Starting into a new year

Here in Montana, the temperatures are dipping from twenties to single digits to negative numbers (Fahrenheit) within the next week. But it is winter after all, and it is northwest Montana. So I bundle up when going out, and keep piling up books to read, books to add to the bookstore, looking at maps and reaching out to set up the Spring 2023 Traveling Bookstore Tour. Various people mention to me the idea of writing a book about my experiences with a traveling bookstore, but at this point it seems just making a traveling bookstore happen absorbs a good portion of my time. Perhaps someone out there (Chloe Zhao or Jan Svěrák) will decide to make a film about the bookstore one of these days?

The upcoming Spring Tour includes setting up in twelve locations across nine states including brew pubs, an art studio, a community center, a BBQ joint, a university, a distillery and a public library. A fair number of these have been sorted out over the last few weeks, both where the bookstore will be selling books and where I will lay my head at night. I think by mid February, I should have the map completed and all the events loaded onto the traveling bookstore’s Facebook page. And hopefully the bookstore will be setting up some place near you! I should mention the tour officially starts on April 19 with the goal to be pulling back into Eureka, MT on May 11.

As usual, I feel fortunate with all the individuals who help make these tours happen. There are places I am returning to that welcome the bookstore back like Fiction Beer in Denver, CO and Constellation Studios in Lincoln, NE. There are new places and people that work out so well. I reached out to Becky, a Servas host in Arkansas who helped me arrange a two-day bookstore event at the Eureka Springs Community Center. A chance conversation on a flight brought up the possibility of having the bookstore at a BBQ place in Alabama. The tour unfolds, reminding me of water lilies, the process of slowly opening up and their delicate beauty.

Between maps, emails and phone calls, the books piled on my table currently include Night of the Living Rez by Morgan Talty (dark and so well written), A Geography of Oysters by Rowan Jacobsen (as I recently returned from a coastal trip with a good friend who encouraged us to sample oysters daily), Hopper (a beautiful large format book of Edward Hopper’s paintings that was donated to the bookstore by another friend), and Margaret Atwood’s The Heart Goes Last (which came out in 2015 but as with so much of what Atwood writes – encourages us to face the realities of today and do something to make things better).

Hope to see you on the Spring tour.

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Yes, the season

May this season bring you the joy of being with those you love, numerous new books to read, and the time to read them. At least in northwestern Montana, I’ve had the good fortune to read lots of good books these last few weeks. The weather has been white and chilly. Curled up inside with a cup of tea (or some evenings a glass of Buffalo Trace) while immersed in a book feels heavenly. When it gets dark around 4:30pm, it encourages getting absorbed in a good read and then all at once it is midnight. I know there are some who like to linger over a book, stretching it out over days if not weeks. But for me personally, my favorite way to savor a book is to read it in huge chucks so I forget everything and anything else going on, becoming one with the book.

The season so far has brought me some newer books as well as older ones. Not a quick read but one that sparked lots of conversations with others in my circle who have read it, is Nikole Hannah-Jones’s The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story. I wish every school library had a copy. From 1619, I was pulled into The Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, published in 1952 but could have been written in the last few years, as so much unfortunately hasn’t changed. A friend recommended Maryanne Wolf’s Reader, Come Home: The Reading Brain in a Digital World but while waiting for that to come in through interlibrary loan, I was able to enjoy Wolf’s Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain. Is it any surprise that someone surrounded by books, as well as a retired teacher and currently obsessed with letterpress printing, would be fascinated by how alphabets were developed and the process of learning to read? Other recent books include The Last White Man by Pakistani author Mohsin Hamid, and Bonnie Garmus’s Lessons in Chemistry.

So now back to a bit of reading (currently the midmorning weather in northwest Montana is 7°F and snowing) and letterpress printing holiday cards. There are people who encourage me to take the traveling bookstore south in the winter, plying my wares at retirement communities in Arizona, but if I did that there just wouldn’t be these lovely stretches of time to read.

Seasonal shifts

In Montana, the snow has started and temperatures have dropped. All at once, any hint of summer clothes is gone and boots, scarves, mittens and heavy sweaters appear. The bookstore is parked until Spring. There are still some bookstore activities though. People drop books off, some locals stop by to buy books, occasional books gets mailed off, tshirts are sent out to fill requests, and, of course, there’s reading. Just finished a few remarkable ones including The Stone Sister by Montana author Caroline Patterson and Harry Josephine Giles’s sci-fi verse novel, Deep Wheel Orcadia. I find it curious how books come into our lives. So there I was within the same week enthralled by a novel spanning the mid to late 20th century, set in Montana, and a novel offered to the reader in both Orkney and English, set in outer space somewhere in the far future.

