Bookstore quandaries

When individuals remark how much they would enjoy owning a bookstore, I wonder if they have any idea the number of quandaries a bookstore owner must constantly mull over. Of course there is the question of what sort of books to carry. Should it be used or new or some combination? But then which titles? Are you selecting titles that will be popular with any customer who walks thru the door, or are you selecting titles you believe are really good books – reads that improve the world somehow with ideas or the story or the style of writing? Or finding some middle ground?

With a traveling bookstore, there are also questions about where to set up. Farmers markets, county fairs and music festivals might seem to be easy choices. But what about setting up in the parking lot of bars or fast food joints? Is it useful to open the wonderful world of books to anyone and everyone, anywhere regardless? Or should the bookstore be more selective – similar to choosing non-GMO foods?

Of course, that is a whole other rabbit hole to go down when starting to consider what is healthy. Does it even make sense to drive around the country selling books? On the one hand, this particular bookstore gets reasonably good mileage and uses solar to power the store’s lights. But can that begin to justify using petroleum products to peddle books?

The current pandemic raises other questions about customers’ safety. Is it possible to take enough precautions wiping off the grab bar, washing hands frequently, even making free face masks available? I begin this traveling bookstore season without any long trips planned for the summer, keeping the bookstore in the northwest corner of Montana, but still…is opening the bookstore sensitive to the community?

Last week, I set up the bookstore at a very small farmers market in a very small town, wearing my face mask and having hand sanitizer available. There were four other vendors that day and a handful of folks admiring the lovely early summer produce, perusing flower planters made from old horseshoes, and contemplating delicious bags of homemade fudge. A couple men stopped by the bookstore, gave me a nod and went in. They were each wearing a sidearm, a handgun in a holster. I had focused on keeping things clean and customers safely distanced and now here was a quandary I hadn’t yet considered. Where did I stand on having guns worn in the bookstore?

It has been nearly a week and I am still mulling this quandary over. Do I post a sign stating no firearms allowed? Do I try to engage in a conversation the next time (if there is a next time) when someone comes up to shop for books sporting a gun? Do I shrug it off as after all the two men were polite, bought books, and even talked with me about their choice of books?

I haven’t come up with an answer yet that is personally satisfying. I will take this opportunity though to warn anyone considering opening a bookstore that there will be an awful lot of things to think about.

I’m being careful

It would help if Google translate could distinguish the intonation and nuances of individuals saying, “I’m being careful.” Hopefully someday someone will do a study to tease out what everyone meant who uttered this sentence over the last few months. Even in my small rural community, there is a range of information, misinformation, political beliefs, health beliefs, health concerns and personal preferences manifested in “I’m being careful”.

I’m being careful. I have a mask if I have to leave my house and I wash all the groceries delivered to my door. But really, I haven’t left my house in weeks and I certainly don’t let anyone come visit.

I’m being careful. I only go to the box stores when I am very low on stuff and then I try to keep my distance from other customers. I help some of my neighbors by shopping for them while I am there. When I stop by afterwards to drop off their purchases, I only visit for a few minutes, just long enough to say hello and make sure they are doing okay.

I’m being careful. I wash my hands at least ten times a day and when I come home, I always use the hand sanitizer my mom gave me. When my girl friend comes over, she uses it too.

I’m being careful. I always take my mask with me just in case I have to stand close to someone to talk. I rarely go out – perhaps a few times a week to the grocery store and the post office, perhaps the copy shop. Of course I do the bank’s drive thru and occasionally I do a coffee drive thru but those are obviously safe. And when I get gas, I’m standing outside.

I’m being careful. But I’m 89 years old and really don’t want to spend the time I have left stuck in my house alone. I listen to my doctor but I admit I play cards once a week with friends and invited the grandchildren over on Mother’s Day. Life is short. But, yes, I do try to be as careful as possible.

I’m being careful. I decided to go to Florida to visit my sister for a week but we only walked on the beach in the morning when hardly anyone else was there. And because we know sun and warmth stop the virus, I decided it was fine to visit her rather than just stay stuck at home.

I’m being careful. I only associate with a handful of people who live nearby. We think of ourselves as a social pod so as long as we all are careful, we’ll stay healthy. And besides limiting our group’s exposure to germs, the neighborhood pod keeps us sane. I mean we’re social creatures after all.

I’m being careful. I am making sure we all keep the rights this great country gives us. No one can tell me what to do, and I am being very careful that it stays that way. We had a rally in Helena last week.

I’m being careful. I’ve gone through gallons of bleach! I am being extra careful because I have workers remodeling my bathroom this month and I want to make sure none of us gets sick. And I told those construction guys I didn’t want them partying over the weekend, because we all need to be very cautious during this pandemic.

I’m being careful. We wintered in Arizona and really didn’t socialize a whole lot there once the virus started. Now we’re headed back to Montana for the summer. Of course we’ll be careful, although now the Montana governor announced after June 1 there isn’t any need for people coming in from out of state to quarantine. So what’s a week here or there?

I’m being careful. The local farmers market is opening for the season. They said all vendors should take precautions and make hand sanitizer available for customers. I’ll only allow one person or family group into the traveling bookstore at a time because I’m being careful.

The Dickens of it

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair…

Charles Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities (1859). Sort of captures the moment, doesn’t it? Of course, there is the question whether we’ve inched into the spring of hope or are still languishing in the winter of despair? Perhaps we each answer that for ourselves. Not easy, and the plethora of possibilities is overwhelming. In Montana at the moment, lilacs are budding and daffodils are in bloom. Yet even with the promise of apple blossoms, there’s sharp division among townsfolk whether we should open up everything or wait.

