a love letter

Another day organizing books in preparation for the season. Lillian helped me. She is nearly fourteen years old, a voracious reader, and thoroughly understands how to categorize and alphabetize. Working with her today reminded me of others who helped me with the various aspects of a traveling bookstore – from sorting books in the storage/garage to driving across country to watching over things so I could take a break on long book selling days. There are definitely more people on the list than I can send thanks to, or express my love for their help in one blog post. But because I thought of them a lot today while working with Lillian, I decided to share the extraordinary abilities of at least a few.

Stevie Sorenson was the first person. We happened to meet up at a community event, started talking about what we each did with our time. I asked what she planned to study at college. She said writing or becoming a librarian. I said I was starting a traveling bookstore and invited her to help me begin organizing the piles of boxes filled with books sitting in my garage that needed to be put in some organized manner onto shelves. It had felt like a daunting task until Stevie showed up and then we both threw ourselves into tackling it. Sam McCurry who was between semesters was next, and also obsessed about books and very much detailed oriented. She helped balance me when it came to making categories because really (I assume this won’t come as a surprise to those who have met me), my storage area for books is fairly neat but not exactly up to the Library of Congress standards.

Shortly after Sam helped out, I started going on longer trips with the bookstore and realized having the right person along helped immeasurably. Nada Vojtkova drove with me across from Montana to New York the first time and helped at the Brooklyn Book Festival. Melissa Anderson was with me on a drive back across country when the bookstore experienced a blowout in S. Dakota in a place that felt like the middle of nowhere. Sarah Anderson helped drive through a snow storm in Colorado when the gas tank showed empty. Britta Shoot met up with me and the bookstore during another snow storm – this one in Minneapolis – and remained cheerful although I suspect she was very cold as we headed south to Indianapolis. Jana Pestova did a traveling bookstore trip through North Carolina up to West Virginia and headed back west. She was with me the day an Asheville bookseller bought out a third of my inventory and I had a small meltdown. Anne Johnson who was supposedly on vacation helped me sell books and talk literature at the Lincoln County Fair. Lisa Kondylas saved my life at the Baltimore Book Festival which had very long days and many people (all very good for bookselling but a bit hard on the bookseller). She showed up once a day (a three day event) so I could grab a bite and find a restroom. She even invited her brother to stop by who brought delicious avgolemono soup for us.

You obviously see what I mean. Perhaps it is the nature of the traveling bookstore business or just my type of personality, but I truly depend on others to help pull through situations like blizzards, big cities, and what feels like catastrophic events. Sometimes I don’t even know the individual’s name who helps me. Once in Sacramento while set up at the awesome Temple Coffee Roasters, I very much needed to take a break and find lunch (Temple had yummy snacks but I wanted something more substantial). A lovely individual came up to me at the bookstore, asked about the business, looked more seriously at me and said she would watch the store while I got something to eat. I remain forever grateful to her despite never learning her name.

There are so many more but I try to keep these posts to a reasonable length. The traveling bookstore business is quite the adventure and thank goodness there is a patron saint to send helpful individuals my way. A few novels you might enjoy about bookstores if you haven’t run across them yet…

Parnassus on Wheels by Christopher Morley

The Bookshop on the Corner by Jenny Colgan

The Education of Harriet Hatfield by May Sarton

The Little Paris Bookshop by Nina George

Boundaries

Canada-US border at Roosville, MT

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

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

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

Propelled forward by looking back

I want to be on the road with the traveling bookstore. I want to set up at music festivals and in cities, by coffee shops in small towns and at county fairs. I want the sun to be out and people willing to engage in real conversations as we stand by the bookstore marveling at all the wonders one can find in print. I want to share ideas for how to make the world a better place and to exchange titles for some great books we read this winter. And I also want to feel comfortable with people going into the bookstore and as we stand outside next to the table with the typewriter set up, knowing we care enough to keep each other healthy.

