Inspiration

In the traveling bookstore business as well as in my personal life, I search for that ever elusive balance. What combination makes things work well? On the very first transcontinental bookstore trip from Montana to the Brooklyn Book Festival in New York in 2016, we made the trip across in four long days thinking speed was the answer. Obviously it wasn’t and we arrived exhausted and uninspired. Was staring at a highway eight to ten hours a day really what a traveling bookstore was all about? No! Following trips were much better planned with numerous bookselling stops to refresh and remind one that a bookstore isn’t about speed, but about engaging with people. Now planned cross-country trips usually take two weeks one way with stops in interesting places to talk books.

On a recent trip (without the bookstore) to visit friends in Central Europe, I was inspired by conversations, art exhibits, theater performances, and concerts. And it was a delight to take in urban offerings while in an environment where the majority of people practiced good public health wearing masks, showing proof of vaccination to go into places like restaurants and theaters, and offering easily available Covid testing.

But as with all holidays, my time ended there and I came back to my rural Montana community. Yes, of course there are people here to discuss things with, and this week I help a friend hang a lovely exhibit of woodblock prints she did of jazz musicians. At the end of the month, a local nonprofit brings in a wonderful concert (Bridge & Wolak). But it feels different. There isn’t the spark of a different culture, listening to music in a hall built in the 1870s, walking through a carefully curated exhibit that introduces me to new artists. Which means figuring out what does work to maintain inspiration. I know taking the bookstore cross-country requires time (not speed). And hopefully I can identify where inspiration comes from at home.

Inspiring bookstore discovered: Dlouhá Punčocha

Inspiring performance: Circa

Inspiring luthier: Red Bird Instruments

Inspiring inflight film: Soul

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.

there are so many

There are places. There are books – those read and those to be read. There are people. And as you can imagine on a bookstore tour of this length, there are many people. Ideally I would have a free day after every bookstore event to note down at least a bit about each person I speak with. But it doesn’t work that way and so there are scribbled notes in my pocket, individuals I think about while driving, a business card someone gave me. Here is a small sampling because although I am completely enamored with books and reading, people are a vital part of why I do the bookstore. I wish I could write about everyone I meet along the way. I wish I could write about you.

Crete Creative Gallery

Tony. The bookstore set up in front of Luminous Brewhouse in Sheridan. A woman with three children and the woman’s mother crowd inside pulling children’s books off the shelves, the mother setting book-buying limits, the grandmother asking how I ever started this unusual business. And Tony walked up, noticed the chaos inside the bookstore. We started talking about Mihaly Csikszentmihaly‘s flow, about veterans hospitals, about real books and e-books. He mentioned having hundreds of books on his phone. I winced. But can you lend a friend a book if it is on your phone? We talked about balance. I took a deep breath.

Al. A tall thin man in an old green station wagon drove slowly pass the bookstore when it was set up in the parking lot of Jambonz Grill in Sturgis. He turned his car around, came back, parked next to the bookstore, unfolded himself from the car and asked, “What is this?” Turned out Al was a book dealer. He took books to shows all over the region, told me that gun shows were the best if you had the right books. After we talked for a while about books, bookselling and politics, he looked through my paltry inventory (compared to his) and found a couple volumes. Then he left promising to come back. A half hour later he did, with two boxes of books to donate, books he felt suited my bookstore but weren’t selling in his business. We talked some more.

Iowa City, Iowa. A dark rainy morning. Street construction. A tiny parking lot. I settle the van and go inside Hamburg Inn No. 2 for a great breakfast of pumpkin pancakes. Seth introduces himself. We had corresponded when I planned the stops on this trip. We talk about the restaurant which is famous in these parts. We talk about the traveling bookstore business. Later when I am outside and the rain has let up, Seth comes out to check how things are going, as though he is my guardian angel on this dreary morning. Customers eventually stop by the bookstore. The lunch crowd shows up at the restaurant. It was a very good day all around.

I never got her name. Stopping in Kadoka, South Dakota to mail letters, I asked the postal worker where I might get a cup of coffee. He pointed to Pocketful of Posies, the florist shop across the street so I went over there. The woman apologized when I walked in for the buckets of flowers everywhere. There were two funerals coming up. She made me coffee. She let me use her restroom. She told me about the young girl who had been hit by a car. About the older man who had died. She never stopped moving, arranging flowers, answering the phone, talking with two men who came in to drop some metal pieces off for the display that would honor their friend.

Deb retired after years working at a university in Rock Island, Illinois. She then embraced volunteering in a wondrous way. She is learning so much about art as a docent at the Figge Art Museum in Davenport. She mesmerized me with stories about the current Mia Feuer exhibit, about how a particular piece of art was constructed, about another artist’s life. She also volunteers with a local hospice. She learned to knit so as she sits with people, she creates a calm rhythm. Often I encourage people to volunteer as a way of helping their community. Deb discovered another reason to volunteer – to continue to grow.

books and maps and time

I suppose there are people out there who think if one has a traveling bookstore that certain months would be easy. Park the bookstore, stay at home, curl up with delightful books and read through the winter.  And then when Spring actually appears, get out the key, turn on the bookstore and hit the road. Although I am ever hopeful there will be more traveling bookstores in this country (and abroad), I should dissuade you – this is not the case.  There is a bit more work involved.IMG_1441

First there are the incoming books that pile up and pile up and PILE UP until the garage/warehouse is overflowing, and the top of the washing machine (don’t ask me why except it is a flat surface) is full of books and the floor space next to the front door has boxes of books which tip over when visitors come by and everything has to be sorted so the very best reads can then be put in the bookstore or boxed for upcoming trips.

Then there is applying to festivals (Yaak River Fest, Libby’s Riverfront Blues Festival, Montana Book Festival, Baltimore Book Festival, etc) and setting up trips.  The first long distance trip this year is scheduled May 15 – June 7 and is called in my notes, “The Western Bookstore Adventure”. This means getting out the maps, the phone, the computer, and starting to talk with anyone and everyone who might know something about Sheridan, Denver, Grand Junction, Sacramento, Ashland, etc etc etc.  How many miles is it from Casper, WY to Buena Vista, CO?  Who do I know in Salt Lake City who might put me up when the bookstore is there?  Is it a good idea to set up in Winnemucca the last weekend in May during the Run-A-Mucca Motorcycle Rally?  Will the owners of Populuxe Brewing who I briefly met let me set up in their parking lot when I am in Seattle? And how do all these places fit into a three-week travel schedule?  The mantra becomes Pace Yourself. Balance. I am typically not good at either.

Because of course there are so many places I would enjoy taking the bookstore. And there are invites from people whom I would dearly enjoy seeing and meeting.  But for some reason whether I use a paper calendar or the one on my phone, there are only so many days in a week, weeks in a month, months in a year.  There are community commitments in Eureka, MT up until May 14 and the Trash2Flash fashion show/fundraiser June 8. These make bookends for when the traveling bookstore can be out-of-state.  Of course the rest of June and July, the bookstore will set up in Eureka and other parts of Montana, land of my heart.

But for now, its back to organize books, maps, phone, computer, and oh, remember to order business cards, set an appointment for the bookstore to get a tune up, pace yourself, and balance.