‘Tis the season where trees even here in northwest Montana change colors. The larch shift to a yellow brilliance, the mountain ash offers orange berries and red willows shine in the valley. The traveling bookstore just returned from the Montana Book Festival which was an astonishing event. The drive between Eureka and Missoula was a wonderful opportunity to see the season’s foliage while the festival itself delighted in so many ways. New authors and already famous ones shared words and ideas. There was an opportunity to see a vintage bookmobile from the Missoula library and to talk with numerous bookstore owners. There was art and art openings, music and poetry. There were hipsters and seasoned bibliophiles. There were MFA students and rappers. Jane Smiley inspired me to write more and Donna Kaz inspired me to work harder for social change.
As often happens, there were discussions about the traveling bookstore. How did the idea originate? How many states has it been to? Is it successful? I found that last question thought provoking as it pushed me to consider what success would be for this enterprise, a traveling bookstore that can easily set up anywhere selling used books, offering kids a chance to type on a manual typewriter and others an opportunity to try out a theremin. One man immediately set down his coffee and briefcase although he seemed to be in a rush because, as he put it, “I’ve always dreamed of playing a theremin!”. Or Caroline Patterson who took to the theremin instantly and I wondered if it had to do with her name as Carolina Eyck is a theremin virtuoso. But these are all tangents, an indication of how full and varied the Montana Book Festival was over the three days. Now back in Eureka, the question about success still sits there unanswered.
Can the answer be framed in monetary terms? When the traveling bookstore starts bringing in x amount of dollars, it will have achieved success. Or is it the quantity of social media – how many likes on Facebook or followers on Instagram? Perhaps success for the bookstore should be measured in personal terms such as the amount of satisfaction gained from having discussions while set up in Missoula or Portland or Eureka or Rock Island. Or as someone said, “As long as you enjoy doing it, keep it up.” As always, there is the sense that if I had just done a business plan before diving into this, I would know how to measure success.
I am continually surprised by the number of people who indicate that they would like to have a traveling bookstore but the stars just don’t align. They don’t have the time or don’t like being gone from home. Or they would never consider driving this thing in San Francisco or New York. I do feel fortunate to have the opportunity to be the driver/owner of this particular bookstore. And perhaps success – or at least the meaning of it in the case of this traveling bookstore – will manifest over time. Like life. As Aristotle pointed out, “One swallow does not make a spring, nor does one sunny day; similarly, one day or a short time does not make a person blessed and happy.” Perhaps it is something to consider in the business of a traveling bookstore as well.
It started when two Czech friends happened to visit around the time my local book club was going to meet. The two young women had enough time (and enough English) to read the month’s selection and attend; A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman and of course this group in Eureka does it up right. The woman who hosted the book club in September prepared a delicious Iranian meal. We had a very good discussion and towards the end of the evening, one of the Czech women lamented it was too bad there weren’t book clubs like this in her country. I felt surely there must be but when we did a cursory Google search as one tends to do when such questions are posed, we saw book clubs aren’t nearly the phenomena in the Czech Republic that they are in the US.
While looking at articles and such about book clubs in other places, I read about book clubs in the US, the millions of members and wide variety that have developed here over the years. I realized this was a force to be considered. Not that the demographics are identical across book clubs or even within book clubs. Actually it is one of the factors that makes the local book club here so awesome – we have a variety of political views, religions, ages and formal education, and yet we manage to have respectful discussions on all sorts of topics ranging from marriage to immigration to education to death. There is a core element that keeps us meeting (this club started back in the mid 1990s!). Perhaps its the thirst to learn, a love for reading and an interest in sharing ideas.