I appreciate the book club in Eureka read a wonderful range of books this winter and has more coming up through the spring. We are a small club in a rural (and rather remote) community of northwest Montana. Since summer, we’ve met virtually. Yet we manage to have good conversations, decide on monthly titles that offer us a range of authors and ideas, encourage each other to grow and think. Some of our titles: Woman, Girl, Other by Bernadine Evaristo, Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates, Wolverine Way by Doug Chadwick, Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell, This Tender Land by William Kent Krueger, My Beloved World by Sonia Sotomayor, The Mountains Sing by Nguyen Phan Que Mai.

While looking for a photo that made sense to me for this post, this moment, I came across one from six years ago. My first bookstore trip out of town was to a two-day music festival in Yaak, MT and if you don’t know this place, you should. I worried driving there up twisted mountain roads, no other vehicles in sight, setting up in a field behind the Yaak Tavern & Mercantile, but then did extremely well selling books. Spent my first night ever sleeping in the bookstore. And the next day met this young couple from New York City who suggested I go to the Brooklyn Book Festival. And the following year I did. First time driving the bookstore across country. Barely able to breathe as I navigated it through the city, wondering if a traveling bookstore in NYC would even be noticed (but it was!).

Since then I have put lots of miles on the bookstore; taken it across country multiple times, up and down the west coast, through the Rocky Mountains. After that first book festival in NY, I’ve set it up in Seattle, Portland, Baltimore, Raleigh, Sioux Falls, Chicago, Indianapolis, San Francisco, Minneapolis, and many more cities as well as numerous rural towns. And that couple who suggested the Brooklyn Book Festival – they have two young children now and are doing well. I follow photos of their family on social media. I’ve done things that I didn’t envision doing when I met them. And no doubt raising their two kids is something they couldn’t have imagined fully either. So looking forward to this summer, I want to believe it is possible to do more things – meet people who will change my life, have conversations that stick with me for years, and of course, read books that are remarkable.

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.

Summer reads

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

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

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

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

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

I’m being careful

It would help if Google translate could distinguish the intonation and nuances of individuals saying, “I’m being careful.” Hopefully someday someone will do a study to tease out what everyone meant who uttered this sentence over the last few months. Even in my small rural community, there is a range of information, misinformation, political beliefs, health beliefs, health concerns and personal preferences manifested in “I’m being careful”.

I’m being careful. I have a mask if I have to leave my house and I wash all the groceries delivered to my door. But really, I haven’t left my house in weeks and I certainly don’t let anyone come visit.

I’m being careful. I only go to the box stores when I am very low on stuff and then I try to keep my distance from other customers. I help some of my neighbors by shopping for them while I am there. When I stop by afterwards to drop off their purchases, I only visit for a few minutes, just long enough to say hello and make sure they are doing okay.

I’m being careful. I wash my hands at least ten times a day and when I come home, I always use the hand sanitizer my mom gave me. When my girl friend comes over, she uses it too.

I’m being careful. I always take my mask with me just in case I have to stand close to someone to talk. I rarely go out – perhaps a few times a week to the grocery store and the post office, perhaps the copy shop. Of course I do the bank’s drive thru and occasionally I do a coffee drive thru but those are obviously safe. And when I get gas, I’m standing outside.

I’m being careful. But I’m 89 years old and really don’t want to spend the time I have left stuck in my house alone. I listen to my doctor but I admit I play cards once a week with friends and invited the grandchildren over on Mother’s Day. Life is short. But, yes, I do try to be as careful as possible.

I’m being careful. I decided to go to Florida to visit my sister for a week but we only walked on the beach in the morning when hardly anyone else was there. And because we know sun and warmth stop the virus, I decided it was fine to visit her rather than just stay stuck at home.

I’m being careful. I only associate with a handful of people who live nearby. We think of ourselves as a social pod so as long as we all are careful, we’ll stay healthy. And besides limiting our group’s exposure to germs, the neighborhood pod keeps us sane. I mean we’re social creatures after all.

