‘Tis the season where trees even here in northwest Montana change colors. The larch shift to a yellow brilliance, the mountain ash offers orange berries and red willows shine in the valley. The traveling bookstore just returned from the Montana Book Festival which was an astonishing event. The drive between Eureka and Missoula was a wonderful opportunity to see the season’s foliage while the festival itself delighted in so many ways. New authors and already famous ones shared words and ideas. There was an opportunity to see a vintage bookmobile from the Missoula library and to talk with numerous bookstore owners. There was art and art openings, music and poetry. There were hipsters and seasoned bibliophiles. There were MFA students and rappers. Jane Smiley inspired me to write more and Donna Kaz inspired me to work harder for social change.
As often happens, there were discussions about the traveling bookstore. How did the idea originate? How many states has it been to? Is it successful? I found that last question thought provoking as it pushed me to consider what success would be for this enterprise, a traveling bookstore that can easily set up anywhere selling used books, offering kids a chance to type on a manual typewriter and others an opportunity to try out a theremin. One man immediately set down his coffee and briefcase although he seemed to be in a rush because, as he put it, “I’ve always dreamed of playing a theremin!”. Or Caroline Patterson who took to the theremin instantly and I wondered if it had to do with her name as Carolina Eyck is a theremin virtuoso. But these are all tangents, an indication of how full and varied the Montana Book Festival was over the three days. Now back in Eureka, the question about success still sits there unanswered.
Can the answer be framed in monetary terms? When the traveling bookstore starts bringing in x amount of dollars, it will have achieved success. Or is it the quantity of social media – how many likes on Facebook or followers on Instagram? Perhaps success for the bookstore should be measured in personal terms such as the amount of satisfaction gained from having discussions while set up in Missoula or Portland or Eureka or Rock Island. Or as someone said, “As long as you enjoy doing it, keep it up.” As always, there is the sense that if I had just done a business plan before diving into this, I would know how to measure success.
I am continually surprised by the number of people who indicate that they would like to have a traveling bookstore but the stars just don’t align. They don’t have the time or don’t like being gone from home. Or they would never consider driving this thing in San Francisco or New York. I do feel fortunate to have the opportunity to be the driver/owner of this particular bookstore. And perhaps success – or at least the meaning of it in the case of this traveling bookstore – will manifest over time. Like life. As Aristotle pointed out, “One swallow does not make a spring, nor does one sunny day; similarly, one day or a short time does not make a person blessed and happy.” Perhaps it is something to consider in the business of a traveling bookstore as well.
This weekend is the National Book Festival in Washington, DC. Although the traveling bookstore will remain parked at home, I will go to work the Montana booth at that festival representing Humanities Montana. It’s an opportunity to tell people about the wonderful writers we have here, to lure them to read Judy Blunt’s Breaking Clean, Debra Magpie Earling’s Perma Red, Craig Lancaster’s 600 Hours of Edward, Pete Fromm’s Indian Creek Chronicles and so many more. It’s a chance to let people know there is a rich literary tradition in a state that stretches across expanses of plains, forests and mountains. Montana also has many talented writers under the big sky.
Then at the end of September the Montana Book Festival happens. The traveling bookstore will be there as one of many events including panels, readings, poetry slams, and of course, the infamous Pie & Whiskey at the Union Club on September 28. I suppose my deep appreciation of these book festivals is akin to sports fans going to a tournament. Its a rush to be surrounded by so many people who enjoy books and who want to read. And, as often readers are good storytellers, I will surely get to hear some wonderful stories while at the huge Convention Center in Washington and when set up with the traveling bookstore on the streets of Missoula.
It is part of having this traveling bookstore business that I surely appreciate – the stories that people share (or hint at). Last weekend with the traveling bookstore at the Lincoln County Fair, a young boy typed a story about his pig. In reality the pig was being auctioned at the fair and then sent to the butcher’s. In the boy’s story, the pig had many adventures, being recognized for its cognitive abilities and bravery rather than its meat. A girl with a Wonder Woman symbol painted on her face stopped to look at books and type. She wrote a long story which she said was private, typing, going off for ice cream, coming back to type more. She did an entire page before pulling the paper out with a flair and heading back into fair activities, the page neatly folded and secure in the back pocket of her jeans. And then there was the older gent who was searching for Louis L’Amour books. Yes, there were a few in stock at the traveling bookstore, but he knew so much about Louis L’Amour that we eventually sat down so I could hear the full biography. Stories and books. Yes, definitely looking forward to the upcoming festivals.
