There are trips with the traveling bookstore. There are trips taken without the bookstore. There are pristine hardback books I handle reverently when visiting other bookstores. There are paperbacks with tears and coffee stains that friends pass on to me. There are artist books that I make and put my heart into. There are artist books that others make which dazzle me. There are old books that have been chewed by mice and some pages crumble when turned but still the owner is loathed to throw them away. There are books bought and read so quickly that the reader can’t even remember reading them. And there are those special books that one reads again and again and again.
There are surprises in books. A used book that when opened contains a letter in smudged pencil someone was using as a bookmark. There are books that come up on the book club list which don’t look the least bit interesting and then turn out to be a favorite. There is a book someone was ready to throw away and when that particular book finds its way to my bookstore, is the exact book the next customer was searching for.
There are books with such amazing photos that words aren’t necessary. There are books with just enough words to push one through the door into another universe (The Invention of Hugo Cabret). And there are books that one can’t touch but still create magic. This was my experience recently when visiting The Broad, a contemporary art museum in Los Angeles, and watching William Kentridge’s Second Hand Reading.
Yes tis the season when there aren’t enough hours in the day especially when the days are so short (although now they are starting to get a bit longer). And those of you who are sensible have either all the gifts bought and wrapped or have opted to go gift free this year because after all there is already so much stuff in our lives (will assume you read Marie Kondo’s book last year).
But at this late date in the season I am compelled to suggest a book for you. I rarely suggest books because it can go so many ways. There should be some sort of questionnaire readers complete before asking a bookseller to recommend a book. Otherwise it is a completely wild guess as to what particular book might suit a person’s particular reading needs in that moment.
So a bit unusual for me to recommend a book here, but this one is well written and necessary. In these times of #MeToo and numerous sexual assault and harassment charges against individuals in all walks of life, this book captures an essential essence. The author, Chanel Miller, was the victim in a case that was tried as People v. Turner. Miller was sexually assaulted by Brock Turner. He was found guilty of three counts of felony sexual assault. He served three months in prison. Miller wrote. And wrote. She wrote a letter to the court that went viral. And now she has written the book, Know My Name.
Chanel Miller documents so many aspects of our current culture that are wrong; the alarming number of women who are assaulted, and the physical and financial trauma they face after the assault from our justice system. The frequent harassment women experience walking down a street, going out for an evening, attending a party. And how often this harassment is dismissed as boys being boys.
This is a hard book to read because it asks each us to be stronger, to work towards change in the laws, in the system, in our society, in ourselves. I really want to see this book selling out at bookstores and picked up by book clubs. Please read it and then pass it on.
A wondrous morning in Woodstock, IL with the bookstore and that town’s Atrocious Poets set up at Isabel’s Family Restaurant. The last official event on this tour! Driving away from Woodstock that afternoon, it seemed the next set of days would be very long stretches of road with perhaps a few short sporadic conversations if an extrovert happened to sit next to me at a breakfast counter.
Today was a five hundred plus mile drive from Albert Lea, Minnesota to Rapid City, South Dakota. At one point I wanted lunch, hoping to find something better than fast food or a truck stop. Pulled off the interstate at White Lake, South Dakota. A sign indicated a restaurant even though a very small town (population 375). I found the White Lake Cafe and noticed it was ideally situated a few doors down from a post office.
Waiting for my order, I was writing postcards when an elegantly attired older woman came up to my table and asked if that was my van parked out front. I immediately thought I parked illegally but no, she was curious what this traveling bookstore was about. She pulled up a chair, we talked as fast as possible as she needed to go to a meeting soon, and we exchanged addresses. Before she left, I went out to open the bookstore so she could see inside.
Linda Dodds is the town’s librarian with a minuscule budget and a role that involves more than just checking out books and shelving. The library is only open a few days/week but Ms. Dodds puts on events for the community, helps the school which doesn’t have its own librarian, and passionately searches for books to get young people interested in reading. During our brief conversation, she convinced me to attend the South Dakota Festival of Books next year and had me brainstorming YA fiction titles.
As she dashed off, I finished lunch and thought of other communities my bookstore stopped in that shone with a commitment to reading. There was the spectacular public library in Port Orford, Oregon (another small town with a population of 1,148) which found community support to expand when the county system wanted to close it down. And the woman I met in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania who helped with an event that had families reading under the stars in the sports stadium. And all the people who rave to me about their local book clubs! There are a few individuals who grumble about the death of books and that kids don’t read anymore, but on these bookstore travels, I feel very hopeful.
