Inspiration

In the traveling bookstore business as well as in my personal life, I search for that ever elusive balance. What combination makes things work well? On the very first transcontinental bookstore trip from Montana to the Brooklyn Book Festival in New York in 2016, we made the trip across in four long days thinking speed was the answer. Obviously it wasn’t and we arrived exhausted and uninspired. Was staring at a highway eight to ten hours a day really what a traveling bookstore was all about? No! Following trips were much better planned with numerous bookselling stops to refresh and remind one that a bookstore isn’t about speed, but about engaging with people. Now planned cross-country trips usually take two weeks one way with stops in interesting places to talk books.

On a recent trip (without the bookstore) to visit friends in Central Europe, I was inspired by conversations, art exhibits, theater performances, and concerts. And it was a delight to take in urban offerings while in an environment where the majority of people practiced good public health wearing masks, showing proof of vaccination to go into places like restaurants and theaters, and offering easily available Covid testing.

But as with all holidays, my time ended there and I came back to my rural Montana community. Yes, of course there are people here to discuss things with, and this week I help a friend hang a lovely exhibit of woodblock prints she did of jazz musicians. At the end of the month, a local nonprofit brings in a wonderful concert (Bridge & Wolak). But it feels different. There isn’t the spark of a different culture, listening to music in a hall built in the 1870s, walking through a carefully curated exhibit that introduces me to new artists. Which means figuring out what does work to maintain inspiration. I know taking the bookstore cross-country requires time (not speed). And hopefully I can identify where inspiration comes from at home.

Inspiring bookstore discovered: Dlouhá Punčocha

Inspiring performance: Circa

Inspiring luthier: Red Bird Instruments

Inspiring inflight film: Soul

Coerced

Recently, the word coerced seems to weave through many conversations. As in, “I don’t want to be coerced.” People say they don’t want to be coerced to get a vaccine. They don’t want to be coerced to wear a mask when inside public spaces. They don’t want to be coerced to take a test to see if they are ill. I try to put this in context as I travel. While in the tourist mode, I read an article about the alarming escalation of violence on planes, people’s response to not wanting to be coerced to wear masks. The Atlantic recently did an article, “What’s Really Behind Global Vaccine Hesitancy.” It was disheartening to realize the vaccination rate in my northwest Montana county is equivalent to the rate in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. I want people in both places to be healthy. Is this really too much to ask?

All sorts of reasons are given for refusals, or to explain what coercion means in the time of Covid. Distrust of medical science, distrust of governments. Someone posted on social media, “The letter ‘i’ is not in the word team, but is in the word independence.” It is a challenge to understand individuals making choices for themselves, when they don’t see the need to make choices within the context of their community.

It feels like an onion with more layers than I can possibly manage (I so admire Heather Cox Richardson), because there is also the political context. I noticed myself breathing easier in Berlin where Covid testing was available and free in many places, and proof of vaccines as well as negative test results were required to go into theaters and museums. Visiting friends in the Czech Republic, I hear that yes, restaurants ask to see proof but it is easy to provide false proof that allows you in. And reading the news, I follow the controversy where a legislator in the US proposed unvaccinated patients pay their own hospital bills – which is a rabbit hole we don’t need to go down. At the same time, I want hospital beds to be available for people with heart attacks or appendicitis, broken hips or C-sections. I don’t want healthcare providers to be exhausted.

It isn’t easy. Not for me (traveling with valid proof of vaccine), nor for those deciding not to get vaccinated, and certainly not for those who don’t have access to vaccines. The other day I saw an exhibit at the Moravian Gallery in Brno. The installation, “Demon of Growth” by Kristof Kintera , captures this time. All sorts of balls from golf balls to beach balls, Christmas balls to children’s balls, some beat up, some shiny. All connected. If only.

“Be Kind: You Can Make the World a Happier Place” Naomi Shulman (2019)

“Nicky & Vera: A Quiet Hero of the Holocaust and the Children He Rescued” Petr Sis (2021)

“The Tree Who Set Healthy Boundaries” Topher Payne (2020)

Dumping pieces

This post doesn’t offer answers. Rather it serves as a way for me to get the pieces on the table. The way you start one of those 1000-piece jigsaw puzzles. Open the box. Dump out all pieces and turn them over so the printed sides are facing up. Gradually sort pieces that have straight edges, and the blue ones that surely are part of the sky, and the ones that show they have trees or tiny windows or are part of a boat. Only then can the puzzle start to be assembled.

At this point, in the midst of political chaos and COVID-19, headlines about the stock market, countries closing their borders, people thankfully worrying if children who aren’t going to school will get lunch, and Italians singing their national anthem from balconies, I think about social distancing. I must admit I wasn’t familiar with the term until a few week ago. Now I think about it often.

I was traveling in New Mexico, a trip planned months ago with two friends. When we left Montana by train on February 28, we weren’t concerned. By the time we were in New Mexico, we began to think about it and wash our hands compulsively. On the return trip this past week, we seriously considered our actions and interactions.

