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

Boundaries

Canada-US border at Roosville, MT

There seem to be more difficulties dealing with boundaries, although I suppose there have been difficulties for as long as there have been people drawing lines in the sand. Or when someone made a decision about who could use that cave, or hunt in that forest, or fish in that river. When the traveling bookstore isn’t on the road, it’s parked seven miles from the Canadian border. Other than showing the right papers, it was an easy place to visit – going up to Fernie for the wonderful independent bookstore there or on longer adventures to Edmonton (and the wonderful Alhambra Books). But since last March the Canada-US border has been closed for these sorts of trips. The boundary is quite visible in our valley especially in winter with that snowy line stretching from one mountain to another. Close but closed.

Even on this side of the border though, there are struggles with boundaries. Who wears a face mask? Who doesn’t? Why is that person standing so close to me while waiting in line at the post office? Last summer for the first time since opening my traveling bookstore, customers went into my bookstore wearing sidearms. There are my boundaries. Personally I don’t like people wearing guns into my quite small bookstore. I do want people in my community to wear face masks and take other precautions in public during a pandemic. But these are challenges because unlike the border visible across the mountains, I need to establish my own boundaries and decide how to apply them in my sphere. This becomes more complex with seemingly arbitrary boundaries the current Montana legislature and governor are changing at an alarming rate. Can transgender youth play sports? Can children who aren’t vaccinated attend public schools? And yes, people have the right to wear their guns anywhere. And now there are no public health mandates concerning masks or public gatherings from the state government. It is an overwhelming time with frantic urgency to write my representatives in Helena, trying to get them to be sensible about those of us who live in this state, all of us who live in the state. Forcing us to think seriously about our boundaries.

I have the traveling bookstore and plan to set it up in Montana this summer. I hope to take it to other states by Fall. Now I read books – some recommended, some left on my doorstep as a donation, some discovered at the local library. These current times make me aware of books dealing with boundaries – The Women in the Copper Country by Mary Doria Russell, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong, True North by Jim Harrison, and Savage Inequalities: Children in American Schools by Jonathan Kozol.

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.

Quilting words

It is a slow season for a traveling bookstore in northwest Montana. The snow is starting to settle in and the pandemic has settled heavily in these parts as well. So the bookstore is parked. Occasionally locals stop by and I put a bag of books together for them. It is a very good season to be reading.

Besides my own reading, there is also quilting. Some years back, I began going to a group that meets every Friday to hand quilt in an old schoolhouse. Their efforts bring in funds to support the local museum. Not a person who sews by nature, I mostly wanted to be with these women who knew the history of the valley and who lead by example. They told me I needed to quilt if I was going to hang with them on Fridays so gradually I learned how to make small(ish) stitches, how to attach quilt layers to a frame.

stretching back of quilt on frame

This year in an attempt to make the physical and mental adjustments to Covid, I began creating three quilts. For me, quilting is collaboration. There really isn’t any way to imagine doing it alone. I asked people for fabric, I asked for gloves – as the one quilt features gloves and how our sense of touching others changed during these times. For another quilt, I wanted faces so a friend, Shirley Jacobs, began helping me produce wood block portraits of twenty individuals who passed away over the last six months. Another friend who is a remarkable quilter helped us piece the portrait quilt together. And this week, the women began the process of putting it on the frame to quilt.

Basting

Thinking about this and the wonderful children’s books available about quilts, I decided to put together a list just in case you need ideas for holiday shopping. Of course, you can order any of these from independent bookstores.

The Keeping Quilt by Patricia Polacco

Quiltmaker’s Gift by J. Brumbeau and Gail de Marcken

Sweet Clara and the Freedom Quilt by Deborah Hopkinson

Quilt Story by Tony Johnson and Tomie de Paola

Quilts of Gee’s Bend by Susan Goldman Rubin

Hands

I assume we all are multi-tasking at a new level these days physically, emotionally, economically. A parent tries to work while supervising children who are learning at home. How many people weigh a job that puts them at risk against inadequate unemployment benefits? Individuals strive to shelter in place, yet are committed to protesting injustice. Teachers juggle working with students in classrooms and students online. We are urged to be kind and to breathe deeply during these wild times of a pandemic and political turmoil. Yet we know we can’t be silent, we must do more than smile. We need to step up. We need to lend a hand.

Two books of photographs came through my house on their way to the traveling bookstore. One features photos mainly of hands by Eve Arnold, a book I’ve always admired. We do so much with our hands from holding a baby, to pulling a trigger, fixing an engine to threading a needle, butchering a pig to shaping steel. Arnold’s book is remarkable in all the lives she captures, the depths that are revealed. The other book, Women, features Annie Leibovitz‘s photos accompanied by Susan Sontag‘s words, and yes, both Leibovitz’s images and Sontag’s essay will instantly absorb you.