This was the third east coast trip for the traveling bookstore, each memorable in its own way but this one stands out. I didn’t realize until I pulled the bookstore into its spot near Baltimore’s Inner Harbor that I had come back to my roots. I was born in Baltimore. Grew up here through high school. Then left. Over the years found places I wanted to be in the northwest US and in other countries, and nearly forgot this city. But when I parked the bookstore and looked across the harbor, I knew this place shaped me in many ways.
The Baltimore Book Festival is the largest festival the bookstore ever experienced. Three days of families, tourists, hipsters with dogs and hometown bibliophiles walking the promenade. Three days of bright sun reflected on the harbor during the day and magic of the Light City Festival at night. There were so many conversations – with the couple who hosted me, people at the festival, old friends, other vendors, police officers, authors. I tried to understand how the city changed. The population was nearly a million when I was growing up back in the 1950s. Now it is barely over 600,000.
There are blocks of boarded up houses in the city. Bill, a man I went to high school with, invited me to a delicious breakfast in Federal Hill which was hopping on a Saturday morning. I reconnected with Rose, a woman who was friends with my mother, who now lives near the Inner Harbor amidst museums, high rises and cafes. I had people warn me not to walk alone at night. I discovered this is a city rich with the Baltimore Crankie Fest! (if you don’t know crankies check out the Crankie Factory), Artscape, and countless other happenings in the arts. Yet Baltimore has a daunting poverty rate that, depending on who I talked with, is a result of the education system, unemployment, racism, drugs or some combination of these.
I met Sheena who has been a Baltimore police officer for eighteen years and would like to start a traveling bookstore when she retires. I sold my typewriter to an older gentleman from Yugoslavia who now lives in Baltimore. Lee gave an outrageous crankie show at the bookstore on Saturday evening, and then patiently answered questions from people who wanted to know more about this art form. George drove up from Severna Park to bring me Greek lemon chicken soup. Liz sat with me the first morning as we pondered the years and this place. Steve organized the books in my tiny storage area and brought crab cakes. Lisa stepped up numerous times to sell books so I could take a fast break. Sandy collected books from her friends to help my inventory.
Baltimore. I hope you go there if you haven’t been.
Books I was fortunate to come across on this trip…
The Lines Between Us: Two Families and a Quest to Cross Baltimore’s Racial Divide by Lawrence Lanahan
Is there a best bookstore stop? There are so many different ones and so many are surprises. Sturgis, South Dakota was on the trip itinerary but who knew it would turn out to be such a great stop with thought-provoking conversations and delicious food at Jambonz? Or Crete, Illinois. Have you heard of Crete (not the Mediterranean island but the community south of Chicago)? The bookstore set up at Crete Creative Gallery which had a lovely, delicate exhibit by Sherri Denault and a spread of pastries with coffee by the Benton Street Bakery. Women from local clubs who were so well read I felt provincial and artists, photographers and writers stopped by throughout the day.
There was driving the bookstore through twisting golden-forested roads in central Pennsylvania to get to Punxsutawney. I wondered how a town so off the beaten track ended up on the tour. Then I met the sparkling Jeanne Curtis in person who had extended the original invitation. I met her cousins, local librarians, a talented young musician (Samantha Sears), a kid who bought a book about mining for his grandfather, a woman who bought a book about the West for her father, a man who wants to move to Montana to be a fishing guide (please do this, Jason, life is short!), and the man who is one of two official keepers for the groundhogs, Punxsy Phil and Phyllis. I heard about the mines closing and schools consolidating, young people moving away to find work.
In every town there are stories; perhaps it’s a trade where I bring books and individuals give stories – about the grandfather who used to work in a Pennsylvania coal mine, or the mom in Toledo who left her car running as she quickly bought three children’s books. She was on her way to work but wants her kids to grow up reading. Or the woman in Punxsutawney who volunteers for the Parents Teachers Organization and helped put together “Reading Under the Stars” where families gather on a special evening to spread out blankets in the sports stadium and enjoy reading activities. There was the 96 year old woman in Toledo a friend brought to the bookstore. She explained her local library delivers books to her twice a month so she doesn’t need to buy any but she did want to see this traveling bookstore she heard so much about.
Many wondrous individuals. But there are dark moments too. Why do so many women ask if I am afraid to travel alone in this country? The other evening after closing the bookstore, I got a GoFundMe request for a friend with mountains of medical bills. I read a NBC article that the number is now over five thousand children who have been separated from their families at our border. Driving into Maryland from Pennsylvania, I see a Confederate flag.
There are places. There are books – those read and those to be read. There are people. And as you can imagine on a bookstore tour of this length, there are many people. Ideally I would have a free day after every bookstore event to note down at least a bit about each person I speak with. But it doesn’t work that way and so there are scribbled notes in my pocket, individuals I think about while driving, a business card someone gave me. Here is a small sampling because although I am completely enamored with books and reading, people are a vital part of why I do the bookstore. I wish I could write about everyone I meet along the way. I wish I could write about you.