Social distancing. Don’t shake hands or hug. Don’t attend large gatherings. Cancel the restaurant reservation. The sort of social distancing techniques which is part of particular socio-economic groups. As the train pulled into Los Angeles, and left again following the Los Angeles river, the meaning of social distancing took on a different meaning. Miles of homeless encampments along the tracks. A young woman sitting in the rain next to a pile of garbage. A man washing himself in the river. Some areas had been bulldozed with only a few plastic bags left to signify the tents and belongings which had been hauled away. This is America.

There is certainly social distancing between the individuals who try to survive living in these tents in urban encampments and my window on the train. I suspect residents perched in houses on the California hills also have a significant social distance from those living in these encampments. And the constant reminders in the news to wash our hands frequently? I don’t see evidence of hand washing facilities at these camps. I suppose individuals can go to the river but do they have soap which we are told works well when used properly?

Some political leaders find ways to get those children lunches who aren’t in school, or find alternatives where parents work and children need care during the day when schools have closed. Who resolves issues for the homeless when our attention is focused on the latest broadcasts about COVID-19? How does one stay three to six feet away from people when you are living on the street in Seattle, San Francisco, Portland? How do you get groceries delivered when you don’t have a street address? How do you wash your hands when there isn’t soap?

Books in their many manifestations

There are trips with the traveling bookstore. There are trips taken without the bookstore. There are pristine hardback books I handle reverently when visiting other bookstores. There are paperbacks with tears and coffee stains that friends pass on to me. There are artist books that I make and put my heart into. There are artist books that others make which dazzle me. There are old books that have been chewed by mice and some pages crumble when turned but still the owner is loathed to throw them away. There are books bought and read so quickly that the reader can’t even remember reading them. And there are those special books that one reads again and again and again.

There are surprises in books. A used book that when opened contains a letter in smudged pencil someone was using as a bookmark. There are books that come up on the book club list which don’t look the least bit interesting and then turn out to be a favorite. There is a book someone was ready to throw away and when that particular book finds its way to my bookstore, is the exact book the next customer was searching for.

There are books with such amazing photos that words aren’t necessary. There are books with just enough words to push one through the door into another universe (The Invention of Hugo Cabret). And there are books that one can’t touch but still create magic. This was my experience recently when visiting The Broad, a contemporary art museum in Los Angeles, and watching William Kentridge’s Second Hand Reading.

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.

Roots

This was the third east coast trip for the traveling bookstore, each memorable in its own way but this one stands out. I didn’t realize until I pulled the bookstore into its spot near Baltimore’s Inner Harbor that I had come back to my roots. I was born in Baltimore. Grew up here through high school. Then left. Over the years found places I wanted to be in the northwest US and in other countries, and nearly forgot this city. But when I parked the bookstore and looked across the harbor, I knew this place shaped me in many ways.

The Baltimore Book Festival is the largest festival the bookstore ever experienced. Three days of families, tourists, hipsters with dogs and hometown bibliophiles walking the promenade. Three days of bright sun reflected on the harbor during the day and magic of the Light City Festival at night. There were so many conversations – with the couple who hosted me, people at the festival, old friends, other vendors, police officers, authors. I tried to understand how the city changed. The population was nearly a million when I was growing up back in the 1950s. Now it is barely over 600,000.

There are blocks of boarded up houses in the city. Bill, a man I went to high school with, invited me to a delicious breakfast in Federal Hill which was hopping on a Saturday morning. I reconnected with Rose, a woman who was friends with my mother, who now lives near the Inner Harbor amidst museums, high rises and cafes. I had people warn me not to walk alone at night. I discovered this is a city rich with the Baltimore Crankie Fest! (if you don’t know crankies check out the Crankie Factory), Artscape, and countless other happenings in the arts. Yet Baltimore has a daunting poverty rate that, depending on who I talked with, is a result of the education system, unemployment, racism, drugs or some combination of these.

I met Sheena who has been a Baltimore police officer for eighteen years and would like to start a traveling bookstore when she retires. I sold my typewriter to an older gentleman from Yugoslavia who now lives in Baltimore. Lee gave an outrageous crankie show at the bookstore on Saturday evening, and then patiently answered questions from people who wanted to know more about this art form. George drove up from Severna Park to bring me Greek lemon chicken soup. Liz sat with me the first morning as we pondered the years and this place. Steve organized the books in my tiny storage area and brought crab cakes. Lisa stepped up numerous times to sell books so I could take a fast break. Sandy collected books from her friends to help my inventory.

Baltimore. I hope you go there if you haven’t been.

Books I was fortunate to come across on this trip…

  • The Lines Between Us: Two Families and a Quest to Cross Baltimore’s Racial Divide by Lawrence Lanahan
  • Portrait of Maquoketa by Rose Frantzen
  • Dakota by Kathleen Norris
  • River of Fire by Sister Helen Prejean

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.

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.