Remember

Just heading back to Montana after finishing up a traveling bookstore gig in Portland, OR. Everything went so well there – from the set up at Cathedral Coffee, to gracious help from Jennifer who brought among other things a typewriter with green ribbon, and then all the individuals who stopped by. There was a family who home schools who appreciated the books available for young people, a man from Hawaii visiting Portland for the first time, a librarian who had curated the Faux Museum in Portland, and a couple who happened to be in town from Arizona. Some Portland traveling bookstore fans dropped books off and we talked about life in Oregon and Montana. A bookseller from Green Bean Books stopped by and we mutually enthused about our favorite bookstores around the US. Miraculously it didn’t rain during the entire time the traveling bookstore was open, and Cathedral Coffee just happened to have sweet potato quiche on the menu that day which was a delight.

After heading out of town to start the trek back to Montana, I stopped off in The Dalles, OR. When looking for a place to easily park the bookstore, ended up near that town’s City Hall. The alley there had a mural of Eleanor Borg, a remarkable individual who was originally from the east coast, had polio as a child, later learned to dance and became a New York City Music Hall Rockette. After getting married, she relocated to The Dalles where she taught dancing and horseback riding to young people for many years. Obviously the community appreciates what she gave by commemorating her with this lovely mural.

Seeing the mural immediately brought to mind Bernice Ende. For those of you who aren’t familiar with this woman, she wrote a book, “Lady Long Rider: Alone Across America on Horseback,” which is available through independent bookstores. Driving the bookstore on from The Dalles, without a passenger or sound system, gave me plenty of time to remember Bernice and lessons I learned from her. Bernice taught ballet to young people, and then became a long rider, riding horseback across country and throughout the west. Her death came too soon. Perhaps that is one of the lessons, to appreciate those in our life while we have them, to accept and appreciate them for who they are, and what they have to give.

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Westbound

Sturgis, South Dakota

Pocatello, ID

Heading west with a few more stops on the way home. Today setting up in Sturgis at Red’s Grill. Something of a snafu as Red’s changed their schedule recently due to staffing shortages. I was scheduled to set up there all day but with the restaurant closed, and after speaking with the owner, I decided to open just in the morning and hope for the best. Red’s kindly put out info about the traveling bookstore on their social media so I hope to get customers.

Then into Montana! The bookstore sets up in White Sulphur Springs (population 979) at the public library on Wednesday. I’ve been there before and it was a treat – both getting to hang at the library between customers and then the customers who came to the bookstore. The last time I was there with the bookstore, I remember intense wind all day that felt totally disconcerting. But now coming from Brookings where the bookstore nearly blew away, I think I am adapting to the plains and the weather on this side of the Rockies.

There is so much I want to tell you. And I want to share the depth I feel. Often I’m overwhelmed with the stories and the individuals, the spaces where I set up the bookstore and the sense of place. So I find myself offering lists that don’t capture much but I do want to give you an idea of the scope of these tours.

Traveling the way I do not only affords opportunities to set up in a variety of interesting places (from a brew pub in Pocatello, ID to an art studio in Lincoln, NE; the book festival in Brookings to Red’s Grill here in Sturgis), but it also gives me an opportunity to see friends and meet new people as typically I stay in households while on the road. Alan and Bonnie in Pocatello walked me around the neighborhood, telling me about architecture, stories of people who have lived there, the texture of the town which Alan’s family had been part of for generations. Christiane in Salt Lake City graciously introduced me to her friends who, like Christiane, relocated from France to Utah as young adults. It felt like international travel to have dinner with them – delicious food, long conversations encouraged by bottles of wine, French and English interchanged, no hesitation to bring up politics.

In Denver I had three days with Connie who gave me a glimpse of life in a 55+ community – the camaraderie, the laughter over pool volleyball, the thoughtfulness with one person dropping off a loaf of zucchini bread to us, another bringing me a bag of books. The sense of people having time to listen to each other, offers to help out. And Connie worked the bookstore with me both days that I was in Denver (what a treat!), and then helped me navigate Denver streets/traffic with the bookstore so we could pick up dinner from what is considered the city’s best Thai restaurant.

Lincoln, NE was an opportunity to stay with Hana and her family. Hana and I were colleagues at Masaryk University in Brno, Czech Republic. Now I drive a traveling bookstore around the country and Hana leads Czech Studies at the university in Lincoln. Besides snippets of conversations with her two daughters and husband amidst their flurry of school, work and swim classes, Hana invited me to one of her classes to engage with her students – answer their questions about my life, and ask my own about theirs. Hana recommended the Sheldon Museum of Art at the university which was the perfect place to spend an hour when temps were heading to 100 degrees F. She also told me about the International Quilt Museum which was another treat to take in on this trip.

