Why not commit?

As a bibliophile, I am enamored with books as well as with words. I obviously enjoy reading and I also enjoy listening to people; someone talking where I can watch their face, ask questions about anything that is unclear, and process their choice of vocabulary. It can be someone who stops by the traveling bookstore that I’m meeting for the first time, or a long-time friend coming from another city to visit, or chatting with a waitress at a cafe. I listen to what they are saying, and also listen to what words they chose to use.

There are time periods when I notice certain words or phrases seem to pop up more often. Back in May 2020, I wrote a post about the phrase, “I’m being careful” because it seemed whoever I talked with during those months used that phrase at least once in justifying their choice around wearing masks, sheltering, social distancing. Now let’s fast forward to the last few weeks when the current phrase I seem to hear repeatedly is, “I just don’t want to commit to that.”

Now of course, it is perfectly reasonable that I might be paying attention to that phrase, that it really isn’t being used more often than normal. Maybe I am sensitized to it by some quirk. Or maybe it truly is being used more often in Autumn 2021 for a reason that isn’t clear yet. I suppose if I was handier with analytics and algorithms, I could discern the difference. But I am going to just leave it at me recently hearing people use that particular sentence often.

Typically someone says it when I’ve asked if they would like to do some volunteer work in the community. They preface their response by reassuring me that they very much support the Animal Shelter or the local museum or the arts organization, but this rousing cheer for the organization is then followed by their polite refusal to help because, they “don’t want to commit.” It appears to be used in a similar way when someone is asked if they could help with the seemingly out of control political situation in Montana at this point in time. Asked to serve on a committee, or do a training to canvas, or sign up to make comments to a commission, and yes, of course, the individual wants to see things improve, wants to be part of the solution, wants to get out there to help, but right now….”I just can’t commit to that.”

Obviously we each typically commit to many things. We commit to a job, to raising our kids in the best possible way. We commit to a marriage, to friendships. We probably commit to shoveling our front walk in the winter and keeping the grass mowed in summer. We commit to paying bills, to making sure there is food in the refrigerator, to our sports team, to showing up for the weekly yoga class. So it isn’t commitment that is the dilemma. It is somehow the particular commitment of volunteer work, or civic engagement that seems to trigger the response.

In case you feel the urge to suggest a book that addresses this, yes, please do. I am certainly open to ideas on this. I’ve read some but none have really given me an answer that fits. It doesn’t seem to be a generational stigma as I’ve gotten this response from people in high school and from people in their eighties. It isn’t part of any rural/urban divide or socioeconomic that I can tell – friends in cities and in my small town have told it to me. And I should pause here with a huge shout out to all of you who do make commitments, who do show up to help out. Thank you, thank you, thank you!

Perhaps you are wondering how this tirade has anything to do with books. Because keeping a local school board from banning books is a commitment. Supporting local libraries in numerous ways is a commitment. Becoming a volunteer tutor, helping at an elementary school, getting books to inmates – all commitments. All opportunities just waiting for you to show up.

Small but mighty

Although St. Rita’s Amazing Traveling Bookstore (and Textual Apothecary) is small in size, a 132″ wheelbase, high top Sprinter van carrying about six hundred volumes when packed, it has potential. Not only does it set up in all sorts of places in the US from Montana to New York City, from Minneapolis to Asheville, from Baltimore to San Francisco, it also touches places outside the continental US as well. Partially this is a result of travelers who just happen upon the bookstore. A woman, whose family came from the Czech Republic, discovered us recently in Portland. A couple who are NY bookstore owners, the woman is Polish and the man American, happened upon the traveling bookstore when it set up at a farmers market in Montana this past summer. And partially it is a result of individuals who actually traveled with the bookstore, taking away fond memories and spreading the word. Nada helped with the traveling bookstore’s first long trip from Portland to New York. Jana joined up on another trip, starting in Indianapolis and traveled along through Smiths Grove, KY, a number of gigs in North Carolina, W. Virginia and back across to Montana. Ya’aqov was with the bookstore on a trip that included a N. Dakota blizzard. So I suppose it isn’t a surprise when Nada, who is now a librarian in Kvasice, Czech Republic, posted photos of the traveling bookstore on her library’s bulletin board. Or when I received a photo from St. Rita’s Church in Krakow, Poland. The photo served as a reminder that St. Rita is the Patroness of Difficult and Impossible Cases.

I am certainly willing to accept there are difficult cases. I am not quite ready to allow myself to see things as impossible. In an interview discussing her latest book, Orwell’s Roses, Rebecca Solnit said, “I never describe myself as an optimist. An optimist is someone who thinks things will be all right no matter what. It is the flip side of being a pessimist, which means thinking everything will be bad no matter what. What I am is hopeful. Being hopeful means there are possibilities, but it is up to us to seize them and make something of them.”

And yes, seizing opportunities to do something is so necessary in these times, as opposed to sitting back wringing one’s hands lamenting the state of the world, or leaning over glasses of beer with like-minded people lambasting those rotten politicians, or sheltering behind the screen posting worn out memes.

There are moments when I wonder how a small (although far-flung) bookstore can make a difference, but then while on the road conversations are sparked or new relationships formed, and I realize there is hope. Sometimes I worry how rural communities that persist in ignoring public health guidelines will survive our current times. Yet enough people speak up, show up, write letters to make a difference, to give me hope.

Fortunately the traveling bookstore has a Patroness who helps with hard situations. Perhaps if each of us seize those possibilities to do something, then we never need to reach the impossible.

Orwell’s Roses by Rebecca Solnit

Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr

The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison

Latest

Between trips. Took the bookstore to White Sulphur Springs which was a delight and then over to Bozeman. Both towns quite different in customers and types of conversations, but events in both locations featured weather. Some serious wind in White Sulphur Springs, and Bozeman – although Sunday was fairly pleasant, on Monday there was sun, rain, sun, rain, hail, sun, rain. It has been rare over the last seven years for me to close up the bookstore early due to weather, but Monday in Bozeman was one of those times. The other was in Minneapolis during a snowstorm.

Even on a short trip like this (two days in White Sulphur Springs, and two in Bozeman), so much happens. Conversations, connections, observations, musings. While I find a way to capture all of this, here is a wonderful video by Marla Goodman featuring a piece written for theremin (by Elizabeth Brown). Such a joy for a lovely piece of music to fit so well with a traveling bookstore.

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