Sense of place

Books descend on me in all sorts of ways. I’ve written about this before and, I guess I am writing about it again. It still surprises me when I don’t even realize what my question is, and then suddenly there is a book that doesn’t necessarily provide an answer, but does provide a nudge that makes the question more vivid. Recently a bookseller in Libby, MT gave me a box of books he wasn’t interested in but thought I might want for my traveling bookstore. Amongst those in the box was a thin volume, Fiber, by Rick Bass, signed by the author and in very good condition. As Rick Bass spent a number of years in the far northwest corner of Montana, I like carrying his work in my bookstore, and I also like his writing. Before putting the book on a shelf, I took it home to read.

Baltimore Book Festival

Later the same week, a friend gave me a book someone had given her. It wasn’t her type of read so she passed it on to me for the bookstore. Charlotte Hogg’s From the Garden Club, examines the lives and writing of a small group of older women in a rural Nebraska community.

Both Fiber and From the Garden Club are about place. For Rick Bass, it is an examination of finding himself, defining himself in a new place having moved from Louisiana to Texas to Montana. For Charlotte Hogg, it is discovering the home where she grew up, left for a few years and then returned to more fully understand that place and, consequently, more deeply connect with her grandmother and some of the other women in the small Nebraska town.

Of course there are all sorts of good reads out there on place – Gretel Ehrlich’s The Solace of Open Spaces, Refuge by Terry Tempest Williams, books by Rebecca Solnit, Bruce Chatwin, Wendell Berry, oh the list goes on because, yes, obviously I have a question about our sense of place, its meaning in our lives, what we each do with it, how we shape it. I find myself drawn to authors who try to untangle this. I suppose this makes sense for the owner of a traveling bookstore (and someone who has moved frequently).

Especially in my current place in northwest Montana, I try to understand my relationship with my neighbors, my commitment to the community, my role. I need to read how others manage this or at least their attempt to provide insight. Hogg values the heart the older women provide to the small town, even as she herself leaves. In Fiber, Bass takes logs to the mill even as he fights to preserve the wilderness. Whether we stay planted or move, we still need to honor the place where we are and do our best by it.

Staying focused

Even though I am trying to read the best books I can possibly find at the moment, I am still distracted by my community and the larger picture. The number of people opposed to vaccinations and face masks, Covid stats skyrocketing, people in this small town dying. Having civil conversations about the situation is difficult because it is as though we are speaking different languages, or using different logic systems. I long for something like the Babel fish in “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.” I wish there was some way I could understand where these folks are coming from, those who stand firm against any sort of mask protocol in our schools even as Covid numbers escalate here.

Of course, all the dystopian books I think of don’t seem to help. I really want something that not only provides a good ending, but with clear directions how to get there. I recently read Robert Putnam’s “The Upswing” which was compelling in how the period between the late 1800s and today was analyzed, but did not provide easy answers about what we can do now. And I am looking for answers.

Later this month, I take the bookstore on the road. Setting up outside the public library in White Sulphur Springs, MT on September 17 and 18, then at Mountains Walking Brewery in Bozeman September 19 and 20. I am hopeful enough road time, driving across long Montana stretches will inspire some ideas, and perhaps talking to others (outside) in different communities will also give insight.

I thought it would be kind to end this post on a positive note. Thought about Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s “Real change, enduring change, happens one step at a time.” But for the moment I have no sense of direction, what the next step should be. But, of course, willing to take it anyway so putting on my lovely hat and a mask as I walk out the door.

So much more

It is the sort of early afternoon when I could be stocking more reading material in the traveling bookstore, as I leave for the Yaak in an hour for an event there. But as it is raining at the moment, I decided to squeeze in a few short thoughts about the bookstore because its adventures never cease to amaze me. Of course I realize there are many incredible bookstores around the world and, hopefully, someone somewhere is making a comprehensive list. At this moment though, in the gray August drizzle of Montana, I want to acknowledge the one I know best.

