This is a stretch. I hope you bear with me. It does have to do with books. Actually one book I’m finishing up to enter into the Lincoln County Fair (MT) tomorrow. Tomorrow is the day when entries have to be dropped off at the fair grounds before 8:00pm and so, of course, I am trying to get my entries completed tonight (plus get the bookstore in order as the bookstore will set up at the fair for the next three days while I hawk books and talk with people about community).
But this evening the focus is on completing the items I want to enter into the fair: two pieces of art, an artist book, and two floral arrangements. It is the artist book that pushed me to write this.
Baltimore. It must have been 2019. I was staying in Washington, DC as I rendezvoused with a good friend there. Such a good friend that she was willing to schlep over to Baltimore so I could visit the American Visionary Art Museum and go to LP Steamers for hard crabs. Those of you familiar with Baltimore will hopefully understand what an incredible gift that was. And it was! Except for being slightly too hot – and we didn’t have a car so we walked from the museum to LP Steamers.
After an amazing time eating hard crabs, we figured out how to get back to DC which meant catching transportation near a small strip mall. We were waiting there, trying to stand in the shade when a guy rode up on his bike. Parked his bike, went into the cafe, and while he was in there getting something to go – the tire on his bike blew. My immediate thought was the guy would come up, see his ruined tire and assume we vandalized it. But that wasn’t the case. He came out. We told him we had nothing to do with it but the tire was flat. He quickly pulled out a very tiny kit that had everything he needed to replace the tube. While he worked on it, we managed to have a conversation about where we were from and where he was from, and Baltimore (which we both liked) and, because back at the place where we were staying in DC, I had started making an artist book but needed something like thread to hold it together – I asked if I could have the trashed tube. He said yes. We said good bye and that was that.
I did finish that particular book when we got back to DC and gave it to the woman who inspired it. The tube sliced very thin worked perfectly for binding. And now – here we are some years later and I am trying to figure out how to bind the current book (The Saga of a Typewriter That Became a Piano Accordion) and remembered the tube that was partially left. Surprisingly, I found it and finished my county fair entry, although engulfed by memories of that day – the conversations with my friend, the hot city streets, savoring hard crabs piled on brown paper on the table, and the man with the bike. All of this somehow seems to be part of my county fair entry. I hope the bike guy knows what an impression he made.
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