What does it mean

I’ve been doing this traveling bookstore business for eight years now, but there are still surprises. This afternoon while scrolling Twitter (and no, I don’t know what’s happening to the #birdsite), someone posted a photo of my bookstore. I won’t bother describing the Tweet in words because here’s a screenshot.

Over two thousand ‘likes.’ I don’t know what this means and, yes, it surprised me. I can’t imagine this many individuals liking my traveling bookstore without first experiencing it in person. They didn’t chance upon it while ambling down a street in White Sulphur Springs, MT or San Francisco, CA or Smiths Grove, KY. They didn’t spy it parked amongst the food trucks at the Brooklyn Book Festival or the South Dakota Book Festival. They weren’t drawn into this van/bookstore with curiosity when it was set up in Lincoln, NE on a summer’s day when it was over 100°F or in Morgantown, WV when it was raining so hard there was a forecast of flooding.

Obviously this traveling bookstore can’t hold two thousand people if they showed up at the same time or even on the same day. It’s something of a squeeze really to have 2-3 people inside at once – unless they are small children in which case it might fit 4-5. And there is no way at all I can manage having a conversation with two thousand people. I mean I try to limit dinner parties to four or five because it’s just plain difficult to seriously talk with more people than that in a gathering. Perhaps the two thousand could form small groups and talk together while I tried to direct individuals to where the art books are located (back of the van on the bottom shelf), or where they might find an Arabic-English dictionary (top shelf to your left).

Perhaps these ‘likes’ aren’t for the endearing photo of the traveling bookstore at all, a photo taken by Jack DeWitt one early spring morning in Kalispell, MT (2015). He told me the light would be good that time of day especially if I drove the bookstore into a field (which was a bit daunting as I was still new to driving it then). I parked, pulled the door open, and set up the entrance as if I were at an event. Then Jack began taking photos, telling me to stand back to not cast shadows. And now here is that photo on Twitter. Perhaps the ‘likes’ aren’t for this particular photo, but for the words, tickling those who love reading, who can imagine going to any length for a good book. Perhaps that means walking through Portland rain to get to Mother Foucault’s Bookshop, or rummaging too long (despite allergies) at a library book sale in a musty warehouse because of all the great deals, or getting nearly hopelessly lost trying to visit The Strand because one must go there when in NY. And, now that I’m off on that tangent, I think of Second Edition Books in Butte, MT which if you are going across on I-90 you really must experience.

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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.

Be Grateful

We might as well get right to to the point for those of you who want to know the where and when of the September bookstore trip. Of course there are bookstore events here in northwest Montana happening before September, but for those of you in other states – here are places you can stop by to check out the traveling bookstore.

September 11: Portneuf Valley Brewery in Pocatello, ID

September 12 & 13: King’s English Bookshop in Salt Lake City, UT

September 16 & 17: Fiction Beer in Denver, CO

September 19: Barista’s Daily Grind in Kearney, NE

September 20: Constellation Studios in Lincoln, NE

September 21: Lux Center for Arts in Lincoln, NE

September 23-25: South Dakota Festival of Books in Brookings, SD

September 26: Red’s Grill in Sturgis, SD

September 28: Public library in White Sulphur Springs, MT

The hot summer days lend themselves to reading, at least for me. Just finished Horse by Geraldine Brooks,The Camel Bookmobile by Masha Hamilton, and Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. Poised to read some nonfiction while at the Yaak music festival this weekend (bound to be cooler there).

Feeling very appreciative of the individuals who work with me to get bookstore tours set up, folks who graciously provide me with housing along the way, people who give me books, people who reach out to support the bookstore (thanks to Rita Hubbs in NC for her tshirt order!), and the roads that let me go to all these amazing places. I suppose there are things I could grumble about, but there is truly so much to be grateful for.

Part of What It Takes

If you happen to have a brick-and-mortar bookstore, most days have an easy start (although no doubt there might be challenges as your day proceeds from broken plumbing to late deliveries to the occasional grumpy customer). But at least when you head off to work, you know the address, where your bookstore is and chances are, it was there yesterday and it will be there tomorrow. With a traveling bookstore, it is different. There is definitely a process to figuring out where it will be especially when setting up a tour.

The traveling bookstore is participating in this year’s South Dakota Festival of Books in Brookings, SD at the end of September. To get there, the bookstore will travel through – and set up – in Idaho, Utah, Colorado, Nebraska. And so the planning begins. I write to places I know something about. VERY excited to be setting up for two days at The King’s English Bookshop in Salt Lake City. Then there are new places I discover on the internet, write a note and get a reply. Sometimes places are, “Yes! a traveling bookstore!!!” And sometimes, well…not so enthused. But Portneuf Valley Brewing in Pocatello, ID was enthused and it will be a treat to set up there (check out their brews and food menu).