Perhaps this train of thought began during the past week when Marla Goodman, a thereminist from Bozeman, who was in the neighborhood to give a concert, turned me on to Elizabeth Brown’s “A Bookmobile for Dreamers.” It seemed appropriate for Marla to perform a piece of this chamber opera in the traveling bookstore. This extraordinary event triggered an avalanche of other bookstore experiences for me. There was the first time a parent brought their baby into the bookstore, the afternoon a bride and groom stopped by and I captured their radiance, someone asking to spend the night in the bookstore, two of New York City’s finest posing in front while it was set up at the Brooklyn Book Festival, an older woman approaching me in a cafe when I stopped for lunch in White Lake, SD asking if that was my van parked outside and could she please see inside. There was the day I set it up in Minneapolis and a snow storm blew in, and the night driving across the mountains in Kentucky with fog as thick as soup. There was Lee Connah’s crankie performance at the bookstore during the Baltimore Book Festival!

I suppose brick-and-mortar bookstores have their own sets of adventures but it is hard to imagine them as exciting as a traveling bookstore’s. It is just so damn versatile! But now I need to finish getting it packed. Shirley Jacobs, an incredible accordionist (she specializes in French cafe music from the 1920-30s) is riding along to provide music for the shoppers when we set up in front of the Yaak Tavern and Merc later this afternoon. So I need to have room for the passenger and her accordion.

p.s. The Yaak trip went very well. We saw a grizzly cross the road on the drive up. Lots of book sales, t-shirt sales, conversations and appreciation of Shirley’s music.

Textual apothecary

As a traveling bookstore owner/driver, the books I read come to me in a variety of ways. There are those recommended by readers. Often I jot down titles and if I don’t have a copy in the bookstore, order it through interlibrary loan. Sometimes I read a book review that is so compelling I try to order the title through the library, but if it is too new and the library doesn’t have it available yet, then I find another independent bookstore to buy it from. And sometimes on longer traveling bookstore adventures, I just pull a book off the shelf that looks interesting and read that. That’s what happened this weekend while at the Yaak music festival. As I sank into the first chapter, it almost felt too coincidental that I randomly selected that particular book at this particular time.

Every Man Dies Alone by Hans Fallada is a novel based on a slice of German history from World War II. In the early 1940s, Elise and Otto Hampel, a working class, middle-aged couple, began committing acts of civil disobedience against the Nazi regime. They wrote postcards that they then left in public places for others to find. The postcards had short messages denouncing Hitler and urging people to take action. The Hampels were eventually arrested, tried and executed. In 1945, Hans Fallada was given the Gestapo files on Otto and Elsie Hampel as part of a Soviet post-war decision to create an antifascist cultural movement. Fallada, a talented German author who had struggled in Germany during the war, was asked to write something based on the lives of the Hampels. He wrote this novel.

It is a compelling story. Reading it during the summer of 2021 gives perspective to what many of us experience now in areas of the country that have become polarized. It raises questions about what we each do during troubled times. The Hampels wrote over two hundred postcards. Most individuals who found one of those cards quickly turned it over to the Gestapo out of fear. Fallada does well describing how fear was established and used by the political regime at that time. This resonated with me as so many individuals I talk with about going to public meetings, speaking out, canvassing tell me they can’t because they are afraid. The Hampels’ resistance came from their determination to not let fear stop them from being true to their beliefs, to act even against overwhelming odds. Fallada captures the Hampels’ moral integrity, their effort to remain decent, their need to do something they hoped would make a difference.

Every Man Dies Alone by Hans Fallada

The Optician of Lampedusa by Emma Jane Kirby

Long Walk to Freedom by Nelson Mandela

Unearthing Seeds of Fire: The ideas of Highlander by Frank Adams

It is summer

And the traveling bookstore is picking up speed. Most Wednesdays we’re set up at the Eureka Farmers Market. And on Thursdays, our books can often be perused at the Libby Farmers Market which is a nice weekly event held at the Libby Chamber of Commerce parking lot. There will be other summer bookstore events as well including the Yaak Music Festival (July 23-24) and the Lincoln County Fair (August 27-29). In September, the bookstore will put on miles heading out to White Sulphur Springs (9/17-18) and over to the South Dakota Festival of Books in Deadwood (October 1-2) with numerous stops along the way. It is such a pleasure after last year’s limited activity, to be back on the road again.

