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.

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.