In Brookings, I stayed with a couple whom I hadn’t met before but we immediately found numerous topics to discuss, ideas to share. Of course, I was in Brookings to set up at the book festival which meant long days, but the moment I returned to Phyllis and Jihong‘s house, we would dive in where we had left all.

Before this trip, I had not seriously considered spending much bookstore travel time in the Great Plains and now, as I head back to Montana, I already think about when I might return.

Mountain/Plains Tour

On the road with the bookstore. Setting up in new places that have been delightful. Pocatello, ID (population 56,000) reminded me to appreciate coming into a town, meeting new people, hearing stories from those who lived there all their lives, and those who just moved in. Then on to Salt Lake City (population 200,100) – a treat setting up at The King’s English Bookshop and meeting a fascinating group of individuals at dinners after I closed my bookstore for the day. Reminded by a young environmentalist there is hope but we all must try harder. And I appreciated friendships between people I met who had been neighbors with each other for decades.

A day off yesterday in Denver (716,000) to meet friends, do laundry, catch up on emails. Friday and Saturday setting up at Fiction Beer which is the ideal place for a bookstore gig.  And then on to Nebraska with stops in Kearney and Lincoln! So thoroughly enjoy the traveling bookstore business. Still mystified that more people don’t get a van and start their own bookstore, stopping at towns and cities, meeting people and hearing their stories, having time while driving across mountains, plains to reflect on it all.

And there are so many stories even on a trip that lasts less than a month. A man at dinner explained ham radio and told us about postcards (QSL cards) some operators send to each other they meet on the airwaves. A person described his antique business and all the beautiful glass he still has after retiring. But what will happen to it since his adult children don’t care for it? People tell me about their lives and why they don’t volunteer (my personal default is everyone should volunteer at least a few hours each month if not more). I get to think about differences – I’m content to be on the road for a month, while a woman told me between her pets and job, she doesn’t like to be gone from home for even a week.

I try hard to pay attention to the individuals who come to experience the traveling bookstore. The couple with a small girl, the man a potter who said the bookstore was magic and then his daughter found a book she wanted to give her grandmother.  A young woman quietly tells me about an abusive relationship she left and how her faith helped her find the strength to leave it.

There are times when it feels overwhelming. With the driving and the stories, keeping the bookstore neat and well-stocked, trying to keep it all together. But then the bartender at Fiction Beer brings out samples of Wordless Wilderness which feels like an elixir at the end of the day. Crafted to taste and look like the ocean wetlands marsh from the novel, “Where the Crawdads Sing” by Delia Owens. Blue spirulina powder gives the beer its blue hue. Mildly tart with a splash of marsh salt on the finish, we crafted this Gose with equal parts German pilsner and wheat malts, finishing it with glasswort infused sea salt. A small addition of magnolia blossom infused simple syrup offers a true southern twist of floral and ginger character.

A traveling bookstore life is rather remarkable.

Here’s the scoop

September 11: Portneuf Valley Brewery in Pocatello, ID 12 – 6pm

September 12 & 13: King’s English Bookshop in Salt Lake City, UT 10 – 6pm

September 16 & 17: Fiction Beer in Denver, CO 2pm – 7:30pm

September 19: Barista’s Daily Grind (downtown location) in Kearney, NE 7am – 2pm

September 20: Constellation Studios in Lincoln, NE 2pm – 6pm

September 21: Lux Center for Arts in Lincoln, NE noon – 6pm

September 23-25: South Dakota Festival of Books in Brookings, SD (following festival schedule)

September 26: Red’s Grill in Sturgis, SD 9am – 3pm

September 28: Public library in White Sulphur Springs, MT 10am – 4pm

Yes, I am the owner/driver of the bookstore and I REALLY hope not one more person asks me, “Do you drive that all by yourself?”

Yes, I often travel alone on these trips. Sometimes a friend or two will join up for portions of a trip, but it is unusual for me to have a passenger for an entire bookstore tour of this length. Not opposed to it – most people though seem to like to experience the traveling bookstore business for a few days or a week, but longer than that seems grueling (except to me). I personally like the rhythm of longer bookstore tours.

I have space in the back of the bookstore for about six boxes of extra book stock. I get books along the way (for example, Beth in Denver has already sent a photo of books she is holding for me there). I have never run out of books even on longer tours. No idea why it works this way, but it always has.

I have been doing the traveling bookstore business for eight years now and don’t remember any unpleasant interactions with customers. There have been a few mechanical issues with the van, but people drawn to a traveling bookstore tend to be very nice. In fact I am adding a few more chairs on this upcoming trip so folks have a place to sit if they want to have longer conversations.