Often people who are curious about the traveling bookstore business ask, “But where do you stay?” Let me be blunt. I rarely sleep in the bookstore – although I do in July when I set up at the Yaak River Music Festival. And there are times when the timing, the weather, my weariness conspire and I find a motel along the route. But most of the time when on the road, I find good souls willing to put me up for a few days. So planning a tour requires not only finding the best places for the bookstore to set up, but places for the owner/driver (me) to stay. And in many ways, it is similar to finding locations for the bookstore. There are friends in Denver, Salt Lake City, and Lincoln I very much look forward to staying with on this upcoming trip. There are also places more challenging to find housing. Fortunately there are friends of friends, neighbor’s cousins, SERVAS. As someone once said, “There are no strangers here; only friends you haven’t yet met.”

But it is a process. Here I am starting in June to get it lined out, figuring out distances, looking at maps, sending out emails, making phone calls. Slowly it will take shape, and I will post events on the bookstore’s Facebook page as they are confirmed, and eventually post the complete Tour Schedule on this blog. A traveling bookstore is quite the business/lifestyle. Still looking for the best noun to describe 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.

It is summer

And the traveling bookstore is picking up speed. Most Wednesdays we’re set up at the Eureka Farmers Market. And on Thursdays, our books can often be perused at the Libby Farmers Market which is a nice weekly event held at the Libby Chamber of Commerce parking lot. There will be other summer bookstore events as well including the Yaak Music Festival (July 23-24) and the Lincoln County Fair (August 27-29). In September, the bookstore will put on miles heading out to White Sulphur Springs (9/17-18) and over to the South Dakota Festival of Books in Deadwood (October 1-2) with numerous stops along the way. It is such a pleasure after last year’s limited activity, to be back on the road again.

Perhaps it was missing out on a lot of bookstore action last year, or just the changing times, but this season feels more urgent to get books out to folks and to have conversations. When set up, the bookstore also offers Montana voter registration forms, plus a typewriter (along with envelopes and stamps) to encourage individuals to write letters to a local newspaper, to representatives in DC, to anyone who might benefit from knowing your ideas. At least in this region of the country (northwest Montana), it currently feels a struggle to maintain community spirit that is inclusive and supportive. A traveling bookstore has potential in its own small way for sharing conversations and discussions about books without hype or pressure.

On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century by Timothy Snyder

Ten Ways to Fight Hate: A Community Resource Guide Southern Poverty Law Center

Bonus

A wondrous morning in Woodstock, IL with the bookstore and that town’s Atrocious Poets set up at Isabel’s Family Restaurant. The last official event on this tour! Driving away from Woodstock that afternoon, it seemed the next set of days would be very long stretches of road with perhaps a few short sporadic conversations if an extrovert happened to sit next to me at a breakfast counter.

Today was a five hundred plus mile drive from Albert Lea, Minnesota to Rapid City, South Dakota. At one point I wanted lunch, hoping to find something better than fast food or a truck stop. Pulled off the interstate at White Lake, South Dakota. A sign indicated a restaurant even though a very small town (population 375). I found the White Lake Cafe and noticed it was ideally situated a few doors down from a post office.

Waiting for my order, I was writing postcards when an elegantly attired older woman came up to my table and asked if that was my van parked out front. I immediately thought I parked illegally but no, she was curious what this traveling bookstore was about. She pulled up a chair, we talked as fast as possible as she needed to go to a meeting soon, and we exchanged addresses. Before she left, I went out to open the bookstore so she could see inside.

Linda Dodds is the town’s librarian with a minuscule budget and a role that involves more than just checking out books and shelving. The library is only open a few days/week but Ms. Dodds puts on events for the community, helps the school which doesn’t have its own librarian, and passionately searches for books to get young people interested in reading. During our brief conversation, she convinced me to attend the South Dakota Festival of Books next year and had me brainstorming YA fiction titles.

As she dashed off, I finished lunch and thought of other communities my bookstore stopped in that shone with a commitment to reading. There was the spectacular public library in Port Orford, Oregon (another small town with a population of 1,148) which found community support to expand when the county system wanted to close it down. And the woman I met in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania who helped with an event that had families reading under the stars in the sports stadium. And all the people who rave to me about their local book clubs! There are a few individuals who grumble about the death of books and that kids don’t read anymore, but on these bookstore travels, I feel very hopeful.

Stopping by

Is there a best bookstore stop? There are so many different ones and so many are surprises. Sturgis, South Dakota was on the trip itinerary but who knew it would turn out to be such a great stop with thought-provoking conversations and delicious food at Jambonz? Or Crete, Illinois. Have you heard of Crete (not the Mediterranean island but the community south of Chicago)? The bookstore set up at Crete Creative Gallery which had a lovely, delicate exhibit by Sherri Denault and a spread of pastries with coffee by the Benton Street Bakery. Women from local clubs who were so well read I felt provincial and artists, photographers and writers stopped by throughout the day.