Perhaps it was missing out on a lot of bookstore action last year, or just the changing times, but this season feels more urgent to get books out to folks and to have conversations. When set up, the bookstore also offers Montana voter registration forms, plus a typewriter (along with envelopes and stamps) to encourage individuals to write letters to a local newspaper, to representatives in DC, to anyone who might benefit from knowing your ideas. At least in this region of the country (northwest Montana), it currently feels a struggle to maintain community spirit that is inclusive and supportive. A traveling bookstore has potential in its own small way for sharing conversations and discussions about books without hype or pressure.

On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century by Timothy Snyder

Ten Ways to Fight Hate: A Community Resource Guide Southern Poverty Law Center

a love letter

Another day organizing books in preparation for the season. Lillian helped me. She is nearly fourteen years old, a voracious reader, and thoroughly understands how to categorize and alphabetize. Working with her today reminded me of others who helped me with the various aspects of a traveling bookstore – from sorting books in the storage/garage to driving across country to watching over things so I could take a break on long book selling days. There are definitely more people on the list than I can send thanks to, or express my love for their help in one blog post. But because I thought of them a lot today while working with Lillian, I decided to share the extraordinary abilities of at least a few.

Stevie Sorenson was the first person. We happened to meet up at a community event, started talking about what we each did with our time. I asked what she planned to study at college. She said writing or becoming a librarian. I said I was starting a traveling bookstore and invited her to help me begin organizing the piles of boxes filled with books sitting in my garage that needed to be put in some organized manner onto shelves. It had felt like a daunting task until Stevie showed up and then we both threw ourselves into tackling it. Sam McCurry who was between semesters was next, and also obsessed about books and very much detailed oriented. She helped balance me when it came to making categories because really (I assume this won’t come as a surprise to those who have met me), my storage area for books is fairly neat but not exactly up to the Library of Congress standards.

Shortly after Sam helped out, I started going on longer trips with the bookstore and realized having the right person along helped immeasurably. Nada Vojtkova drove with me across from Montana to New York the first time and helped at the Brooklyn Book Festival. Melissa Anderson was with me on a drive back across country when the bookstore experienced a blowout in S. Dakota in a place that felt like the middle of nowhere. Sarah Anderson helped drive through a snow storm in Colorado when the gas tank showed empty. Britta Shoot met up with me and the bookstore during another snow storm – this one in Minneapolis – and remained cheerful although I suspect she was very cold as we headed south to Indianapolis. Jana Pestova did a traveling bookstore trip through North Carolina up to West Virginia and headed back west. She was with me the day an Asheville bookseller bought out a third of my inventory and I had a small meltdown. Anne Johnson who was supposedly on vacation helped me sell books and talk literature at the Lincoln County Fair. Lisa Kondylas saved my life at the Baltimore Book Festival which had very long days and many people (all very good for bookselling but a bit hard on the bookseller). She showed up once a day (a three day event) so I could grab a bite and find a restroom. She even invited her brother to stop by who brought delicious avgolemono soup for us.

You obviously see what I mean. Perhaps it is the nature of the traveling bookstore business or just my type of personality, but I truly depend on others to help pull through situations like blizzards, big cities, and what feels like catastrophic events. Sometimes I don’t even know the individual’s name who helps me. Once in Sacramento while set up at the awesome Temple Coffee Roasters, I very much needed to take a break and find lunch (Temple had yummy snacks but I wanted something more substantial). A lovely individual came up to me at the bookstore, asked about the business, looked more seriously at me and said she would watch the store while I got something to eat. I remain forever grateful to her despite never learning her name.

There are so many more but I try to keep these posts to a reasonable length. The traveling bookstore business is quite the adventure and thank goodness there is a patron saint to send helpful individuals my way. A few novels you might enjoy about bookstores if you haven’t run across them yet…

Parnassus on Wheels by Christopher Morley

The Bookshop on the Corner by Jenny Colgan

The Education of Harriet Hatfield by May Sarton

The Little Paris Bookshop by Nina George

DIY

As the owner/driver of a traveling bookstore, you might expect me to be all about selling books. And I certainly do put lots of energy into that. Spent last weekend going through the storage area pulling out the best books to get the season started. Replenished the stock in the traveling bookstore with titles I have no doubt will bring customers an abundance of joy. But today, blame it on the Spring weather or too much time spent going through those other boxes of books that no one seems to want, I’m focusing on how you can make your own book(s). That’s just how my mind is working at the moment.

