Author John Grisham stops by Doylestown on his first book tour in nearly 25 years

Author John Grisham signs his new novel, “Camino Island,” at the Doylestown Bookshop.

“I’m a famous writer in a country that doesn’t read,” John Grisham joked Thursday afternoon as he prepared to meet fans at a book signing at the Doylestown Bookshop.

The line of eager fans — 500 had reserved a book, but more showed up — that snaked up Main Street and around the corner would suggest otherwise.

Grisham was in town for the penultimate stop on a 13-city tour, his first in nearly 25 years, to promote his new novel, Camino Island. The tour, made up entirely of independent bookstores, includes a signing at each stop and a book chat with a local author that is to be broadcast live for a podcast called, fittingly, Book Tour With John Grisham.

Best-selling author and Inquirer columnist Lisa Scottoline was his partner for the Doylestown chat, and they came across as a well-matched pair of sparkling personalities enjoying a lively back-and-forth about the writing life —  that just happened to be taking place in front of hundreds of strangers in a bookstore.

Grisham started the chat by interviewing bookstore owner Glenda Childs, a former educator and forever book lover who bought the store five years ago. Afterward, fans mobbed both Grisham and Scottoline, some just wanting to say hello, others pumping for tips on how to break into the field.

One attendee, Doylestown corporate lawyer Joanne Murray, said she lives vicariously through Grisham’s criminal law adventures.

Camino Island, which was released this month — not in October, the sacred month when Grisham’s annual legal thriller hits the shelves — is a breezy heist story that seems entirely un-Grisham, if not veritably anti-Grisham.

For one thing, it’s not about the law, lawyers, courtrooms, or judges.

Grisham’s first beach book, Camino Island is set in the world of rare books.

(Don’t worry, fans, Grisham will release a new legal thriller this fall.)

Camino Island opens with a daring theft: A gang of ne’er-do-wells steals the original manuscripts of the five novels written by F. Scott Fitzgerald from Princeton’s Firestone Library. A priceless piece of literary history, the set is insured for $25 million. (“I own a first edition Great Gatsby,” Grisham said before the event, acknowledging he’s a collector himself.)

The story features a rare book dealer named Bruce Cable who dabbles in criminality, and a novelist-turned-investigator sent to rumble his plans and return the manuscripts.

That would be Mercer Mann, a singularly unhappy secret agent. “She has writer’s block, she can’t finish her novel, and she’s had these jobs that she doesn’t like, this one teaching job that she loses,” Grisham said of Mercer, who is hired by a secretive group whose motives are anything but clear.

“Mercer takes the job to go undercover and investigate because she has these student loans she can’t get rid of,” Grisham said, “so she agrees to take this job to pay off her loans.”

Student loans?

Author John Grisham meets a young fan in 3 1/2- month-old Cecelia Cole, who came from Harrisburg with her mother, Diana, to get two copies of Grisham’s new novel, Camino Island, signed at the Doylestown Bookshop. CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer

That’s Grisham’s new fascination. It also happens to be the topic of his October thriller, the title of which has yet to be released. “It’s about the student debt crisis, especially as it relates to for-profit law schools and for-profit colleges,” he said. “There are the private schools like Yale and Duke. Then there are the great public universities, which taxpayers pay for.

“But at some point,” Grisham continued, “the federal government allowed these [other] people to establish law schools that are for profit, and they charge huge tuition and they … encourage students to borrow heavily to pay the tuition.”

Grisham, who earned his law degree from the University of Mississippi School of Law, was on a roll. For a man who seems mellow to the marrow, he might be as close to agitated as he could get. “And these law schools aren’t good, they are lower-tier schools, and these kids who shouldn’t be in law school come out and they can’t get jobs and they end up $200,000 in debt. It’s a scam,” he said.

Mellow and smiling again, Grisham said he was especially proud to use the tour to promote small, independent bookstores. He pays homage to his local bookshop, Square Books in Oxford, Miss., by transplanting it pretty much brick by brick into the novel as the store run by the shifty dealer, Bruce.

“I had my very first book signing at Square Books in June 1989,” he said. “I love bookstores. My wife, Renee, and I travel a lot, and wherever we are, we’re going to find a bookstore and check it out, see how many titles it has, how they have it laid out. Is it fun? Is it cool? Is it dull?”

Best of all, no one stops to ask him for autographs; such are the joys of being a famous author in a country where no one reads.

“I don’t want to be stopped,” he said. “I don’t want to get recognized. … I want to be able to live a normal life.”