Recently while attending a Humanities Montana meeting, the idea was raised to find ways to exchange information across book clubs. I realized this was a great idea but how many book clubs have a public presence to make something like this viable? I began to ask around. Most book clubs don’t even seem to have a name. One woman who belongs to three clubs described them as the one that meets the first Tuesday and then there is the library one and…. And even with a name, how would they be contacted? In many ways this makes the phenomena of book clubs even more remarkable. They aren’t often started by a formal entity although there are plenty that take place in libraries and bookstores. They don’t usually have a name, tax ID number or even a web presence (some do seem to use Facebook for exchanging information). So here is this significant group, millions and millions of readers according to some studies, who attend book clubs, who are able to hold civilized discussions and there isn’t an easy way to track them down. Despite this, I believe book clubs make a significant difference. Not only do they help book sales, they enhance communication in communities, they provide a vehicle for people to share stories and views. They help us think and, yes, they give light on others’ points of view.
This weekend is the National Book Festival in Washington, DC. Although the traveling bookstore will remain parked at home, I will go to work the Montana booth at that festival representing Humanities Montana. It’s an opportunity to tell people about the wonderful writers we have here, to lure them to read Judy Blunt’s Breaking Clean, Debra Magpie Earling’s Perma Red, Craig Lancaster’s 600 Hours of Edward, Pete Fromm’s Indian Creek Chronicles and so many more. It’s a chance to let people know there is a rich literary tradition in a state that stretches across expanses of plains, forests and mountains. Montana also has many talented writers under the big sky.
Then at the end of September the Montana Book Festival happens. The traveling bookstore will be there as one of many events including panels, readings, poetry slams, and of course, the infamous Pie & Whiskey at the Union Club on September 28. I suppose my deep appreciation of these book festivals is akin to sports fans going to a tournament. Its a rush to be surrounded by so many people who enjoy books and who want to read. And, as often readers are good storytellers, I will surely get to hear some wonderful stories while at the huge Convention Center in Washington and when set up with the traveling bookstore on the streets of Missoula.
It is part of having this traveling bookstore business that I surely appreciate – the stories that people share (or hint at). Last weekend with the traveling bookstore at the Lincoln County Fair, a young boy typed a story about his pig. In reality the pig was being auctioned at the fair and then sent to the butcher’s. In the boy’s story, the pig had many adventures, being recognized for its cognitive abilities and bravery rather than its meat. A girl with a Wonder Woman symbol painted on her face stopped to look at books and type. She wrote a long story which she said was private, typing, going off for ice cream, coming back to type more. She did an entire page before pulling the paper out with a flair and heading back into fair activities, the page neatly folded and secure in the back pocket of her jeans. And then there was the older gent who was searching for Louis L’Amour books. Yes, there were a few in stock at the traveling bookstore, but he knew so much about Louis L’Amour that we eventually sat down so I could hear the full biography. Stories and books. Yes, definitely looking forward to the upcoming festivals.
summer and here we are moving towards the end of August. There are still more events happening so you can catch the traveling bookstore in northwest Montana before the snow flies.
And the traveling bookstore has slightly expanded its repertoire. Besides a great selection of used books in all sorts of categories, there is a wonderful selection of postcards from all over the world, blank greeting cards and even a typewriter (with a fresh ribbon). You can type your sweetie a poem or write a serious note to someone in Washington to express your ideas and offer suggestions. And now we even have a theremin. It is a musical instrument unlike any you have probably tried. Odd enough that it doesn’t seem the least bit threatening. You don’t have to actually touch anything to play it. If you haven’t experienced a theremin yet, now might just be the time. Stop by the bookstore and give it a spin. Meanwhile you can see how a virtuoso does it in this clip with Carolyn Eyck. The theremin and the typewriter seem to be a good combo – wonderful inventions that allow people to be creative without overwhelming them. At least that is how I feel when I interact with each of them. And both compact enough to fit in a traveling bookstore. What could be better?
June had the traveling bookstore in Portland and San Francisco. July had it in western Washington state. There was the day set up at Kent Station. You might think this would be mundane. A yawn, just another bookstore day. Nope. Its not like that with the traveling bookstore business. Each time the door is opened and the accoutrements set out, a new adventure unfolds. The day at Kent Station had a group of artists sketching the bookstore in the morning light. It was the first time to use Square so customers can decide how they want to pay for their literary treasures. It was a conversation with an older woman about St. Rita’s Church in Tacoma. It was asking customers to add to the sandwich board so now the concept of traveling bookstore is in English, Japanese, Hebrew, French and Korean. It was sushi for lunch and delicious homemade cookies for an afternoon snack. It was meeting two young teachers who helped get the word out on their social media.