I think of book making as having two parts. There is the text or illustrations or whatever you envision your book containing. And then there is the container itself – what actually holds your story or poems or essays or dreams together. For simplicity’s sake, let’s just call it the Inner and the Outer. I am not going to dwell on the Inner today. There is entirely too much that could be part of that as well as dealing with how you see yourself as a writer or an illustrator, your reaction to a clean white page, whether you feel your art or writing is worthy to be bound. Of course, it is possible to make a blank book – a book that only has empty pages as its Inner which you can gift to a friend or give to a child to draw in. That can work. Thus for the moment, we will skip the Inner piece and focus on the Outer.

Perhaps you have an image of a book with a front cover, a back cover, a spine, the title and author’s name. Rather straight forward and you can certainly put together such a book. But I hope you realize there are umpteen other ways to craft the Outer part of a book. It can be folded like an accordion or even be an accordion! Have you thought of a film canister repurposed as a book (assuming the Inner is written on film)? It might be a seashell with your story curled up inside or intriguing bottles holding a delicious mystery. Peter and Donna Thomas create stunning books using musical instruments as the Outer part. Julie Chen makes all sorts of books that will have you drooling. Perhaps if you have more time, look at the creations of M.L.Van Nice, another amazing book artist. Please don’t get discouraged by these individuals who have put years into crafting unusual books. Don’t think of making a book as daunting. Use a matchbox or stitch sheets of brown paper together. Start basic and grow. And, of course, there are all sorts of guides out there to help you get started.

The Book as Art by Krystyna Wasserman

Creative Bookbinding by Pauline Johnson

The Pocket Paper Engineer by Carol Barton (volumes 1 & 2)

Creating Books and Boxes by Benjamin D. Rinehart

Tear

When one word can be pronounced in two different ways and each pronunciation determines what the word means within a particular context, it’s referred to as a heteronym. There are numerous examples of this phenomena in English, and I give a shout out to Dr. Martin Adam from Masaryk University for first drawing this to my attention. For example, you record your favorite song. And if you are sufficiently old or sufficiently cool or happen to be both, you might have a vinyl record. At the moment I am not focused on music though, but on tears. Tear is another heteronym, which I was reminded of when reading The Typography of Tears by Rose-Lynn Fisher.

That tear can refer to the salty drop sliding from your eye, down your cheek and also refer to what one can do with material such as paper or fabric makes utter sense to me today. Even though these two tears are not etymological cousins, they feel related. Tears of joy, tears of pain, tears of sadness, tears of gratitude, tears of frustration. Although there have been many instances for me in the last three months that produced tears of gratitude, there have also been numerous ones that produced tears of frustration and pain. January 6th was the day I heard the news Georgia was sending two Democratic Senators to Washington, and then I watched in disbelief as insurrectionists stormed the US Capitol.

tears of grief

Now in Montana, while I wait for weather to turn warmer and Covid numbers to drop so I can take my bookstore out, there are numerous occasions for tears and tears. A friend’s new grandbaby, the season’s first crocus, someone who had a dark period of grief is gently pulled outside to start gardening, the older women I quilt with are all in good health and vaccinated. And then there is the situation in Helena where my local state representative gave a speech encouraging an increase in the cost of childcare so women would be more likely to stay home. Or the current Montana governor who killed a wolf near Yellowstone Park without cause. The state legislature chips away at funding for suicide prevention, public education, and mental health services, also restricting LGBT rights, while expanding rights to carry guns, as though everyone carrying a gun is going to be the solution for societal challenges.

So I cry. And I tear with rage the newspaper that covers the stories of this year’s state legislature because I can’t believe what some of those people are doing. I tear fabric to make Covid quilts because this pandemic has taken too many people from us, kept us apart from too many whom we love. I tear paper to create artist books. And I read. Which is how I came to rediscover Rose-Lynn Fisher’s book on tears.

Sometimes there’s a benefit in reading a book that brings tears. It cleanses your eyes, provides an empathetic release as you turn pages. Just in case you are in need of this therapy…

The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro

Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson

Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson

If you are more inclined to want to tear things to release tension or frustration, I suggest piles of newspapers waiting to be recycled.

