Two old friends who happen to be master storytellers took center stage at last night’s Manatee County Library Foundation fund raiser at Neel Performing Arts Center and regaled a sold-out audience with tales of their early publishing triumphs and failures, memories of their time “low riding” in Grisham’s brand-new Jaguar in rural Mississippi, and even how they met their wives.

Those old friends, to the delight of book lovers, are Stephen King and John Grisham. Between them they have sold a mind-boggling 600 million-plus books, from King’s first published novel, Carrie, published in 1974 when he was a 23-year-old schoolteacher living with his wife in a dilapidated trailer in rural Maine, to Grisham’s breakout second novel, The Firm, whose film rights actually were sold before the book was published.

The two met in 1991, when The Firm first made The New York Times bestseller list, “every author’s dream,” said Grisham. “I got an envelope in the mail from Bangor, Maine,” he told the audience, “and in it was a card that said, ‘Welcome to the big time. Congratulations.’ – Stephen King.” Last night’s audience got a glimpse of their decades-long friendship in their easygoing repartee, quick wit, cheerful bickering and evening-ending bear hug.

Among the many stories, King told a poignant one about selling the publishing rights to Carrie. His advance from Doubleday had been $2,500, enough to buy a car. When his wife, Tabitha, asked him how much he thought he could get for the paperback rights, he said maybe $30,000. On a Sunday morning, while she was visiting family nearby, he got a call from his publisher telling him the paperback rights had sold. “My legs went right out from under me,” King remembers. He rushed out to buy Tabby a present, but the only store open on Sunday was a drugstore. He bought her a hair dryer. “When she got home, she said, ‘It’s beautiful, but you have to take it back because we can’t afford it.’ We can afford it, I told her. We sold the paperback rights for $400,000. She put her hands over her face and sobbed, just like in the movies.’”

Lucky us to hear their stories, and lucky Manatee County Library Foundation; the authors donated their time and books to the event, which raised a whopping $200,000-plus. Proceeds will go towards much-needed literacy programs in Manatee County, where, we were told, nearly 50 percent of third graders are not reading at grade level.