Tony. The bookstore set up in front of Luminous Brewhouse in Sheridan. A woman with three children and the woman’s mother crowd inside pulling children’s books off the shelves, the mother setting book-buying limits, the grandmother asking how I ever started this unusual business. And Tony walked up, noticed the chaos inside the bookstore. We started talking about Mihaly Csikszentmihaly‘s flow, about veterans hospitals, about real books and e-books. He mentioned having hundreds of books on his phone. I winced. But can you lend a friend a book if it is on your phone? We talked about balance. I took a deep breath.
Al. A tall thin man in an old green station wagon drove slowly pass the bookstore when it was set up in the parking lot of Jambonz Grill in Sturgis. He turned his car around, came back, parked next to the bookstore, unfolded himself from the car and asked, “What is this?” Turned out Al was a book dealer. He took books to shows all over the region, told me that gun shows were the best if you had the right books. After we talked for a while about books, bookselling and politics, he looked through my paltry inventory (compared to his) and found a couple volumes. Then he left promising to come back. A half hour later he did, with two boxes of books to donate, books he felt suited my bookstore but weren’t selling in his business. We talked some more.
Iowa City, Iowa. A dark rainy morning. Street construction. A tiny parking lot. I settle the van and go inside Hamburg Inn No. 2 for a great breakfast of pumpkin pancakes. Seth introduces himself. We had corresponded when I planned the stops on this trip. We talk about the restaurant which is famous in these parts. We talk about the traveling bookstore business. Later when I am outside and the rain has let up, Seth comes out to check how things are going, as though he is my guardian angel on this dreary morning. Customers eventually stop by the bookstore. The lunch crowd shows up at the restaurant. It was a very good day all around.
I never got her name. Stopping in Kadoka, South Dakota to mail letters, I asked the postal worker where I might get a cup of coffee. He pointed to Pocketful of Posies, the florist shop across the street so I went over there. The woman apologized when I walked in for the buckets of flowers everywhere. There were two funerals coming up. She made me coffee. She let me use her restroom. She told me about the young girl who had been hit by a car. About the older man who had died. She never stopped moving, arranging flowers, answering the phone, talking with two men who came in to drop some metal pieces off for the display that would honor their friend.
Deb retired after years working at a university in Rock Island, Illinois. She then embraced volunteering in a wondrous way. She is learning so much about art as a docent at the Figge Art Museum in Davenport. She mesmerized me with stories about the current Mia Feuer exhibit, about how a particular piece of art was constructed, about another artist’s life. She also volunteers with a local hospice. She learned to knit so as she sits with people, she creates a calm rhythm. Often I encourage people to volunteer as a way of helping their community. Deb discovered another reason to volunteer – to continue to grow.
When having breakfast at Weimers Diner & Donuts in Sturgis, South Dakota, I saw a poster asking for donations. New underwear, tshirts and socks for men were being sought to give to veterans. But why aren’t there federal resources in this country for those veterans? Why is a small town with a population of 7,000 having to find clothing for the individuals who served their country?
Through my good fortune of staying with Cathy and Dave, Servas hosts in Sioux Falls, I attended a talk by Sister Helen Prejean, author of Dead Man Walking and River of Fire. To say her talk was inspirational does not begin to do it justice. It was one of the most impassioned and articulate talks I have ever heard. If you are unable to catch Sister Helen on her current tour, please read her books.
While in Sioux Falls, I also heard about OLLI (Osher Lifelong Learning Institute), a program under the University of South Dakota. OLLI “brings together curious people who want to learn for the love of it…[and] aims to engage the mind, stimulate the senses and foster learning through an affordable program of classes, tours, lectures, films and active learning opportunities.” Many of the people teaching these classes and leading tours are community volunteers. My mind immediately twirled with the variety of talks and tours that knowledgeable individuals in my community could offer. But I realized my own focus needs to be developing senior housing before getting caught up trying to establish a program like OLLI. That’s just part of Maslow’s hierarchy.
Drawn to possibilities. Often people who come to the bookstore ask how it got started, what inspired me. They enjoy the idea of something new, something they hadn’t experienced before, browsing in the confined space of this traveling bookstore. I am also drawn to new ideas – the possibility of putting together community classes with volunteer instructors, learning how Sister Helen Prejean went from exchanging letters with someone in prison to being a voice against the death penalty. We can be drawn to a possibility we may not have previously considered. Then its a matter of taking the next step.