Besides the usual shift-into-winter activities for a traveling bookstore, there is the rather unusual flurry of publicity this season. You can imagine the perplexed reaction of this bookseller/owner/driver as people approach me smiling, “I saw you on The Kelly Clarkson Show!” And then, as a result of the show, there are emails and messages from people asking me about the bookstore and how they might start one. Where do I begin? I give disclaimers that I don’t have an MBA, didn’t really even have a business plan but just tried to keep my expenses low as I started this bookstore business. And the parts that I find most compelling about a traveling bookstore – the people I meet, the conversations, the places discovered – well, I am not entirely sure how to put all of that into an easy Stephen Covey formula.

I stress the need to be open to opportunities and experiences, to be willing to ask. To ask for a place to park and set up, to ask for a place to stay, to ask for directions, to ask for ideas, to ask for help, to ask for a reduction on fees at larger events because I’m not a food truck after all with long lines of people wanting to eat. It is a small bookstore carrying used books. And to not be afraid. I am not sure if its a result of this decade or the media or a cultural handicap, but too many people seem to focus on dangers. “Aren’t you afraid setting up in cities?” “You drive alone across country?!?” “How can you stay with people you’ve never met before?”

Of course, I’m cautious. I drive at or below the speed limit in the bookstore. I fill up before my fuel gauge gets down to the last quarter. I usually have multiple conversations (phone, email or texts) with the particular places I reach out to for setting up, and to the people I stay with. I don’t think any of my friends would describe me as a daredevil. I do see fear of the unknown as seriously hampering one’s life. Having done the traveling bookstore for eight years, and lived more then seven decades, I have some breadth of experiences and so for those of you thinking about starting a traveling bookstore or doing your own unique adventure of any sort, please don’t let fear hamper you.

The Hungarian Who Walked to Heaven by Edward Fox

Books by Dervla Murphy

My Journey to Lhasa by Alexandra David-Neel

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.

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.

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

Latest

Between trips. Took the bookstore to White Sulphur Springs which was a delight and then over to Bozeman. Both towns quite different in customers and types of conversations, but events in both locations featured weather. Some serious wind in White Sulphur Springs, and Bozeman – although Sunday was fairly pleasant, on Monday there was sun, rain, sun, rain, hail, sun, rain. It has been rare over the last seven years for me to close up the bookstore early due to weather, but Monday in Bozeman was one of those times. The other was in Minneapolis during a snowstorm.

Even on a short trip like this (two days in White Sulphur Springs, and two in Bozeman), so much happens. Conversations, connections, observations, musings. While I find a way to capture all of this, here is a wonderful video by Marla Goodman featuring a piece written for theremin (by Elizabeth Brown). Such a joy for a lovely piece of music to fit so well with a traveling bookstore.

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.

So much more

It is the sort of early afternoon when I could be stocking more reading material in the traveling bookstore, as I leave for the Yaak in an hour for an event there. But as it is raining at the moment, I decided to squeeze in a few short thoughts about the bookstore because its adventures never cease to amaze me. Of course I realize there are many incredible bookstores around the world and, hopefully, someone somewhere is making a comprehensive list. At this moment though, in the gray August drizzle of Montana, I want to acknowledge the one I know best.

Perhaps this train of thought began during the past week when Marla Goodman, a thereminist from Bozeman, who was in the neighborhood to give a concert, turned me on to Elizabeth Brown’s “A Bookmobile for Dreamers.” It seemed appropriate for Marla to perform a piece of this chamber opera in the traveling bookstore. This extraordinary event triggered an avalanche of other bookstore experiences for me. There was the first time a parent brought their baby into the bookstore, the afternoon a bride and groom stopped by and I captured their radiance, someone asking to spend the night in the bookstore, two of New York City’s finest posing in front while it was set up at the Brooklyn Book Festival, an older woman approaching me in a cafe when I stopped for lunch in White Lake, SD asking if that was my van parked outside and could she please see inside. There was the day I set it up in Minneapolis and a snow storm blew in, and the night driving across the mountains in Kentucky with fog as thick as soup. There was Lee Connah’s crankie performance at the bookstore during the Baltimore Book Festival!

I suppose brick-and-mortar bookstores have their own sets of adventures but it is hard to imagine them as exciting as a traveling bookstore’s. It is just so damn versatile! But now I need to finish getting it packed. Shirley Jacobs, an incredible accordionist (she specializes in French cafe music from the 1920-30s) is riding along to provide music for the shoppers when we set up in front of the Yaak Tavern and Merc later this afternoon. So I need to have room for the passenger and her accordion.

p.s. The Yaak trip went very well. We saw a grizzly cross the road on the drive up. Lots of book sales, t-shirt sales, conversations and appreciation of Shirley’s music.