The Baltimore Bike Guy

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.

Think twice

The traveling bookstore has been getting press. Nice to hear people who respond talk about their own love of books, their passion to follow their dreams, their desire to shape a dream. Of course, the press paints a rosy picture of life with a traveling bookstore. And yes, there are definitely many remarkable traveling bookstore aspects and adventures – which I’ll enumerate a few paragraphs down. But it is necessary to point out there are moments – the flat tire in the middle of North Dakota, the day the bookstore broke down in Wyoming with nary a mechanic in sight to work on a Mercedes diesel engine, a business owner complaining about THAT transient business (the traveling bookstore) set up in her town, driving through torrents of rain on the recent trip to Portland.

But sometime dark moments turn bright. For example, when set up at Extracto Coffee (Portland) on Memorial Day, lots of people were there to buy coffee and pastries – and many bought books. But by the time this bookseller and the accordionist, Shirley Jacobs, took a break, Extracto had sold out of pastries! To save us from becoming hangry, Jennifer (dear bookstore customer who happens to live a few blocks from Extracto) kindly offered to bring us lunch. She returned within the hour with sandwiches, fruit, and delicious chocolate chip cookies.

And yesterday – this was very unusual – a guy pulled up next to the bookstore and asked if I needed any office supplies. Opened the back of his SUV which had a plethora of staplers, paperclips, clipboards, tape, index cards – all brand new and here was this guy with very little explanation, ready to give me as much as I needed.

Currently, the bookstore is set up on Bainbridge Island where Kristin offered a lovely place to stay, the waitress at the Madison Diner made the morning pleasant, the woman at Sound Reproduction patiently helped troubleshoot getting troublesome copies printed, and staff at Bainbridge Island Museum of Art were totally awesome. All of which made dealing with the rain easier.

And so many good conversations including a hiker from Boston who is thinking about changing locations, a teacher from Minneapolis with a great vision, and a book artist/printer who explained it wasn’t until she was in college that she discovered art was what she was meant to do. I learned about Provisional Press which is going to be a game changer, was reminded by Amos Kennedy to act to make the world better, and am now ready to take the bookstore to Milwaukee, Detroit and LA – all new places for the bookstore because of meeting people this weekend who make those places seem like I need to visit.

Obviously the bookstore business, like much in life, is unfolding in fits and starts. And I am so appreciative of the support and inspiration from a variety of sources along the way.

Home

Even with a traveling bookstore, there are thoughts of home. Sometimes while on the road, I find myself yearning for home – at least the people and things I left there. Often while on the road, people ask me where I’m from. This winter, I began delving into what home means. I asked others, and I will say, for every individual I spoke with about home, there was a unique answer. I started making a short film as a way to document these answers, and an attempt to learn how to make a longer (and hopefully better) film about the topic. Here is my first attempt: Home/Domov.

Recently while listening to news from Ukraine – the horror and sadness of people losing homes, people losing family, people losing lives – the concept of home feels even more poignant. Today I heard a Czech friend had provided a Ukrainian family with an apartment. I’m appreciative of having people like this in my life, people willing to give. People who see a need and respond.

The apartment being used by the Ukrainian family is one I’ve stayed in. I know the art on the walls, the dishes that are in the cabinets, the view from the windows. I hope the family feels safe there, and that circumstances allow them to return home soon. Or perhaps they will make this new country their home.

Those thoughts led to another. While teaching in the Czech Republic, a musical group I was part of received a grant that allowed us to travel to Munich, Germany. While there, we would give a few concerts, sing with a children’s choir, and visit a nursing home to perform. But where would we stay? There were fifteen of us, and the grant really wasn’t that generous. I put out the word to everyone I could think of with connections in Munich, and a couple contacted me – offering their house. I explained there were fifteen people and ideally we would be able to cook at the house as well as sleep there because we were on a tight budget. The woman said no problem and gave me their address. I was thankful, and didn’t give it another thought until we arrived at her home. It was quite small. Two bedrooms (one of course reserved for the couple who lived in the house), a bathroom, kitchen and living room. Someone in our group immediately took charge, dividing up who would sleep where (we all had sleeping bags) and organizing a schedule for showers. I was in charge of cooking so sorted out who would help with that. It worked out beautifully – yes, crowded but everyone remained in a good mood, evenings spent singing songs with the couple and drinking beer. As we left their house on our last day, the woman said she didn’t need our thanks – she asked that we each just keep this experience in mind, and open our homes to others whenever possible.

I try to open my home to anyone who needs a space. I feel blessed as many people have opened their homes to me. And now I am very glad to see people in Germany, Poland and the Czech Republic opening their homes to those from Ukraine needing shelter.

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

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.