Halloween

Last week while sorting books at the end of the traveling bookstore season, I had the idea to give books rather than mass-produced candy away for Halloween. There were a few aspects to figure out especially distributing something in the midst of a pandemic. With help from a friend, we wrapped over fifty books, marking each with a code so it was easy to discern if the package would be appropriate for a pre-schooler, a beginning reader, middle school student, etc. The town folks decided to do a Trunk or Treat on the main street so I minimally decorated the back of my car, loaded a pumpkin along with the books, and parked downtown.

The books were mostly a big hit. I suspect it was a combination of recipients getting something different (a book and not just another packet of M&M’s), and as it came wrapped, there was the heightened sense of receiving a surprise. Of course I quickly realized that small children often have small bags for their treats, so large picture books were problematic. Next year I will do a better job on that. I also realized that even in a small town, I should have had at least twice as many books to give out. Next year.

There’s the tendency to be optimistic that next year things will be better – politically, with the pandemic, with climate change. Surely we’ll get a handle on some of these things. Its evident we aren’t simply facing one person who happens to be a bully, but a sizeable portion of our citizens who support him. And we aren’t all diligently focused on stemming the Covid tide but muddled hurling terms like anti-maskers and hoax at each other.

I was thinking about all this while handing out books. There were kids dressed as unicorns and others as Harry Potters. Quite a few Captain Americas, some witches and princesses mingled in there, and four young people dressed as cows. A local restaurant owner dressed as a plague doctor, had me wondering when is a costume no longer a costume. There were two youngsters dressed in camo but I figured we’re in Montana and its hunting season.

It did surprise me the number of adults who weren’t wearing masks as they socialized along the downtown sidewalk meeting up with friends, standing in groups talking. It was unnerving to see a young teen dressed as Kyle Rittenhouse. I must admit I felt relieved to hand out the last few books and drive away. But of course, we can’t really drive away now, can we? Wherever we are, we are part of the solution – or part of the problem. But we can’t be neutral, it isn’t possible to live outside the fray. We can’t just drive away, leaving the problems in our rear view mirror. Its a matter of deciding where to put our energy.

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)

What we can do

I know most of the titles in my traveling bookstore and also a good portion of the ones in my warehouse/garage. And normally I would say I definitely know which books I have on the bookshelves in my house because really, there aren’t that many in my house compared to the bookstore and the garage. But last week while trying to find one on my shelf to lend a friend, I came across a book I didn’t recognize. Looked interesting so I pulled it out and immediately consumed it – staying up way too late that night. The Old Man Who Read Love Stories by Luis Sepúlveda is a gem. Compare it to a delicious dinner that immediately has you wanting more. And more. I began to investigate Sepúlveda, what else he had written and was writing. A very sharp, dark moment when I discovered he died this past April from COVID.

A children’s book Sepúlveda wrote, The Story of a Seagull and the Cat Who Taught Her to Fly did catch my attention as I read about this author/political activist. A cat teaching a seagull to fly. Sounds rather impossible, doesn’t it? But aren’t there moments these days when many things seem impossible? The current state of the US? The pandemic? What about attempts to limit the USPS (an entity that independent bookstores very much depend on)? How to best educate our young people as we scramble to find what works and is healthy for communities? The climate situation continuing to spin out of control? Yes, the list of daunting tasks facing us goes on and on. But in Sepúlveda’s story (spoiler alert), the cat does indeed teach the seagull to fly. It is not easy. And it involves working with others because rarely can gargantuan tasks be accomplished alone. I am truly thankful for the tales Sepúlveda bequeathed us, and his reminder that regardless of the task, we need to find our way. Things may seem impossible, and this Chilean author had many experiences in his own life that were indeed challenging, but we cannot give up.

Civil disobedience

Earlier this week, the traveling bookstore set up at a farmers market. The market manager put out signs reminding people to wear masks and maintain social distances. Besides selling used books and postcards, the traveling bookstore gave away free face masks, masks made by women in the community who have been sewing mountains of them since March.

People stand and read books during silent protest in Istanbul’s Taksim Square.

I really enjoy talking books with people. I appreciate hearing kids enthuse about what they want to read. I like seeing someone get excited when they find a book they are searching for on the shelves – or discover a gem they didn’t even know they wanted. The traveling bookstore is small but it does have a remarkable inventory. Ask the man who inquired about a book on horses and I tried not to look doubtful as I pulled out the only three I had, but one was EXACTLY what he wanted. Most of the time, setting up the traveling bookstore brings joy.

And then someone stopped by who wasn’t wearing a face mask. In my kindest I-care-about-you voice I said masks were required at the farmers market and I had a box full of free ones so he could take his pick. But no. He didn’t want a mask. He said, with a smile, he was practicing civil disobedience.

I don’t know about you, but hearing ‘civil disobedience’ got my mind spinning on Henry David Thoreau and Martin Luther King Jr. I thought of Rosa Parks on the bus, the Stonewall uprising and the people in Tiananmen Square. I wanted to ask him what he meant. I wanted to say civil disobedience is an act to be honored, it isn’t a joke. I wanted to offer him a book, but he had already walked away.

And I was pissed trying to think how to react. It is a situation that plays out too frequently in my community these days. So it wasn’t anger at just this individual, but at the situation with the pandemic, with individuals and businesses who make choices that are potentially harmful to others, and at myself for feeling powerless.