There was driving the bookstore through twisting golden-forested roads in central Pennsylvania to get to Punxsutawney. I wondered how a town so off the beaten track ended up on the tour. Then I met the sparkling Jeanne Curtis in person who had extended the original invitation. I met her cousins, local librarians, a talented young musician (Samantha Sears), a kid who bought a book about mining for his grandfather, a woman who bought a book about the West for her father, a man who wants to move to Montana to be a fishing guide (please do this, Jason, life is short!), and the man who is one of two official keepers for the groundhogs, Punxsy Phil and Phyllis. I heard about the mines closing and schools consolidating, young people moving away to find work.

In every town there are stories; perhaps it’s a trade where I bring books and individuals give stories – about the grandfather who used to work in a Pennsylvania coal mine, or the mom in Toledo who left her car running as she quickly bought three children’s books. She was on her way to work but wants her kids to grow up reading. Or the woman in Punxsutawney who volunteers for the Parents Teachers Organization and helped put together “Reading Under the Stars” where families gather on a special evening to spread out blankets in the sports stadium and enjoy reading activities. There was the 96 year old woman in Toledo a friend brought to the bookstore. She explained her local library delivers books to her twice a month so she doesn’t need to buy any but she did want to see this traveling bookstore she heard so much about.

Many wondrous individuals. But there are dark moments too. Why do so many women ask if I am afraid to travel alone in this country? The other evening after closing the bookstore, I got a GoFundMe request for a friend with mountains of medical bills. I read a NBC article that the number is now over five thousand children who have been separated from their families at our border. Driving into Maryland from Pennsylvania, I see a Confederate flag.

there are so many

There are places. There are books – those read and those to be read. There are people. And as you can imagine on a bookstore tour of this length, there are many people. Ideally I would have a free day after every bookstore event to note down at least a bit about each person I speak with. But it doesn’t work that way and so there are scribbled notes in my pocket, individuals I think about while driving, a business card someone gave me. Here is a small sampling because although I am completely enamored with books and reading, people are a vital part of why I do the bookstore. I wish I could write about everyone I meet along the way. I wish I could write about you.

Crete Creative Gallery

Tony. The bookstore set up in front of Luminous Brewhouse in Sheridan. A woman with three children and the woman’s mother crowd inside pulling children’s books off the shelves, the mother setting book-buying limits, the grandmother asking how I ever started this unusual business. And Tony walked up, noticed the chaos inside the bookstore. We started talking about Mihaly Csikszentmihaly‘s flow, about veterans hospitals, about real books and e-books. He mentioned having hundreds of books on his phone. I winced. But can you lend a friend a book if it is on your phone? We talked about balance. I took a deep breath.

Al. A tall thin man in an old green station wagon drove slowly pass the bookstore when it was set up in the parking lot of Jambonz Grill in Sturgis. He turned his car around, came back, parked next to the bookstore, unfolded himself from the car and asked, “What is this?” Turned out Al was a book dealer. He took books to shows all over the region, told me that gun shows were the best if you had the right books. After we talked for a while about books, bookselling and politics, he looked through my paltry inventory (compared to his) and found a couple volumes. Then he left promising to come back. A half hour later he did, with two boxes of books to donate, books he felt suited my bookstore but weren’t selling in his business. We talked some more.

Iowa City, Iowa. A dark rainy morning. Street construction. A tiny parking lot. I settle the van and go inside Hamburg Inn No. 2 for a great breakfast of pumpkin pancakes. Seth introduces himself. We had corresponded when I planned the stops on this trip. We talk about the restaurant which is famous in these parts. We talk about the traveling bookstore business. Later when I am outside and the rain has let up, Seth comes out to check how things are going, as though he is my guardian angel on this dreary morning. Customers eventually stop by the bookstore. The lunch crowd shows up at the restaurant. It was a very good day all around.

I never got her name. Stopping in Kadoka, South Dakota to mail letters, I asked the postal worker where I might get a cup of coffee. He pointed to Pocketful of Posies, the florist shop across the street so I went over there. The woman apologized when I walked in for the buckets of flowers everywhere. There were two funerals coming up. She made me coffee. She let me use her restroom. She told me about the young girl who had been hit by a car. About the older man who had died. She never stopped moving, arranging flowers, answering the phone, talking with two men who came in to drop some metal pieces off for the display that would honor their friend.

Deb retired after years working at a university in Rock Island, Illinois. She then embraced volunteering in a wondrous way. She is learning so much about art as a docent at the Figge Art Museum in Davenport. She mesmerized me with stories about the current Mia Feuer exhibit, about how a particular piece of art was constructed, about another artist’s life. She also volunteers with a local hospice. She learned to knit so as she sits with people, she creates a calm rhythm. Often I encourage people to volunteer as a way of helping their community. Deb discovered another reason to volunteer – to continue to grow.