, Fister fairly bubbled. "Chef Cristeta? Of course!" Fister said, laughing. "We are all so, so proud." (Above: Fister with her wristband and the instruction sheet)
But Fister will have to wait to read about Comerford in American Grown. Like every other fan, she had to leave her copy of the book at the store. She seemed unconcerned that the instruction sheet warned that being issued a wristband does not mean she will actually meet the First Lady: "Given her limited availability, receiving a wristband does not guarantee admittance to the signing area."
The wristband itself carries a warning: "This wristband does not guarantee you entry to this event." That's in case fans fail the Secret Service background check.
Fans were advised to arrive at the bookstore on Tuesday between 8:30 AM and 9:00 AM in order to make it inside the bubble before the street closures, and they were advised to take the Metro, since the store doesn't have a parking facility, and spaces downtown are non-existent. Groups will be allowed to enter the store in blocs of fifty; it is closed to the public until 3:00 PM. Mrs. Obama does not arrive until 11:30 AM.
"I can't wait to meet her," Fister said.
More restrictions...and autograph guidelines...
As they enter the store, fans will be wanded by the Secret Service, and their bags (purses, briefcases) must be left downstairs--though fans are discouraged from bringing these in the first place. The bags will be searched and screened, too: "Customers must comply with all Secret Service security check requirements," notes the instruction sheet. (Above: Joyce B. Nairo, right, during the screening process)
Mrs. Obama will be on the second floor of the store, above street level. Fans can't document their historic moment: "NO photographs allowed--cell phones, cameras, and all other photographic/recording devices must be checked downstairs with personal items," warns the instruction sheet.
There are also three "autograph guidelines" on the instruction sheet. Number 1: "Mrs. Obama will not be personalizing." Number 2: "Mrs. Obama will sign copies of American Grown only; NO other books or memorabilia." Number 3: "Mrs. Obama will not be accepting gifts from customers."
Media will be briefly allowed in to observe the action as Mrs. Obama begins her session, the East Wing advised last week. And though they can't take photos themselves, fans who accepted the wristbands were automatically agreeing to be photographed by the press, said Barnes & Noble spokesman Alissa Chase, who was overseeing the writsbanding operation.
Mrs. Obama "might" make brief remarks during her appearance, said Chase.
But she might not, Chase added. She declined to say how many wristbands were actually issued, citing security concerns.
Still, those who were given wristbands--and who manage to pass the Secret Service background check--can bring up to two children with them to see the First Lady, provided that they pre-submitted the kids' names, personal information, and Social Security numbers on Friday.
That's the plan for Dr. Britta Waldschmidt-Nelson, pictured at the top of this post. A native of Germany, Waldschmidt-Nelson moved to the District from Munich last year to take up a post as Deputy Director of the German Historical Institute. A scholar who has written about the intersection of politics and race, Waldschmidt-Nelson is a published author--one of her books is on sale at B & N--and mother to three girls, two of whom are the same ages as Mrs. Obama's daughters, she said.
"I think it is wonderful what she is doing with the child obesity campaign," Waldschmidt-Nelson said. "It is so important."
Her long wait in line gave Waldschmidt-Nelson a new best friend: She met Kathy Joyner, a Maryland resident, who is also a fan of Mrs. Obama. They were chatting away after receiving their blue wristbands, making plans to meet up on Tuesday.
Background check failures...
As for those who received wristbands on Friday but then subsequently failed to pass the Secret Service check? They'll be receiving a phone call with the bad news. And they will get their money back from Barnes & Noble for the book purchase, said David Drake, Crown's Senior Vice President and Executive Director of Publicity, who is managing the marketing junket for Mrs. Obama's book. That's included a series of major TV appearances, full-page ads in major newspapers, digital ads, and a picnic hosted by Mrs. Obama by the Kitchen Garden last week with "Mommybloggers."
"Barnes & Noble will provide a full refund to any customer who purchases a copy of the First Lady’s book and is allocated a wristband for the book signing, but who does not pass security screening," Drake said in an e-mail.
Refunds will be made in the form of payment used for the original purchase, provided the customer has the receipt, he said.
That's another part of the process: On Tuesday when they arrive, Mrs. Obama's fans must present their ID, their receipt and their wristband in order to be admitted. No exceptions, and no replacements, warned the instrucution sheet. (Above: An overhead shot of the screening in action)
For all the rarity of Mrs. Obama's visit, there is no special section in Barnes & Noble devoted to American Grown; it is displayed upstairs on a shelf filled with bestsellers. As of last Monday, June 4, American Grown was #29 on the B&N Top 100: Book Bestsellers list. This week, it is #62. In place of a lavish book display, there are huge posters in the store windows, reading "Barnes & Noble welcomes Michelle Obama."
Click here for links to recipes from the book, and click here for links to all posts about American Grown.
Mrs. Obama's author proceeds will go to the National Park Foundation, the official charity of America’s national parks. "Funds will be used for programs that promote gardening and healthy eating and give young people the opportunity to experience the outdoors and lead more active lives, as well as for the continued care of the White House Kitchen Garden," the East Wing said. (Above: The line on Friday outside the bookstore)
Random House will also donate a portion of its profits to the National Park Foundation.
Mrs. Obama appears on Food Network's Restaurant: Impossible later this week, for an episode devoted to gardening.
*Photos by Eddie Gehman Kohan/Obama Foodorama; jacket photo courtesy of Crown Publishing Group, a division of Random House.