Do it. That is what often comes to my mind. When I realized I couldn’t make a go of a brick-and-mortar bookstore in a rural town (pop. 1,037) I began a traveling bookstore. When someone passing through Montana last summer suggested I take the bookstore to the Brooklyn Book Festival, I applied to be a vendor. So now here I am on the other side of that particular adventure. Drove out of Eureka, MT September 12 and returned September 24. In between those dates the bookstore covered over five thousand miles – about eight thousand kilometers. The distances and changing landscapes were significant but the people are what remain with me today.
People who stopped by the bookstore often had encouraging remarks. “This is utterly cool!” “Oh my god this is what I have always dreamed of doing!” “You are right – this is amazing!” There was the Canadian man who seriously wants to start one and I really hope he does. There is the young woman in Missoula who took photos of the interior of the bookstore to send her dad so he can help her create her own traveling bookstore. There was Walker whom I met along the way. He is just starting out with a small traveling bookstore and we hugged, feeling we are surely related.
I talked with people who are transitioning in their lives. Don at eighty-eight is thinking of retiring from the summer theater he began running decades ago. Deb will end her university job next year and might become a docent at the art museum. A woman who moved to Missoula two years ago, can’t find a comfortable place in that community so is looking where she will move next. Esther at eighty-two is exploring how to kayak on her own in upstate New York. Kory is taking off for central Europe to explore Romania and Slovakia while he remains in good health. The waitress at the bar in Mitchell, SD has lived in that town her whole life and is ready to move elsewhere.
Kindnesses were graciously given. Sarah made delicious home-cooked meals although we could only stop to visit in Bozeman for a few hours going and coming. The man who fixed the blown tire in the middle of nowhere suggested a good place to buy a new one in Kadoka, SD. The guy at J & S squeezed us in so we could get back on the road as soon as possible. Don and Tweet from WVIK in Rock Island, IL donated books as did Ya’aqov in Urbana. The volunteers at the Brooklyn Book Festival helped us navigate a great place for the traveling bookstore to set up. Lisa and Jason were wonderful Missoula hosts when the bookstore set up in front of Radius Gallery. Annette made us feel welcome when we set up by Cool Beanz in Illinois. Jenny talked life and whiskey, shared empanadas, and wowed me with her poetry and art.
Henry is a nine year old who typed for at least an hour by the bookstore while his dad drank coffee patiently. A woman let her two little girls play in the bookstore which was a delightful reprieve from serious literary conversations at the Brooklyn festival. One man explained to me the traveling bookstore is a pop-up business but didn’t elaborate whether this was a good thing or not.
I am sure changes will manifest from this experience. Nada talks of starting a book club in Kvacice. Melissa is going to put together a chapbook of her poetry. Jenny might give a writing workshop in Eureka. Anthony and I discussed a bookstore exchange – he would run my bookstore for a month while I ran his in Antigua, Guatemala. Lots of ideas and new connections. And all those individuals who intersected along the way. Yes, definitely do it.
No two places ever feel the same. The traveling bookstore in Missoula is quite different than the bookstore set up in Eureka or the Yaak or Ovando. This weekend brought all sorts of surprises both good and not so good. Encouraging people to use the typewriter for something creative finally worked! Maybe it was the $1 off any purchase if you typed a poem. Maybe it was the tipping point when more people started typing so others wanted to join the fun. Kids asked about the different keys, oldsters reminisced about their first typewriter when they went off to college, hipsters told me about the typewriter model they had back at their apartment. So many incredible poems I am setting up a file to keep them in because they deserve to be saved. Like this one written by a young man from NJ to get $1 off the book he was buying for his girl friend back home:
People typing poems in the moment felt like creativity unleashed. As though the typewriter sitting there poised with paper ready to go and an empty chair gave them permission to be a poet. And there were poets. Not just in the moment poets but a man who testified to writing poetry elsewhere and he wrote a long one and then took it home because he liked it and wanted to keep it. And then an older gentleman wrote one and took a picture of it with his phone to save. It almost felt that the traveling bookstore was there to give people an opportunity to write and selling books was a secondary activity.
And then there was a young couple walking past. The woman was pulled, you could see it, to write and she walked slower, slower, turned toward the typewriter even as they had already passed it. I caught her eye and told her, yes, you should write something, it will only take a minute. She stopped walking and just as she was about to take a step back towards the table with the typewriter, she looked up at the man she was with and he said No. Not a No as in sorry hon but we don’t have time. Not a No like don’t you remember you don’t have fingers to type. But a No you are stupid to even think of doing this. She turned back and walked away with him. That moment still haunts me.