Boston Herald columnist and WRKO talk show host Howie Carr stopped by The Paper Store Saturday to sign his newest book Hitman: The Untold Story of Johnny Martorano.
Martorano was the henchman of recently captured Boston mobster James "Whitey" Bulger. The book is centered around the stories of Bulger and his crew, the Winter Hill Gang.
Carr's name has always been known throughout the state, but with Bulger's arrest last Wednesday, he's on the way to becoming a national celebrity, popping up on TV screens seemingly around the clock.
"It's not Whitey that brings me here -- I'm a big fan of Howie," said John Scanlon, a Cambridge resident and Providence College professor who showed up at the book signing. "He's a throwback to the era of great newspaper writers."
The 81-year-old Bulger, who as a young man served time at Alcatraz Prison, disappeared 16 years ago, was on the run from federal authorities who have charged him with racketeering and murder. Last week he and his girlfriend Catherine Greig were arrested in Santa Monica, Calif., and the story has dominated the Boston news media every day since.
As for Carr, he's worked the story for the past two decades. He also wrote The Brothers Bulger, published in 2006, in addition to Hitman: The Untold Story of Johnny Martorano, which was published in April. Martorano agreed to testify against his boss in exchange for a light sentence. He pleaded guilty to 20 murders and served 14 years in prison.
In the days since Bulger's arrest, sales of both books have skyrocketed. Saturday more than 250 people walked through the doors of the gift store in the Wal-Mart plaza, and they were still lining up long after every copy of Carr’s books was gone.
"We started getting calls a few weeks ago, when we first announced the book signing," said store manager Karen Van Gelder. "But after Wednesday they really took off. The phone was ringing bright and early this morning."
"I saw Howie at singing books at a Barnes & Noble about two weeks ago," said Mike Sokolowski of Nashua, a retired teacher who stopped by The Paper Store. "There were maybe 25 people there. Today you can't find a space in the parking lot."
Saturday’s event seemed almost like a celebration. Some of Carr's fans congratulated him, treating him as if he'd captured Bulger, not the FBI. One presented the columnist with a fat victory cigar.
"I'm going to write 'Finally caught!' " Carr joked as he scribbled an autograph across an inside cover.
Bob Lowell of Lowell said he is a WRKO fan, but quickly added that's not why he bought Carr's books.
"My wife is a big fan of Mafia books and stories. Anything about gangs," he said. "I bought the books for her."
Gary Heffernan of Chelmsford couldn't wait for the book signing to dig into the Bulger story. He'd already purchased both books, and told Carr he was mid-way through Hitman.
"I'm in the car a lot, so a listen to his show quite a bit," he said.
At one point, there were two authors in the store -- Carr, and Lowell's Steve O'Connor, author of the espionage novel The Spy in the City of Books.
“I read The Brothers Bulger and found it fascinating," O'Connor said. "With Whitey's capture, I have to read the new book. I hope Whitey talks -- and I really hope he talks to Howie."
Steve Folven, a Nashua social worker who moonlights as a Babe Ruth impersonator, showed up in his costume. He told Carr to sign his book "the return of two legends -- Whitey and the Babe!"
Some of Carr's fans offered theories as to how the FBI finally caught up with the fugitive.
Helen Mooney of Tewksbury pointed to news reports that Bulger may be suffering from age-related dementia.
"Caring for someone with Alzheimer's can be very stressful," she said. "His girlfriend couldn't deal with it anymore. She made the call."
"I think Whitey is terminally ill," Heffernan said. "He told someone to make the call for him, so they could get the reward. And of course, now he'll be able to get great medical treatment in Boston."
"I'm disappointed in Whitey," said Sokolowski, the retired teacher. "He was supposed to be hiding in Ireland or Paris or Madagascar. Turns out he was in a crummy apartment for 15 years."