I’m being careful. I am making sure we all keep the rights this great country gives us. No one can tell me what to do, and I am being very careful that it stays that way. We had a rally in Helena last week.

I’m being careful. I’ve gone through gallons of bleach! I am being extra careful because I have workers remodeling my bathroom this month and I want to make sure none of us gets sick. And I told those construction guys I didn’t want them partying over the weekend, because we all need to be very cautious during this pandemic.

I’m being careful. We wintered in Arizona and really didn’t socialize a whole lot there once the virus started. Now we’re headed back to Montana for the summer. Of course we’ll be careful, although now the Montana governor announced after June 1 there isn’t any need for people coming in from out of state to quarantine. So what’s a week here or there?

I’m being careful. The local farmers market is opening for the season. They said all vendors should take precautions and make hand sanitizer available for customers. I’ll only allow one person or family group into the traveling bookstore at a time because I’m being careful.

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.

Tour Day #3

St. Rita’s Traveling Bookstore Ukulele from Marla Goodman

The third day on the road with the tour. I set up the bookstore yesterday in Bozeman @wildryewhiskey. Just now pulled into Sheridan, WY to set up in a few hours at Luminous Brewhouse. Between the miles driving to get to these places and the times when the bookstore is actually open, there is reflection and impressions. First, I realized even when I feel kind, there are individuals who set the bar even higher for kindness. Which is good. It lets me see I still have much more to learn.

And I pondered how doing an adventure like this current bookstore odyssey on my own tends to reinforce selfish tendency. After all I get to decide when and where to stop for coffee, which books to put out, which color tshirts to bring along, where to have dinner (and in Sheridan this is easy as I always want to go to the Thai food truck). Thinking on this today between Billings and Crow Agency, it was a reminder to be more cooperative. Because even as sole owner of a traveling bookstore, there are all sorts of people to cooperate with – the business owners who host the bookstore, the individuals who host me, the waitress at the Lariat Country Kitchen in Hardin, MT, the young family who stopped by the bookstore yesterday, the young man on crutches who told me about losing his job.

And that leads into questions as I cross mountains and high plains, what this venture is all about. Because it is easy to cop an attitude that what I am doing with this traveling bookstore is so much better then what Amazon is doing. I can give a kid an extra book and I support local businesses like the cafe in Hardin and the Thai food truck in Sheridan. I talk with people about their life and my life and the world and our challenges. And Amazon doesn’t do any of that when you put in your order and credit card number and then three days later have a box show up at your door.

But being a traveling bookstore does mean using fossil fuels to take the books to Sheridan and Sturgis, Toledo and Leesburg. It is trying to sell books at a price most people can afford but it is not selling them for ninety-nine cents. And while I am out on the road having these conversations and peddling books, I am not in my community using my time there.

Ready…set…go!

Tomorrow is the day. Tomorrow the bookstore heads east on its fall cross country odyssey and then settles for three days at the Baltimore Book Festival. Still sorting out last minute boxes of books because obviously I need to take lots of good books (although I also hope to pick some up along the way). And clothes that will work in the freezing mornings as I cross Montana and Wyoming as well as clothes that will suit milder temperatures in Maryland and Virginia. A month on the road also calls for art supplies (of course I need to make postcards) and a Ray Jacob dulcimer to practice when taking breaks at rest stops.

I have a bag of letters written by locals as when in Washington DC, I plan to have morning coffee with Montana Senators Tester and Daines, and I want to let these two gentlemen know what people in my community are concerned about. In the back of the bookstore I hope to squeeze in a large box of St. Rita’s Amazing Traveling Bookstore tshirts in a rainbow of colors prepared by Savvy by Design and a smaller box of greeting cards with my favorite Jack DeWitt bookstore photo.