And then the bookstore left the urban scene to drive up numerous curves and through tall trees, beside sparkling lakes and signs advertising huckleberries for sale. It bumped gently down a dirt road near Ashford to park for a few days. A small but intense group of people there found books on poetry and philosophy and music that fit their tastes. And the bookstore picked up some new (used) books for its shelves including a volume of Blake, a guide to Mt. Rainier and an excellent English translation of the Tao Te Ching. Then back down the winding roads leaving the cedars and quiet lakes behind to drive north through Seattle and to Bellingham.
Even when not officially set up, there are spontaneous discussions. A clerk at a Seattle music store came out to the parking lot to ask about the bookstore. People ask about it when we stop to get gas. A couple from Illinois wondered about starting their own traveling bookstore business. A man from Eugene sitting in a bar saw it out the window and wondered how it worked. And always invitations to bring it to new places and different events. The traveling bookstore business can be a slippery slope. Surely one could be on the road 365 days taking it to urban centers and quiet towns, to music festivals and birthday parties. But it also feels good to have it parked at home. There is a chance to change out the books, to put in new options for curious readers. There is a chance to get the oil changed and to sweep out crumbs (yes the driver does eat cookies sometimes). And to read.
June’s traveling bookstore events have been checked off. Great adventures in Eureka, the Yaak, Portland and San Francisco. There was musing with members from Cristina’s book club in Portland and learning about Mircea’s mathematical toys that are now carried (when available as they sell out quickly) in the bookstore. There was meeting Brittany when we set up at the SF Center for the Book and having conversations with her about the life style of a traveling bookstore owner. There were wonderful people met on Mission Street who bought books and donated books. There was Karen at Mission Pie who throws the best Type-In ever and exudes the feeling of community. There was the magic of walking into the SF Center for the Book and seeing all those magnificent printing presses and people learning to set type and bind books. There was Ethan’s mom in Portland who invited the bookstore to open up near Sacramento the next time it passes through that region and Cheryl who invited the bookstore to Healdsburg. There was Matt at Ace Typewriter Repair in Portland who fixed five typewriters so quickly we couldn’t believe it, let the bookstore set up in front of his business for the day and offered new ideas for the next time the bookstore is in that town. There was Gwen in the Yaak who knows how to make everyone feel welcome and makes the best BBQ sandwiches. There was the young man at a Jiffy Lube in Spokane who helped problem solve a mechanical glitch with the bookstore on a Sunday morning and Melissa who lent cash when my wallet was stolen in Oakland. There were all the children who marveled at using a typewriter, the individuals who were happy to find just the right book(s) to buy, the invites to bring the bookstore to other towns and events.
Yes, it was an exhilarating month and an exhausting month. The traveling bookstore business is not for the fainthearted. The conversations, the driving, schlepping books and typewriters, and the excitement of new people, new ideas and new problems require sufficient energy. Which is why the hospitality offered by Cristina and Melissa and Kevin and Wendy meant so much along the way, along with meals shared with Shammus, Steve, Jesse and others.
And now we are teetering on July and more adventures. The month opens on July 1, setting up at HA Brewery just south of Eureka. On July 14-15, the bookstore returns to the Yaak for the annual Music Festival there. And on most Wednesdays we are open at the Eureka farmers market. The bookstore travels across Washington to Kent Station and Tacoma at the end of the month with a possible event in Bellingham (still searching for the ideal location to set up there). The shelves are tightly packed with new books, exciting finds and old favorites. The postcard selection has expanded and of course, there is always a chance to sit down and talk for a while. Follow us on FB for specific dates and times. Really the word ‘traveling’ doesn’t begin to capture the wonder of all this particular bookstore is capable of being.