But the incident got me thinking about civil disobedience and the remarkable occasions when people stood up to make the world better. Not only stood up but put their lives on the line. Gandhi’s Salt March, protests in Egypt, Ukraine, East Germany, and Selma. The list is long and if everyone who participated was counted, it would be millions. Millions! Millions of individuals who acted to make a difference, a positive difference. A difference that made the world a better place for themselves and their children and their neighbors. People were arrested and tear-gassed and blasted with fire hoses, and some were killed. Those who survived were willing to endure anything because they believed their endurance would change things for the better. And often it did.

I don’t know what vision the man held who refused to wear a mask at the farmers market. I hope he has a view larger than his own inconvenience on a summer’s afternoon. I am thankful my thoughts turned towards those who stood up for change, those who chose to walk towards something better, who kept true to their vision for days, months, even years. And this led me to consider when a choice to stand against power makes sense, and why in other instances it just seems wrong.

Some suggestions……

Henry David Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience

John Holloway’s Change the World Without Taking Power: The Meaning of Revolution Today

Dorothy Day’s Hold Nothing Back

Angela Y. Davis’s If they Come in the Morning: Voices of Resistance

Duncan Green’s How Change Happens

Audre Lorde’s Your Silence Will Not Protect You

Erica Chenoweth and Maria J Stephan’s Why Civil Resistance Works

If you decide to purchase any of these titles, please support an independent bookstore.

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.

Bookstore quandaries

When individuals remark how much they would enjoy owning a bookstore, I wonder if they have any idea the number of quandaries a bookstore owner must constantly mull over. Of course there is the question of what sort of books to carry. Should it be used or new or some combination? But then which titles? Are you selecting titles that will be popular with any customer who walks thru the door, or are you selecting titles you believe are really good books – reads that improve the world somehow with ideas or the story or the style of writing? Or finding some middle ground?

With a traveling bookstore, there are also questions about where to set up. Farmers markets, county fairs and music festivals might seem to be easy choices. But what about setting up in the parking lot of bars or fast food joints? Is it useful to open the wonderful world of books to anyone and everyone, anywhere regardless? Or should the bookstore be more selective – similar to choosing non-GMO foods?

Of course, that is a whole other rabbit hole to go down when starting to consider what is healthy. Does it even make sense to drive around the country selling books? On the one hand, this particular bookstore gets reasonably good mileage and uses solar to power the store’s lights. But can that begin to justify using petroleum products to peddle books?

The current pandemic raises other questions about customers’ safety. Is it possible to take enough precautions wiping off the grab bar, washing hands frequently, even making free face masks available? I begin this traveling bookstore season without any long trips planned for the summer, keeping the bookstore in the northwest corner of Montana, but still…is opening the bookstore sensitive to the community?

Last week, I set up the bookstore at a very small farmers market in a very small town, wearing my face mask and having hand sanitizer available. There were four other vendors that day and a handful of folks admiring the lovely early summer produce, perusing flower planters made from old horseshoes, and contemplating delicious bags of homemade fudge. A couple men stopped by the bookstore, gave me a nod and went in. They were each wearing a sidearm, a handgun in a holster. I had focused on keeping things clean and customers safely distanced and now here was a quandary I hadn’t yet considered. Where did I stand on having guns worn in the bookstore?

It has been nearly a week and I am still mulling this quandary over. Do I post a sign stating no firearms allowed? Do I try to engage in a conversation the next time (if there is a next time) when someone comes up to shop for books sporting a gun? Do I shrug it off as after all the two men were polite, bought books, and even talked with me about their choice of books?

I haven’t come up with an answer yet that is personally satisfying. I will take this opportunity though to warn anyone considering opening a bookstore that there will be an awful lot of things to think about.

The Dickens of it

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair…

Charles Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities (1859). Sort of captures the moment, doesn’t it? Of course, there is the question whether we’ve inched into the spring of hope or are still languishing in the winter of despair? Perhaps we each answer that for ourselves. Not easy, and the plethora of possibilities is overwhelming. In Montana at the moment, lilacs are budding and daffodils are in bloom. Yet even with the promise of apple blossoms, there’s sharp division among townsfolk whether we should open up everything or wait.

Waiting. Not something most of us do well. We want it all now. Actually yesterday would be better. Don’t even mention the 900-day siege of Leningrad. What do you mean it takes five minutes to download a movie?! Our Amazon delivery definitely needs to arrive within the next 24-hours. Zero to sixty in ten – yes, that’s what we want.

But things shifted. Many of us (depending on country and culture) are moving at a very different pace now because we have to. Many main street businesses are still closed. Shelter-in-place. Keep a distance. For days, weeks, months we’ve spent an unbelievable amount of time inside either caged alone or with others who hopefully we won’t grow tired of (or frightened of) before the entrapment ends.

Perhaps it depends on your personality type and economic situation how this experience works. Is it finally time to read that pile of books? How do they manage homeschooling and still work? Or surprisingly, she suddenly became a couch potato addicted to Netflix. He caught up on mounds of correspondence – writing real letters pages long filled with thoughts and emotions. The shoe box of photographs was nearly organized. Maybe it was the time to take on a project never thought possible, yet here you are doing it. Or maybe a darkness descended that threatened to extinguish who you are. Or you are angry because there are those who don’t agree with you, who make different choices, who put you at risk. Or limit your Constitutional rights. Or just do things differently.

Today I would like to have coffee with Margaret Atwood, listen to her sensible views of the world, appreciating her smile, appreciating her use of language, appreciating her wisdom. That’s what I want today.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BwrQQXt7Icw

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.

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.