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

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.

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

Ready…set…go!

Tomorrow is the day. Tomorrow the bookstore heads east on its fall cross country odyssey and then settles for three days at the Baltimore Book Festival. Still sorting out last minute boxes of books because obviously I need to take lots of good books (although I also hope to pick some up along the way). And clothes that will work in the freezing mornings as I cross Montana and Wyoming as well as clothes that will suit milder temperatures in Maryland and Virginia. A month on the road also calls for art supplies (of course I need to make postcards) and a Ray Jacob dulcimer to practice when taking breaks at rest stops.

I have a bag of letters written by locals as when in Washington DC, I plan to have morning coffee with Montana Senators Tester and Daines, and I want to let these two gentlemen know what people in my community are concerned about. In the back of the bookstore I hope to squeeze in a large box of St. Rita’s Amazing Traveling Bookstore tshirts in a rainbow of colors prepared by Savvy by Design and a smaller box of greeting cards with my favorite Jack DeWitt bookstore photo.

Of course I will pack my workhorse Olympia typewriter for customers to express themselves and a good supply of typewriter ribbon and paper. Although usually I have only one copy of each book due to space limitations, I am bringing extra copies of Alicja Edwards‘ memoir, “As God Was Our Witness”, and Anne Johnson’s “Charlotte and Alice” as it is a long trip and I have no doubt many people will be interested in these. There is a tiny first aid kit, too many plugs for various devices, a small broom for sweeping out the bookstore and a flask of Buffalo Trace (in case of an emergency). It is not only a matter of remembering everything a bookseller/adventurer might need on such a trip, but narrowing it down to fit in a rather limited storage space.

And just in case you missed the bookstore itinerary, here’s the latest: Bozeman MT at Wildrye Distillery 10/15 4 – 7pm, Sheridan WY at Luminous Brewhouse 10/16 4 – 7pm, Sturgis SD at Jambonz Grill & Pub 10/17 4 – 8pm, Sioux Fall SD at Kaladi’s Bistro 10/19 8am – 3pm, Iowa City, IA at Hamburg Inn No. 2 10/21 from 8am – 2pm, Crete IL at Crete Creative Gallery 10/23 from 9:30am – 5pm, Toledo OH at Monroe Street Diner 10/25 from 8am – 1pm, Punxsutawney PA at Punxy Phil’s Family Restaurant 10/26 from 9am – 2pm, Leesburg VA at Loudoun Brewing 10/28 from 2 – 8pm, Baltimore MD at the Baltimore Book Festival 11/1 -3 from noon to 10pm, and in Woodstock IL Isabel’s Family Restaurant on 11/6 9am – 1pm.

It is a traveling bookstore after all.

Groundwork

Groundwork seems like the perfect word for what happens in preparing for a long distance traveling bookstore tour. There is mapping the route of the bookstore across the country, there is finding places to park and set up the van/store, and finding places for me to sleep at night. And there will be lots of ground to cover on this upcoming trip. It will be over five thousand miles (eight thousand kilometers) from Eureka, MT to the Baltimore Book Festival and back. At the end of this post, you can see dates and places in case the bookstore will be in your neighborhood.

Before the bookstore even pulls out of town on this trip to Baltimore, I am touched by all the help and offers. As usual with this unique business, it takes a lot of folks to make a trip like this happen – finding places to set up, finding places to spend the night, insuring there will be book supplies along the way. With the traveling bookstore turning five (yes, it’s true – been doing this since the summer of 2015), it seems there are even more people reaching out to help.

I don’t take it for granted. I very much appreciate and marvel at it all. Recently I talked with a secondhand bookseller in another Montana town. He asked where I sourced my books. I explained it’s a rather unusual business model, but people give me books. He nodded dubiously suspecting these donors were friends and neighbors, and asked, “But what about when you are on the road?” I explained even then people donate books. He wondered why people didn’t donate books to his brick-and-mortar store. I didn’t have an answer. I just know that for whatever reason, enough books come my way to keep the traveling bookstore going.

Another person asked how I manage housing on a long trip like the upcoming one. I explained I tend to stay with people, often people I know, but sometimes with people who know people I know. Or other times I stay with Servas hosts (and if you don’t know about this organization and you like to travel/host, definitely check it out). Actually the traveling bookstore maintains Servas’s mission which is to provide opportunities for personal connections among people of diverse cultures toward the goal of promoting world peace, goodwill and understanding. I am not entirely sure the bookstore with its wares and conversation helps to promote world peace but I believe it does nurture goodwill and understanding in its own small way.

In the last few weeks there have been bookstore conversations with a disgruntled (former) bookstore owner who felt people had stopped being interested in reading, a 96 year old woman who encouraged me to be more patient, an Amish couple who invited the bookstore to visit their community, a man who asked if he could set up a listening booth at the bookstore one afternoon (which he did), a woodcarver who said he normally got books from Amazon but was considering other options now, as well as many more.

These are tough times and exploring ideas through reading and conversations can make a difference.

multidimensional

Libby, MT

Perhaps if I was more of a tech head, I could figure out how to have multiple columns in one post. There would be vertical lines dividing the different columns where thoughts could run parallel and distinct but at the same time could be scanned horizontally to see how ideas overlapped. That layout might capture the complexity of a traveling bookstore and its owner, at least at this moment in time.

Instead a dedicated reader must slug through paragraphs and sort out what and how different segments connect. In 1964, Lorraine Hansberry wrote, “Write if you will: but write about the world as it is and as you think it ought to be and must be – if there is to be a world.” Last summer a couple about to get married visited the bookstore. This summer over two thousand children are in US detention camps. In August, the bookstore set up at the Riverfront Blues Festival where many good conversations were had over the awesome two-day event about books, about life, about music, about writing, about the world. In August, a man killed nine people in Dayton, Ohio with an assault rifle. That event happened in thirty-two seconds.

Plans are underway for the next cross-country traveling bookstore trip. Friends, friends of friends, people I don’t really know, someone’s second cousin reach out to offer advice where to set up along the way, offer places to stay. This adventure stretches from October 14 to November 11, from Eureka, Montana to Baltimore, Maryland and back. The anchor event for the series of stops is the 24th Annual Baltimore Book Festival (November 1-3). Some people ask if I am afraid to take my bookstore to Baltimore, to set up there for three days, to travel alone. No, because I could be a victim of a mass shooting in Dayton or El Paso or at a garlic festival, in a school, at a place of worship. But that possibility does not stop me from writing about the world as I think it “ought to be and must be.” It won’t stop the bookstore from opening its doors in cities, in small towns, at breweries, cafes and farmers markets.

Lincoln County Fair 2017

But before heading off to Baltimore, there is the Lincoln County Fair on August 23 – 25. Kids enter their 4H livestock, judges sample pies, jams and breads, pavilions fill with quilts, art, vegetables and flowers, and there is the fairway with all sorts of food, booths and games. St. Rita’s Amazing Traveling Bookstore has been setting up at this fair since it first stocked its book shelves in 2015. The event is a highlight of summer to hear what young people are up to, how older residents are doing, what issues take up space in this county.

To give perspective for those outside of Montana – Lincoln County has more square miles than Delaware. It is a county where 24% of the children live in poverty. Libby, the county seat, has the Center for Asbestos Related Disease (CARD) clinic where 12% of county residents have been diagnosed with asbestos-related disease.

It is not entirely easy to be a traveling bookstore owner, but I am doing it because I believe in a world that ought to be.