Of course I will pack my workhorse Olympia typewriter for customers to express themselves and a good supply of typewriter ribbon and paper. Although usually I have only one copy of each book due to space limitations, I am bringing extra copies of Alicja Edwards‘ memoir, “As God Was Our Witness”, and Anne Johnson’s “Charlotte and Alice” as it is a long trip and I have no doubt many people will be interested in these. There is a tiny first aid kit, too many plugs for various devices, a small broom for sweeping out the bookstore and a flask of Buffalo Trace (in case of an emergency). It is not only a matter of remembering everything a bookseller/adventurer might need on such a trip, but narrowing it down to fit in a rather limited storage space.

And just in case you missed the bookstore itinerary, here’s the latest: Bozeman MT at Wildrye Distillery 10/15 4 – 7pm, Sheridan WY at Luminous Brewhouse 10/16 4 – 7pm, Sturgis SD at Jambonz Grill & Pub 10/17 4 – 8pm, Sioux Fall SD at Kaladi’s Bistro 10/19 8am – 3pm, Iowa City, IA at Hamburg Inn No. 2 10/21 from 8am – 2pm, Crete IL at Crete Creative Gallery 10/23 from 9:30am – 5pm, Toledo OH at Monroe Street Diner 10/25 from 8am – 1pm, Punxsutawney PA at Punxy Phil’s Family Restaurant 10/26 from 9am – 2pm, Leesburg VA at Loudoun Brewing 10/28 from 2 – 8pm, Baltimore MD at the Baltimore Book Festival 11/1 -3 from noon to 10pm, and in Woodstock IL Isabel’s Family Restaurant on 11/6 9am – 1pm.

It is a traveling bookstore after all.

Groundwork

Groundwork seems like the perfect word for what happens in preparing for a long distance traveling bookstore tour. There is mapping the route of the bookstore across the country, there is finding places to park and set up the van/store, and finding places for me to sleep at night. And there will be lots of ground to cover on this upcoming trip. It will be over five thousand miles (eight thousand kilometers) from Eureka, MT to the Baltimore Book Festival and back. At the end of this post, you can see dates and places in case the bookstore will be in your neighborhood.

Before the bookstore even pulls out of town on this trip to Baltimore, I am touched by all the help and offers. As usual with this unique business, it takes a lot of folks to make a trip like this happen – finding places to set up, finding places to spend the night, insuring there will be book supplies along the way. With the traveling bookstore turning five (yes, it’s true – been doing this since the summer of 2015), it seems there are even more people reaching out to help.

I don’t take it for granted. I very much appreciate and marvel at it all. Recently I talked with a secondhand bookseller in another Montana town. He asked where I sourced my books. I explained it’s a rather unusual business model, but people give me books. He nodded dubiously suspecting these donors were friends and neighbors, and asked, “But what about when you are on the road?” I explained even then people donate books. He wondered why people didn’t donate books to his brick-and-mortar store. I didn’t have an answer. I just know that for whatever reason, enough books come my way to keep the traveling bookstore going.

Another person asked how I manage housing on a long trip like the upcoming one. I explained I tend to stay with people, often people I know, but sometimes with people who know people I know. Or other times I stay with Servas hosts (and if you don’t know about this organization and you like to travel/host, definitely check it out). Actually the traveling bookstore maintains Servas’s mission which is to provide opportunities for personal connections among people of diverse cultures toward the goal of promoting world peace, goodwill and understanding. I am not entirely sure the bookstore with its wares and conversation helps to promote world peace but I believe it does nurture goodwill and understanding in its own small way.

In the last few weeks there have been bookstore conversations with a disgruntled (former) bookstore owner who felt people had stopped being interested in reading, a 96 year old woman who encouraged me to be more patient, an Amish couple who invited the bookstore to visit their community, a man who asked if he could set up a listening booth at the bookstore one afternoon (which he did), a woodcarver who said he normally got books from Amazon but was considering other options now, as well as many more.

These are tough times and exploring ideas through reading and conversations can make a difference.