I am fortunate to have both books in front of me at this moment. The people captured by the photographers’ lens, and the questions posed in Sontag’s essay broaden my experience. And isn’t that what we expect books to do? To take us out of ourselves, to show us a different place, a different existence. To remind us that everything doesn’t necessarily start and stop with my individual life. Rather each of us is intertwined with so many others in a myriad of ways. Through books, we can glimpse others’ lives, learn of unimagined experiences, our world grows. Hopefully we gain insight. We see the faces of those who mine coal, a man’s fingers picking coffee beans, a woman’s hands sewing garments in a factory. We see the hands of a surgeon and the hands of an addict. Leibovitz gives us women farmers, actors, scholars, athletes, and politicians.

My take away from these books is the strength we each possess. Despite hardships, despite the place we find ourselves in at this moment. The look in the eyes of the miners at the end of their day, the nurse finishing a long shift, the woman weaving. Both books are reminders of humans’ capabilities and determination.

Handbook, Eve Arnold (2004)

Women, Annie Leibovitz and Susan Sontag (2000)

Stitches

To sew is to pray. Men don’t understand this. They see the whole but they don’t see the stitches. They don’t see the speech of the creator in the work of the needle. We mend. We women turn things inside out and set things right. We salvage what we can of human garments and piece the rest into blankets. Sometimes our stitches stutter and slow. Only a woman’s eye can tell. Other times, the tension in the stitches might be too tight because of tears, but only we know what emotion went into the making. Only women can hear the prayer. from Louise Erdrich’s Four Souls. HarperCollins, 2004

Yes, it is summer so I read. And I take the traveling bookstore around to events in northwest Montana where mostly I set up at farmers markets. When not reading or doing the traveling bookstore business, I work on a quilt these days. I am not a very experienced quilter so it feels a bit odd and definitely awkward. It could be called an art quilt although that seems pretentious. It will be a quilt that can cover someone’s bed, can be wrapped around you on a chilly evening as you read. It is made from fabric and gloves people gave me. I am trying to get the stitching right.

It made sense at that beginning to call it a pandemic quilt. That doesn’t capture it all now as I sew. Initially the idea came from gloves we wore to keep ourselves and our communities healthy, and also the stark physical isolation as many people stopped hugging, stopped shaking hands. Yet circumstances unfolded – or became more vivid. At the beginning it was about a virus but expanded into a lack of leadership and into Black Lives Matter and then older women linking arms to protect protestors. My neighbor across the street put a “Faith Over Fear” sign in her front yard. A thirty-year-old Congresswoman gave a speech that spoke to power. Many foreign borders are now closed to Americans.

I sew a quilt. I make books available to people. I hope for the best, but know we each must contribute to make that happen.

Summer reads

Summer is a truly awesome time to read. Whether you are in a hammock, or at the beach, inside with a fan blowing to keep you cool, or sitting in a camp chair in the mountains, reading in summer has its own special magic. Which means I certainly read more, and I notice my customers seem hungrier for books. A man stopped by my house the other morning, apologized for the inconvenience but wondered if he could go into the bookstore. With the hot weather and sheltering in place, he was going through multiple books each week. He desperately needed more. Of course, I opened up the bookstore and let him browse. Of course, I want any reader to have sufficient reading material. Especially in summer.

Recently the bookstore set up at a new venue, although still in Lincoln County, Montana because it doesn’t feel like the right time to be traveling in this country. I inquired the week before about setting up at the Libby farmers market. Not only did they welcome the idea of a traveling bookstore, but they assured me the market had a mandatory face mask policy. That’s what sold me. I was ready to drive the hour and a half each way to participate. Not only did the market managers require all vendors to wear masks, but they politely requested all customers to wear masks as well. They even had disposable ones to give to anyone who might come to the market without their own.

Libby is about seventy miles from Eureka, a drive along beautiful Lake Koocanusa. Seventy miles mostly without radio reception and the bookstore is of a vintage that doesn’t have a CD player or Bluetooth. A good amount of time to drive appreciating the beauty of place, and thinking about things. Arrived in Libby early enough to have lunch in a friend’s shady backyard before going to the farmers market to set up. It was a delicious lunch, served with a reminder from my friend to focus on positive things.

It is a rough time politically in so many ways. But there I was at a farmers market with interesting vendors and customers to talk with, children excited to buy books, market managers who graciously enforced the state mandate for face masks, and I got to experience it all with a traveling bookstore. I bought delicious pastries from the Gracious Table booth. I met two women who were working for Census 2020 who had fascinating stories to tell me. I marveled at the efforts of Hoot Owl Farm, not only selling lovely produce but keeping their long line of customers well spaced.

People engaged in conversations. People shared ideas. People were willing to wear face masks on a hot afternoon. There were many positive things that day to refresh me for the drive back home.

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.