Waiting. Not something most of us do well. We want it all now. Actually yesterday would be better. Don’t even mention the 900-day siege of Leningrad. What do you mean it takes five minutes to download a movie?! Our Amazon delivery definitely needs to arrive within the next 24-hours. Zero to sixty in ten – yes, that’s what we want.

But things shifted. Many of us (depending on country and culture) are moving at a very different pace now because we have to. Many main street businesses are still closed. Shelter-in-place. Keep a distance. For days, weeks, months we’ve spent an unbelievable amount of time inside either caged alone or with others who hopefully we won’t grow tired of (or frightened of) before the entrapment ends.

Perhaps it depends on your personality type and economic situation how this experience works. Is it finally time to read that pile of books? How do they manage homeschooling and still work? Or surprisingly, she suddenly became a couch potato addicted to Netflix. He caught up on mounds of correspondence – writing real letters pages long filled with thoughts and emotions. The shoe box of photographs was nearly organized. Maybe it was the time to take on a project never thought possible, yet here you are doing it. Or maybe a darkness descended that threatened to extinguish who you are. Or you are angry because there are those who don’t agree with you, who make different choices, who put you at risk. Or limit your Constitutional rights. Or just do things differently.

Today I would like to have coffee with Margaret Atwood, listen to her sensible views of the world, appreciating her smile, appreciating her use of language, appreciating her wisdom. That’s what I want today.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BwrQQXt7Icw

Balance

In these times, for me, its an attempt to find a balance between feeling productive and taking a breath, between sending love to those who struggle, to all those heroes who are helping as well as to acknowledge the dark, raging turmoil I feel towards those who make this situation worse. Is it possible to read too much when I could be sewing more face masks to give to people? Should I take a device-free day to avoid the news but then what about staying in much needed contact with family and friends? We are urged to make a daily schedule and we are urged to relax, to use this time to be creative and to cut ourselves slack.

Yes, the bookstore storage/garage and the van itself are organized and just waiting for the pall to lift. Jana who was quarantined at my house for two weeks was a big part of that organization. Left on my own now I wander like an easily distracted school kid from an art project to reading to sewing masks to the computer to reading to the computer to fiddle practice to attempting to exercise to…If there was an app tracking my activities, the results would be a Jackson Pollock painting.

My current book pile is similar. A Georgia O’Keefe biography, Charles Portis’ The Dog of the South, essays by Wendell Berry, Flights by Olga Tokarczuk, short stories by Brian Doyle, and Rebecca Salter’s Japanese Woodblock Printing. And yes, there are times when I go through that pile and realize none are quite right for the moment and start yet another one. Actually I am not quite sure what would be right for this moment.

Despite uncertainly, fear and anger, there is also amazement at how my community comes together, at individuals creating wonderful art in so many different ways, at people reaching out to others even if that reaching needs to sometimes be done virtually. It makes my heart sing to see colleagues like Raven Books in Kansas and Page 158 Books in North Carolina doing remarkable things to keep books in people’s hands. And I am so appreciative of women in my town who sew face masks better and faster than I will ever manage.

Dumping pieces

This post doesn’t offer answers. Rather it serves as a way for me to get the pieces on the table. The way you start one of those 1000-piece jigsaw puzzles. Open the box. Dump out all pieces and turn them over so the printed sides are facing up. Gradually sort pieces that have straight edges, and the blue ones that surely are part of the sky, and the ones that show they have trees or tiny windows or are part of a boat. Only then can the puzzle start to be assembled.

At this point, in the midst of political chaos and COVID-19, headlines about the stock market, countries closing their borders, people thankfully worrying if children who aren’t going to school will get lunch, and Italians singing their national anthem from balconies, I think about social distancing. I must admit I wasn’t familiar with the term until a few week ago. Now I think about it often.

I was traveling in New Mexico, a trip planned months ago with two friends. When we left Montana by train on February 28, we weren’t concerned. By the time we were in New Mexico, we began to think about it and wash our hands compulsively. On the return trip this past week, we seriously considered our actions and interactions.

Social distancing. Don’t shake hands or hug. Don’t attend large gatherings. Cancel the restaurant reservation. The sort of social distancing techniques which is part of particular socio-economic groups. As the train pulled into Los Angeles, and left again following the Los Angeles river, the meaning of social distancing took on a different meaning. Miles of homeless encampments along the tracks. A young woman sitting in the rain next to a pile of garbage. A man washing himself in the river. Some areas had been bulldozed with only a few plastic bags left to signify the tents and belongings which had been hauled away. This is America.

There is certainly social distancing between the individuals who try to survive living in these tents in urban encampments and my window on the train. I suspect residents perched in houses on the California hills also have a significant social distance from those living in these encampments. And the constant reminders in the news to wash our hands frequently? I don’t see evidence of hand washing facilities at these camps. I suppose individuals can go to the river but do they have soap which we are told works well when used properly?

Some political leaders find ways to get those children lunches who aren’t in school, or find alternatives where parents work and children need care during the day when schools have closed. Who resolves issues for the homeless when our attention is focused on the latest broadcasts about COVID-19? How does one stay three to six feet away from people when you are living on the street in Seattle, San Francisco, Portland? How do you get groceries delivered when you don’t have a street address? How do you wash your hands when there isn’t soap?

Books in their many manifestations

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.

Take the time

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).54B1F83F-A90B-4435-B2CF-1584633928CB

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.

 

Bonus

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.

Roots

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
  • Portrait of Maquoketa by Rose Frantzen
  • Dakota by Kathleen Norris
  • River of Fire by Sister Helen Prejean

Stopping by

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.