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Tuesday with Mitch, a merchant of death

The scene at the Borders megastore downtown resembles a Howard Dean flash mob. Noontime in-store readings can be lonely affairs, and this one hasn't been widely promoted. But, as if from nowhere, 300 people have jammed the store's modest-size speaking area, sitting on the floor, and wedging themselves in among the shelves.

Who's here? Mitch Albom, a longtime sports columnist for the Detroit Free Press and author of "Tuesdays With Morrie," one of the most successful nonfiction books of the past decade. "Morrie," Albom's rendering of the deathbed wisdom of Morris Schwartz, his former Brandeis University sociology professor, sat on The New York Times bestseller list for 93 weeks. It sold more than 5 million copies in the United States and overseas and was produced for television by Oprah Winfrey.

Even though the book's proceeds were shared with Schwartz's family, "Morrie" has made Albom rich, rich enough to evade questions about his wealth and the several charitable foundations he funds. But "Morrie" has also made Albom a lode-

star for ordinary Americans' feelings and experiences about death. "I've been on ESPN since 1988, and people used to come to me in airports and grab my arm and say, `Who's going to win the Super Bowl?' " Albom says. "Now they come up and say, `I have to tell you the story of how my father died.' When you are the author of `Tuesdays With Morrie," you become the receptacle for other people's losses."

Strong reactions The 45-year-old Albom was in Boston earlier this month promoting his new novel, "The Five People You Meet in Heaven," a slender tome that author/blurber Frank McCourt, without apparent irony, compares with Homer's Odyssey. "Five People" narrates the afterlife of Eddie, an amusement park repairman who encounters characters from his past and learns that "each affects the other and the other affects the next, and the world is full of stories, but the stories are all one."

Fair-minded reviewers, like Scott Bernard Nelson of the Globe, have taken the novel's shortcomings in stride: "It's a sincere story that will ring hollow for many readers in this cynical age," Nelson wrote. "Albom is all Reader's Digest and no New Yorker." Other critics, including the one assigned by Albom's paper, the Free Press, were less charitable. "How many ways can you define `superficial'?" was the first line of Carlo Wolff's review, which was so caustic that Albom's editors decided not to run it out of courtesy to their star columnist. (Several other papers did run the review.)

"I don't read reviews," says Albom, who was dressed in a black jacket, black long-sleeve shirt, and dark trousers for an interview between promotional appearances. Albom is soft-spoken, intelligent, well-coiffed, and short of stature. Meeting him, one is tempted to paraphrase Abraham Lincoln's exclamation upon meeting Harriet Beecher Stowe: "So you're the little woman who wrote the book that made this great war!"

There is a reason Albom doesn't read reviews. About a year ago, the stage version of "Tuesdays With Morrie" opened in New York and received a killer -- in the mortal sense -- review in The New York Times. Because the play so closely followed the book, critic Bruce Weber attacked the source material, calling it "one of those `life affirming' tomes with all the insight of a teenager's diary. All that's missing are the exclamation points. So true!!!"

To this day, Albom feels the sting of the ad hominem attack. "It was so personal, it was so obvious that he was waiting to get at me for writing `Tuesdays With Morrie.' He killed me, not the play." Indeed, the play continued to run for several months after the review.

Albom, who seems instinctually good-natured, becomes testy when asked about the shortcomings of "Five People." When I express surprise at Albom's bold assertion, at the beginning of a chapter, that "All parents damage their children" -- Albom has no children -- he counters, "I think you're taking that sentence out of context."

My comment that he had created a "goyish," or Gentile, heaven, complete with the diaphanous departed disporting themselves among many-colored clouds, likewise lands with a thud. Albom, who graduated from a Jewish religious school, correctly notes that there is no commonly accepted Jewish version of heaven. OK, but why the Christian pap? "I wanted this to be a book about life on earth," Albom says. "It's really a fable. I didn't write this to have religious overtones."

In almost every interview and public appearance, Albom stresses that his fictional protagonist Eddie is his late uncle Eddie Beitchman, to whom the book is dedicated. The real Eddie was Jewish; the book Eddie seems to be Catholic, given his talk about church and priests. "It's not my uncle's life story, it's Eddie's," Albom says. "You are reading way too much into it."

To critics, Albom has one surefire comeback: Look at the bestseller list. "I like Reader's Digest. I have a great relationship with my readers; people feel connected to me. I can tell that people like the writing, and that people like the spirit in the book. The first obligation of a writer is to his readers."

A crowd-pleaser That same evening, Albom is nearing the peroration of his stump speech at a second Borders reading in Braintree. It is a cold, rainy Tuesday night; not a bad night to curl up in front of the television. But the store is twice as crowded as the equally large space that morning.

In addition to being a sportswriter and an author, Albom is also a gifted musician, a radio personality, and an accomplished public speaker who uses humor and mimicry in his promotional talks. He is channeling some Pat Robertson as he winds up his pitch for "Five People":

"Folks, I don't think there is such a thing as wasted love. I always think of what Morrie said: Death ends a life but not a relationship. It's fine to go on loving someone who's not here.

"My uncle Eddie wasn't anybody special, but you can see from the stories I've told you that his life was special. Everybody counts the same. Everybody matters."

Some sniffling can be heard in the audience.

"Look around you," Albom says. Many people, some of them misty-eyed, glance from side to side. "You don't know me. You didn't know Morrie. Then why are you here? Look how large his classroom has become, and he isn't even around to teach it. Everybody has that power to touch a person."

Standing just in front of me, Donna Richards turns to her friend Don English. "That was fantastic," she says. "You're right," English answers. "Unbelievable."

Richards, a massage therapist from Abington, proves to be a huge and perhaps not untypical Morrie fan. She is carrying a Borders bag containing seven copies of "Morrie" and "Five People" that she intends to buy. "There are that many people in my life who need to read these books," she explains.

"Morrie" 's message of hope in death resonated deeply with English, who spent a year caring for his dying father in New York several years ago. "It was the most profound thing I've ever done," he says. "I thought I was doing this really great thing for him, but I realized that he was doing something extraordinary for me."

Needless to say, they adore Albom. "He wasn't speaking about himself," English says. "He was speaking about love. It was a nice change."

"Ooooh . . . I'm getting goosebumps!" Richards says. She squeezes my arm and walks off to have her purchases signed by Albom, who will linger until 11 p.m. after autographing 500 books.

Her final words to me: "I'll meet you in heaven."

Alex Beam is a Globe columnist. His e-dress is beam@globe.com.

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