Boundaries

Canada-US border at Roosville, MT

There seem to be more difficulties dealing with boundaries, although I suppose there have been difficulties for as long as there have been people drawing lines in the sand. Or when someone made a decision about who could use that cave, or hunt in that forest, or fish in that river. When the traveling bookstore isn’t on the road, it’s parked seven miles from the Canadian border. Other than showing the right papers, it was an easy place to visit – going up to Fernie for the wonderful independent bookstore there or on longer adventures to Edmonton (and the wonderful Alhambra Books). But since last March the Canada-US border has been closed for these sorts of trips. The boundary is quite visible in our valley especially in winter with that snowy line stretching from one mountain to another. Close but closed.

Even on this side of the border though, there are struggles with boundaries. Who wears a face mask? Who doesn’t? Why is that person standing so close to me while waiting in line at the post office? Last summer for the first time since opening my traveling bookstore, customers went into my bookstore wearing sidearms. There are my boundaries. Personally I don’t like people wearing guns into my quite small bookstore. I do want people in my community to wear face masks and take other precautions in public during a pandemic. But these are challenges because unlike the border visible across the mountains, I need to establish my own boundaries and decide how to apply them in my sphere. This becomes more complex with seemingly arbitrary boundaries the current Montana legislature and governor are changing at an alarming rate. Can transgender youth play sports? Can children who aren’t vaccinated attend public schools? And yes, people have the right to wear their guns anywhere. And now there are no public health mandates concerning masks or public gatherings from the state government. It is an overwhelming time with frantic urgency to write my representatives in Helena, trying to get them to be sensible about those of us who live in this state, all of us who live in the state. Forcing us to think seriously about our boundaries.

I have the traveling bookstore and plan to set it up in Montana this summer. I hope to take it to other states by Fall. Now I read books – some recommended, some left on my doorstep as a donation, some discovered at the local library. These current times make me aware of books dealing with boundaries – The Women in the Copper Country by Mary Doria Russell, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong, True North by Jim Harrison, and Savage Inequalities: Children in American Schools by Jonathan Kozol.

Propelled forward by looking back

I want to be on the road with the traveling bookstore. I want to set up at music festivals and in cities, by coffee shops in small towns and at county fairs. I want the sun to be out and people willing to engage in real conversations as we stand by the bookstore marveling at all the wonders one can find in print. I want to share ideas for how to make the world a better place and to exchange titles for some great books we read this winter. And I also want to feel comfortable with people going into the bookstore and as we stand outside next to the table with the typewriter set up, knowing we care enough to keep each other healthy.

I appreciate the book club in Eureka read a wonderful range of books this winter and has more coming up through the spring. We are a small club in a rural (and rather remote) community of northwest Montana. Since summer, we’ve met virtually. Yet we manage to have good conversations, decide on monthly titles that offer us a range of authors and ideas, encourage each other to grow and think. Some of our titles: Woman, Girl, Other by Bernadine Evaristo, Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates, Wolverine Way by Doug Chadwick, Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell, This Tender Land by William Kent Krueger, My Beloved World by Sonia Sotomayor, The Mountains Sing by Nguyen Phan Que Mai.

While looking for a photo that made sense to me for this post, this moment, I came across one from six years ago. My first bookstore trip out of town was to a two-day music festival in Yaak, MT and if you don’t know this place, you should. I worried driving there up twisted mountain roads, no other vehicles in sight, setting up in a field behind the Yaak Tavern & Mercantile, but then did extremely well selling books. Spent my first night ever sleeping in the bookstore. And the next day met this young couple from New York City who suggested I go to the Brooklyn Book Festival. And the following year I did. First time driving the bookstore across country. Barely able to breathe as I navigated it through the city, wondering if a traveling bookstore in NYC would even be noticed (but it was!).

Since then I have put lots of miles on the bookstore; taken it across country multiple times, up and down the west coast, through the Rocky Mountains. After that first book festival in NY, I’ve set it up in Seattle, Portland, Baltimore, Raleigh, Sioux Falls, Chicago, Indianapolis, San Francisco, Minneapolis, and many more cities as well as numerous rural towns. And that couple who suggested the Brooklyn Book Festival – they have two young children now and are doing well. I follow photos of their family on social media. I’ve done things that I didn’t envision doing when I met them. And no doubt raising their two kids is something they couldn’t have imagined fully either. So looking forward to this summer, I want to believe it is possible to do more things – meet people who will change my life, have conversations that stick with me for years, and of course, read books that are remarkable.